The GEO Challenge: An Earthzine Conversation With GEO Secretariat Director José Achache

GEO Secretariat Director José Achache

GEO Secretariat Director José Achache

The goal of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (or GEO) is to integrate today’s fragmented earth observation measurement systems to create a comprehensive Global Earth Observation System of Systems (or GEOSS) for monitoring and forecasting changes in the global environment. It is a bold idea requiring an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination between national agencies with diverging interests, as well as the emerging commercial interests building business models around the sale of climate data. José Achache has been the diplomatic mastermind guiding this effort since his appointment as GEO’s first Secretariat Director in 2005.

The French geophysicist was no stranger to Earth observation. Prior to his arrival at GEO, through the 1990’s, Achache directed the Department of Space Studies and Graduate School of Earth Sciences at the Institut de Physique du Globe de; he served as advisor to the President of the French Space Agency and the agency’s Deputy Director General for Science; and in 2002 he was appointed Director of Earth Observation for the European Space Agency.

As Director of the GEO Secretariat, Achache is responsible for managing programmatic and administrative support to GEO, coordinating the development and implementation of GEOSS, and maintaining effective working relationships with the broader GEO community.

Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley reached Dr. Achache by phone last month at GEO’s office in the Geneva headquarters of the World Meteorological Organization. During their conversation, Dr. Achache discussed not only the vision, progress and achievements of GEO but also discussed challenges relating to resources and industry’s role in GEOSS.

Q&A

Earthzine: What distinguishes GEO and GEOSS from the myriad ongoing programs for Earth observation?

Achache: It’s pretty simple: GEO is not a program. GEO Is a coordination mechanism to network all existing and future observing systems. At the time that GEO came into existence, the myriad earth observation initiatives, programs and observing systems were not coordinated, so there was huge duplication, enormous waste, and a total absence of synergy. When I was director of Earth observation at ESA, ESA and NASA were duplicating some of each other’s payloads and missions. At ESA, we did EnviSat, and NASA did Terra, Aqua and Aura. They’re more or less the same payloads. When NASA decided to do ICESat, the next mission approved at ESA was CryoSat. They have the same target: the icecaps. Then ESA decided on SMOS which tracks soil moisture and ocean salinity, and the next decision at NASA was Hydros and Aquarius: One on salinity, the other on soil moisture. It didn’t make sense.

On top of this, all these programs are specific to a single problem. There are global climate observing systems, an ocean observing system, a terrestrial observing system, and a number of initiatives on disasters like the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters or the Tsunami Warning System. However, it turns out that Earth is a coupled system of systems and therefore disasters are linked to climate, water is linked to climate, disasters and weather, health issues are related to biodiversity because biodiversity loss is the main driver of emerging diseases, ecosystems of course link to them all. So rather than developing 9 or 10 different observing systems, coordinating all systems and creating a single earth observation system of systems is the most efficient, rational and reasonable way of observing Earth for the benefit of all.

Earthzine: How far has GEO come towards delivering on that vision since your appointment three years ago? What are its most significant achievements?

Achache: We’ve come quite a long way. The first three years have been primarily dedicated to building the main blocks of the overall GEOSS architecture. As you know there’s no intention, with GEOSS, to redesign and rebuild the global architecture for observation. So, when we say architecture it’s mostly interoperability agreements, definitions of standards for interoperability, and access to the data. Key building blocks that we’ve been developing include GEOPortal and GEONETCast.

GEOPortal is a clearing house for Earth observations that will provide a single point of entry for observations of the planet from all centers. Preliminary operational capability will commence in early April, and from then on we’ll be building. The way we’re proceeding is always by starting with the minimum necessary to operate and then building on that from user feedback and the aggregation of more capabilities from members and participating organizations.

In addition to broadband internet access, the GEONETCast program specifically is a mechanism to distribute data to users who do not have access to broadband internet by using communications satellites to broadcast information and a small receiving dish at a computer. The whole thing goes for $1000.

GEONETCast is a good example of the particular way in which GEO works as compared to other international organizations. GEO is an intergovernmental organization but it’s not a UN organization and it’s non-binding. The big advantage is that it takes only two to Tango! It takes only two members to get together and decide that they’re going to bring their capabilities together to create a new GEOSS component. Of course if a third member wants to join the member will join, and then a fourth, and the project grows by progressive accretion. This is completely different than the UN process where whenever you want to start some new activity you have to have a consensus among 180 different countries, which means requires producing documents, announcing plans, and building a consensus, which will take a long time. It takes 3-5 years to initiate a new activity within the UN system. Within GEO it takes only the decision of 2 members to start something.

In the case of GEONETCast, the concept began initially with EUMETSAT, the European meteorological satellite organization, which developed its own system to broadcast its data to users in Africa. What happened within GEO is they realized that other countries and communities beyond the meteorological community might want to benefit from this capability. So EUMETSAT was joined by NOAA and very soon after by the Chinese Meteorological Administration (CMA) and the three of them decided to coordinate. Each of the three agencies agreed to rent the necessary broadcast capability on geostationary communications satellites covering their region and then use them to broadcast information ♦ not just meteorological information but biodiversity, disasters, anything of interest for GEO. And it would be global. So EUMETSAT is in charge of the European-African segment, NOAA will create a hub to cover North and South America as well as the Eastern Pacific, and the CMA is covering Asia and the Western Pacific. Lately the Russians have joined the scheme with a MITRA satellite which will cover higher-latitude users.

Earthzine: Have many other nodes of activity formed like this?

Achache: The GEOPortal is being formed using the same approach. We had several proposals to contribute to the portal, including both private companies in the U.S. and a joint effort by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and ESA here in Europe. So that’s another example. The same kind of scheme can be implemented for modeling. On the modeling side we have a good example of a project that was initiated between the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecast, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and the Chinese Modeling Center to extend their weather modeling and forecasting capabilities out to two weeks. That requires sharing the database and sharing the computing facilities of these three supercomputing centers.

Earthzine: I understand that you are considering a major water initiative?

Achache: Absolutely. We have a new initiative on in situ water observations. There are two problems. The first one is that there is absolutely no standardization of instruments and data formats, essentially because water has always been considered a local issue. The second problem is that the infrastructure is falling apart. It’s old, it’s degrading, and the resources are not there to upgrade the system. So because of the importance of water in the future and also because water is becoming a global issue, there is an urgent necessity to upgrade the whole system. To do this we’ve initiated a project called HARON (for Hydrological Applications and Run-Off Network) focusing primarily on the gauges monitoring the discharge of rivers close to the sea. Another dimension of the project is to improve the integration of in situ measurements with satellite measurements because more and more altimetry instruments can measure the level of lakes or even rivers when they’re sufficiently large. The NASA-German GRACE mission’s gravity instrument also provides a very powerful way to track the changes in subsurface water. Integrating the in situ measurements with altimetry and gravity from satellites will be a major step forward in understanding continental water.

Earthzine: In the case of HARON you’re actually trying to increase the observation going on, not just the coordination or communication of existing data.

Achache: Exactly. In the first three years we were mostly coordinating what existed and making communities aware that from now on they will have to work globally. Over the next three years we will try to go more towards effectively building observing capacity. That will require finding the proper way of collecting the money to ensure the global sustainability. So with HARON, we are now turning ourselves into “project brokers” rather than simply coordinators of existing activities.

Earthzine: Is it hard striking a balance between being a voluntary system and ensuring that the members do contribute and that you can pull in the required resources?

Achache: I think we’re just beginning to test that. There’s tremendous momentum behind GEO. I must say that at the political level there’s very strong enthusiasm. At the summit that we had in Cape Town in November, which was the first summit since GEO was created, the enthusiasm was there, the momentum was there, and everybody is willing to contribute. That’s due maybe to the fact that we put together evidence of early achievements. (If you haven’t done so I invite you to visit our website and download what we call The first 100 steps toward GEOSS.)

The European Commission, one of the large supporters of GEO, has already created financial mechanisms to support GEOSS implementation. The current European Commission research and development program includes specific references to GEOSS implementation and that’s what we’re using for HARON. We’ve brokered a consortium to put a proposal to the European Commission.

The National Science Foundation in the U.S. has been a bit slower to respond. I do hope that we will have some matching funds so that the North American activities can be equally funded. We understand that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior are going to fund a drought measuring system that, in addition to HARON, will complement the global network.

If two years from now we’ve drawn on resources from North America, the European Commission and the Chinese administration plus complementary funding from the World Bank and others for developing countries, then we’ll have been successful.

Earthzine: A modest work plan!

Achache: The one thing you can’t be if you want to be successful with GEO is modest. We can’t afford to be modest.

Earthzine: Since 2005 the political landscape in the United States regarding climate change has shifted quite a bit. Has that affected your efforts to launch GEOSS?

Achache: To be honest I didn’t really see a shift in their contribution to GEOSS with the shift in their political stance because the support was there before, surprisingly. You know that GEO was initiated by the State Department and the White House. Even when the administration in the U.S. was more hesitant regarding climate change, they still recognized that ♦ precisely because they didn’t know what was happening ♦ they had an urgent need for more powerful observing capabilities and that’s presumably what triggered the initiation of the Earth Observation Summit in Washington in July 2003. So I must recognize that, even with the previous state of thinking on climate change, the U.S. was already very active on GEO and implementation of GEOSS. I presume that with what President Bush told us [in early March] about the willingness of the U.S. administration to become a leader in developing renewable energies, in cementing energy security and reducing global changes, that this support for GEO will be continued and expanded.

Earthzine: One hopes that the funding available for science won’t be diverted to ethanol subsidies!

Achache: Absolutely. I do hope that the earth observation budget at NASA will be reinstated. We already see that the suite of climate instruments which was de-manifested from NPOESS (NASA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System) is about to be reinstated. So we already see the tip of the iceberg. I do indeed expect more.

Earthzine: Are you satisfied with the level of developing country participation in GEO? And is the launch by China and Brazil of a second joint China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) last fall a sign that the “data gap&Rdquo; between developed and developing nations may be closing a bit?

Achache: I think it is. The Chinese and Brazilians announced officially at the Summit in Cape Town that they would be delivering CBERS data for Africa and the Caribbean free of charge. This data availability without charge is a major change and it’s driven in this case by developing countries.

I used to say that I could see two points of failure for GEOSS. The first would be that GEOSS would be seen as a space initiative. We need space but we also need in situ data and we need models to actually provide information, so one of my tasks is to always make sure that each of these three components are included and that GEOSS was not regarded as a hidden agenda of the space agencies. The second point of failure would be if GEOSS were seen as a rich-guy’s club. We’ve been extremely active in involving developing countries, making sure that African countries were actively involved, that Brazil was a leader in a number of tasks, that China was actively involved, and it worked. South Africa and China and Brazil have just been instrumental since the beginning. I’m proud to say that on these two counts we’ve avoided falling into the trap.

Earthzine: What about industry’s role in GEOSS?

Achache: For the time being industry is there to produce whatever facility or instrument governments want to build, and as long as the only industry sector that is involved is big manufacturers of instruments, their involvement will be fairly limited. That’s why we’ve been trying to work more practically with industry in the user community, like agriculture, insurance companies, water utility companies. We have good indications that this is going to work.

There are two other areas where we see involvement with industry increasing. One is data distribution and data access. Graphical software developer ESRI is willing to be involved in the GEOPortal and Compusult is another company interested in contributing to GEOSS architecture. The other sector of industry which is getting involved in GEOSS is the manufacturers of in situ and satellite observation systems. These people are moving from building instruments to actually commercializing the observations. I’m thinking particularly of the Finnish company Vaisala, which has moved from commercializing sounding balloons for meteorological observations to actually commercializing the readings. The next step will be doing their own modeling and forecasts. So we see more and more private companies involved in data processing and information provision and, at the end of the chain, using GEOSS to produce an information product targeted to a specific user.

Earthzine: Isn’t there an almost inevitable conflict there between your mandate to provide an open system for the benefit of humanity and the commercial interest in selling data?

Achache: The model I mentioned for Vaisala would be a conflicting one because they would own the data and only release the information products against a charge. But we may think of also more of a mixed system where companies might be able to provide globally averaged information free of charge and sell more targeted services to specific customers. If GEOSS is a public infrastructure to provide the minimum level of information needed to benefit everyone, then the fact that on top of that you will find some more advanced processing being implemented for specific users ♦ I don’t see how this would conflict with what we are doing. It’s very much like roads. The fact that there’s commercial activity on public roads does not prevent them from being used for the benefit of all. On the contrary.

Earthzine: Perhaps the key is negotiating up front with these industrial players that if they’re going to work with GEO there has to be one lane that’s open to all?

Achache: Absolutely. The only problem is that we’re not starting from scratch. For example we already have an established business model for weather forecasts in Europe, which is different from the National Weather Service in the U.S., and which creates a different situation in terms of information access and the possibilities for more people to use the information. We already have water observations which are more or less restricted because of national security or whatever. Data sharing principles are a very key issue for the future of GEOSS.

Earthzine: What’s the status of that effort?

Achache: The status is we’re working on it. We’ve put in place a large working group. Because it’s a GEO process, those members who are interested started working on it and those are, of course, the ones who are interested in free access. So they came up with a first document which was pushing for free access. Then the other members said “hey hey hey, we don’t agree because we have commitments. We have national regulations, we have different business models“. They were told: “Well please join the group, bring your point of view, and let’s discuss“. Now more and more members are joining the forum and we’ll have to find a mechanism to reconcile all of these points of view and interests. This is not the simplest of my tasks!

Earthzine: I was going to ask what challenges kept you up night. This sounds like one.

Achache: There are a number. But this one is really the key to everything.

Earthzine: Summing up, would you say that GEO and GEOSS are impacting our understanding of climate change and sustainability of society?

Achache: Our understanding of climate change is essentially based on data recorded before the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report began to be written which is three years ago. So all the data are pre-GEO. I don’t want to enter into the debate of climate change pros or cons. I think what’s really important is adaptation. We’re not going to find a solution to climate change for a number of decades, possibly centuries, so adaptation is going to be a priority. Adapting means coping with different water distributions, epidemic distributions and rates and exposures to disasters. On those three areas we are already making a difference. We have initiated an interesting project on meningitis and reemerging diseases. We have substantial activities on disaster management and early warning. And we already mentioned HARON for water.

Earthzine: I was going to wrap up by asking you to predict whether GEOSS will be ready to support users five years hence, but it sounds like it’s more of an evolution that’s already begun!

Achache: Absolutely. We’re now working with the World Health Organization as a user of GEO. And we’re working with them on a daily basis. So it’s already there. I think five years from now nothing on this planet will be done without GEOSS! As I told you, we can’t afford to be modest.

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