Translating Earth observation data into economic value for governments

Oct 2019 | No Comment

The data and knowledge derived from EO along with new technologies and services can help countries to turn open Earth observation data into economic value

Steven Ramage

Head of External Relations, Group on Earth Observations (GEO), Switzerland

As the world’s economy shifts towards a new model of growth in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, sustainable development solutions require large amounts of data for decision makers to effectively and efficiently manage the planet’s resources. Future resource management requires that policy makers have openly available, accessible and up-to-date data and information on land use, oceans, forests, infrastructure and transportation along with services, applications and knowledge on how to manage increasingly scarce resources.

Earth observations (EO) provide insights that enable data-driven decisions, which contribute to sound economic policies. Knowledge derived from Earth observations empowers us to make better use of resources, creates new jobs and investment opportunities, spurs innovation and supports research. By highlighting the changes to our natural and built environments over time, Earth observations support better long-term investment planning and policy making for stronger economies, communities and environments.

Earlier this year, the Blockchain + AI + Human Summit – a side event of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos, Switzerland – explored how Earth observations can provide insights that inform evidence-based policy and decision making, visually and over time.

A recent report, Demonstrating the Value of Earth Observations, prepared in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), FourBridges, European Space Agency (ESA) and European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) emphasizes the valuable link between EO data and the impact on citizens. Over 60 international experts including economists, scientists, and engineers provided inputs to this GEOValue initiative. Similarly this past summer, a workshop on Advancing the understanding and measurement of the societal benefits of Earth Observations was conducted by EARSC, FourBridges and other partners at the ESA Centre for Earth Observation in Frascati, Italy to help to define methodologies for measuring the value of EO investments. While those of us in the Earth observation community are well aware of the benefits, it is also our job to translate those benefits into value for governments and other beneficiaries.

EO data provides a wealth of information for policy makers and with open data policies, for example from Landsat and Copernicus, this data is openly and freely available around the world. If used and produced in such an open and transparent way, investments in EO can produce knock-on economic benefits for countries.

Consider some of the data coming out of the US and Australia, two countries that have made considerable investments in Earth observation infrastructures, and have committed to making those data freely available:

According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), since 2008, the year that USGS stopped charging for the use of Landsat images, a surge of academic research was created along with users in government and industry. This has created about $2 billion in annual economic benefits, while the Landsat budget stands at about $80 million. This is just one example where investments in Earth observations data translate into economic benefits.

In Australia, the use of Earth observations, spatial information and location technologies is used in several sectors of the economy.

“Earth observations from space are one of the richest sources of information about the Earth system, and are informing decisions and activities across sectors as diverse as mining, community safety and healthcare,” said Dr Trevor Dhu, A/g Branch Head, National Earth and Marine Observations Branch, Environmental Geosciences Division, Geoscience Australia.

As he explained, the country expects Earth observations to play a key role in economic growth.

“Australia’s spatial industry is forecasted to generate 15,000 new jobs and contribute around $8 billion per annum to Australia’s economy by 2025,” said Dr Dhu.

The Australian government invested AUD $36.9 million in Digital Earth Australia (DE Australia) to provide environmental monitoring products and services to government and industry by leveraging Geoscience Australia’s archive of almost four decades of satellite data, explained Dr Dhu. By mapping everything from soil and coastal erosion, crop growth, water quality and changes to cities and regions, DEA provides government, and business with the insights they need to make better decisions.

By making its data and technology openly available, DE Australia is enabling small businesses to generate new and innovative technology. This will increase the profitability and productivity of businesses in sectors such as land planning, environmental management, agriculture, and mining, bolstering profits and creating new jobs.

Australia is hosting the upcoming Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Week 2019 from November 2-9. As one of the world’s largest gatherings of Earth observation practitioners and experts, the theme of the GEO Week Ministerial Summit will focus on “Earth Observations for Economic Growth.” For the first time ever, a dedicated Industry Track will focus on the commercial Earth observation sector and their contributions to global decision making.

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is an intergovernmental partnership of hundreds of agencies from 107 member countries consisting of national government agencies and over 100 partner organizations that are committed to open data sharing of Earth observations. The resources provided by the global GEO community contribute substantially to economic decision making in far-reaching areas – from forestry and agriculture to energy and mineral resource management and many others. GEO works with member governments to help translate EO into economic value. Today, the GEO Secretariat is also working to move the needle from open data to open science and to ensure reproducibiity of results from the GEO Work Programme.

Consider some of the economic impacts of open data policies around the world:

Sustainable Supply Chains in Brazil rely on transparent and traceable satellite imagery on soy production and forestry data to ensure agricultural outputs do not contribute to deforestation practices. In 2006, the soy moratorium was informed by Earth observations data which enabled the government to make informed export decisions based on satellite data of rainforest and agricultural land-use to sustainably manage the $35 billion corn and soy industry.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the European Union depends on a coordinated approach to improving agricultural outputs across the EU. It relies on open and shared Earth observations data including satellite data and in situ measurements to manage agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and ensuring the optimum use of resources. The CAP budget is estimated at €50-60 billion Euro and it benefits an estimated 11 million farms in the EU and 22 million workers in the sector using open and shared Earth observations data to drive policy decisions.

In South Africa, the National Oceans and Coastal Information Management System is integral to the government’s Nine Point Plan for economic growth. The Management System provides decision support tools such as vessel tracking, data on harmful algal blooms and coastal inundation. This data allows officials to understand the scope of the ocean resources and they estimate that South Africa’s ocean economic potential ranges between R129 and R177bn by 2033, with between 800 000 to 1 million jobs created.

Global weather predictions rely on Earth observation data for accurate forecasting. Weather forecasts can be used to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events on local economies and are also key to areas such as travel and transport, urban planning, pollutant monitoring, and other key areas of social development. Studies have shown that early warnings result in lower disaster response and recovery costs.

According to data from the World Bank, World Meteorological Organization and the Global Facility on Disaster Risk Reduction, it is estimated that universal access to early warning systems totals $13 billion in avoided global asset losses per year and $22 billion is avoided in global well-being losses per year. They estimate that for every dollar spent, a ratio of 3 times is saved.

These examples illustrate the shortterm economic benefits made possible by Earth observations. However, the true economic value of Earth observations data is their proven and potential contributions to ensuring long term sustainability of our planet.

According to the WEF 2019 Global Risks Report, informed policy decisions are key to our sustainable future. Without insights from Earth observations, sustainable management of our planet and ensuring ongoing availability of resources in our shared future on this planet will not be possible.

Earth observations for the growth of developing countries

Developing nations are disproportionately affected by lower levels of socioeconomic development, they suffer from poorer health outcomes, lower levels of productivity and are the ones most vulnerable to climate and disaster risks.

Earth observations are allowing developing countries to do more, and work better, in confronting challenges including air and water quality, sustainable cities, food security, disaster risk reduction, climate change and much more. In fact, Earth observations play a key role in supporting targets and indicators for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically on targets related to land-use, desertification and land degradation. It has been estimated that we lack data for 68% of the SDG Indicators. Earth observations can support tracking of SDGs and compliment traditional statistical reporting in countries.

Crucial to this effort is the open and freely available data provided through the activities of the GEO Work Programme and regional GEO initiatives to support developing countries. This data is helping improve outcomes around agricultural productivity, governance and inclusive growth.

The knowledge derived from EO makes the issues we are facing clear and visible, and therefore harder to ignore. EO supports better investments in national infrastructures and institutions that support development objectives, and facilitates the tracking and measurement of results. Through GEO, all community stakeholders are encouraged to contribute to co-production of knowledge, tools and services that support the integration of Earth observations in national development processes and the strengthening of institutions.

Regional data cubes are impoving access to analysis ready data and information obtained from EO. For example, the recently launched Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) initiative uses existing Open Data Cube technologies developed in Australia to provide rich data to decision makers across the African continent. DE Africa is envisioned as a continental-scale operational Data Cube for Africa. Taking freely available, analysis-ready satellite imagery as an input, the Data Cube will manufacture full-resolution, decisionready products, available to one and all.

Developing countries, especially those located in Africa, are poised to benefit from advances in the digital economy and digital technologies. For example, advances in cloud computing, big data analytics and open data sharing are revealing new possibilities for developing countries to benefit from EO data. Innovations in cloud computing and analysis ready data have lowered the barrier for individuals and organizations to use Earth observations, without having to make large investments to do so.

The GEO – Amazon Web Services Earth Observation Cloud Credits Programme, launched in 2019, offers grants to national government agencies and research organizations from developing countries. These grants for cloud services help with the hosting, processing and analysis of big Earth observation data.

For example in Nepal, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is using cloud computing processing for project ‘South Asian drought monitoring to support agricultural advisory processes.’ As a recipient of the GEO-AWS Cloud Grant, the ICIMOD programme aims to support several developing countries across the region with a harmonized system for drought management and mitigation, helping countries to save time and money in their planning and prediction efforts.

In Brazil, a project from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazilian Earth Observation Data Cube using AWS for Land Use and Cover Change, will utilize existing data cube technologies to rreate analysisready data sets from medium-resolution remote sensing images for all Brazilian territory, including images from the Earth observation satellites Landsat, CBERS and Sentinel.

In Indonesia, researchers are using cloud credits to develop a mobile tsunami warning system based on JPL’s mobile Global Real-time Earthquake and Tsunami Alert (GreatAlert) prototype system and to release it as an open-source platform. This project will enable the scientific community to access NASA data and software for improvements of earthquake and tsunami modeling based on real events and aims to impact the end users, including coastal residents and beach visitors to receive early tsunami alerts.

From the standpoint of the GEO community, all countries need to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Earth observations. The data and knowledge derived from EO along with new technologies and services can help countries, and especially developing countries, to turn open Earth observation data into economic value. The current call from the GEO Secretariat is to build on the use of cloud services as the primary method for effectively mining information from satellite imagery big data to support policy, decision making and action.

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