Whether it is remotely sensed, in-situ, oceanbased, or surface-based, earth observation (EO) data is essential for making informed public policy decisions in many areas involving societal benefits like climate variability and change, energy management, agriculture, biodiversity, human health and epidemiology, weather forecasting and water management. Data, in and of itself, is of little value unless it is used. Models, analysis tools, information products and services, all add value to EO data and it is usually these value-added products and services that environmental managers, public policy officials and ultimately ministers recognise and need.
While many existing EO systems in the world were primarily designed for a single purpose, it is both beneficial and cost effective if these systems can be multi-purposed. A public infrastructure like the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) is helping connect a diverse and growing array of earth observation and information systems for monitoring and forecasting changes in the global environment particularly in the nine Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs) shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Societal benefit areas of EO data
Today, under the GEO framework, 89 governments and 67 participating organisations are coming together to share data across these nine SBAs, to advocate universal access to the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters and to further advance broad open data policies for all publically funded EO data.
There are, however, some significant challenges and gaps that need to be addressed. These include, but are not limited to, lack of access to EO data, particularly in the developing world; technical infrastructure shortcomings; gaps in selected spatial datasets; uncertainty over continuity of observations and inadequate data integration and interoperability.
Open data sharing policies
With a backdrop of increasing budget constraints and increased frequency, intensity and impact of natural disasters, it is time for governments to adopt broad, open data sharing policies. Let me give an example of one benefit that open data sharing can bring. In 2007, the U.S. policy for Landsat data changed. Rather than charging users for this data, the US government decided to provide the data free over the Web. Before the change occurred, there was considerable internal resistance (eliminating a funding source) and external resistance (perceived competition from the government with the private sector) that arose. Ironically, however, a few years later, a representative of one of the private companies, who initially resisted the data policy change, informed me that his company has since added 125 jobs to his unit alone just to process Landsat data that is now freely available on the Web. In my view, this is a substantial improvement upon past practices. Jobs have been created in the private sector which helps grow the economy and the usage of a government asset has grown by several orders of magnitude (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Landsat internet data distribution
While the burden of investing in EO infrastructure and data is generally borne by governments, there is an increasing understanding that not only the public sector, but the private sector also can benefit from increased data sharing and from the exploitation of integrated earth observations for the benefit of society. In a world where budgets, both public and private, are under increasing pressure, it is important to define a suitable framework that both permits and encourages public-private partnerships.
In this regard, private sector engagement in GEO would bring additional expertise, knowledge and resources to all nine SBAs and with the creation of value-added products and services, new marketplaces would emerge. The private sector also represents a big ‘consumer’ of earth observation data and information. It therefore can and must play a key role in providing commercial services as well as institutional services, under contract from governmental entities.
Data is public good
Today, there are several restrictions with regard to free trade of satellite imagery. While national interest and national security issues are certainly understandable, as described above, much of the earth observation data is based on government investment, paid for by all taxpayers and therefore should be made available to all citizens as a public good without restriction. Governments need to move in the direction where data can be democratised and accessible from the Web for free, with minimal time delay, all over the world. Landsat data is now being accessed from more than 186 countries around the world — in other words, about 95 percent of the countries in the world have access to this data and that’s only one satellite. Imagine the usage of EO data if there were similar data policies for all government satellites.
So, in summary, the economic value is not in EO data itself, but in what one does with the data downstream. And although it will take quite some time to be realised, these same principles could apply to data from private sector satellites. It is largely the value-added products, applications and services that people want (and will pay for), not the data itself.