“. . .to capture the greatest usefulness from EO, our community is continually challenged to make this information much more accessible and ready for analysis, enabling data-driven development.”
Understanding our world and the interconnectedness of the natural and built environment is a great challenge to global development professionals as well as scientists and technologists. The role that Earth observation (EO) plays in this understanding is difficult to put in terms of economic value. However, to capture the greatest use from EO, our community is continually challenged to make this information much more accessible and ready for analysis, enabling data-driven development.
In March 2018, the Committee on Earth Observations Satellites and the European Space Agency (ESA) published “SATELLITE EARTH OBSERVATIONS IN SUPPORT OF THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS.” This publication, also known as the EO Handbook, estimates that EO data plays a highly valuable role in most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and around a quarter of all the targets. Without this high-quality and accessible data, we would struggle in many cases to quantify the majority of them.
Open Data: A Key EO Trend
As discussed in a previous article, some EO satellites are fully supported by national governments, some are the result of joint industry-government funding, while venture capital backs others. In this article — which is part of an on-going series on the value of EO data — we focus on government satellites and open data. While there is a long list of governments that operate satellites, only a few make their data open, that is, that the “data can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone.” That said, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), which is devoted to advocating governments to make their data free and open, has 100 national members and offers more than 400 million EO resources.More than 10 years ago, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) offered the ability to download orthorectified Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM) data at no cost. This significant policy change ultimately led to all archival Landsat data being released as open data. The result has been documented as a stunning return on investment. In 2014, ESA also adopted this approach of free and open data from the outset when they launched Sentinel 1-A. ESA has made all current and future satellite missions, as part of the Copernicus program, reflect their open data policy.
In recent years, thanks in part to cloud computing, this data has become more readily accessible to a wider audience. To give an idea of the scale, over 15 Petabytes of data from Sentinel 2 has already been downloaded by users worldwide since the satellites launched in 2015 and 2017.