An Earthzine interview with Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research

Dr. Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research

Dr. Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research

Many users of Earth Observation (EO) data, including scientists, policy-makers and private citizens, still rely on limited and poorly presented environmental information, first, because the necessary data does not exist and, second, because the work of providers of existing data and information is not sufficiently coordinated.

Producing better EO data became a top political priority, in Europe and around the globe since the early ’90s. The World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg South Africa, 2002, highlighted the urgent need for coordinated observations relating to the state of the Earth. The Summit of the Heads of States of the Group of 8 Industrialized Countries in June 2003 in France (Evian) reinforced the importance of Earth Observation as a priority activity. At the first Earth Observation Summit in Washington, in July 2003, a declaration was adopted stating the political commitment to move towards development of a comprehensive, coordinated and sustained Earth Observation system of systems (GEOSS). The summit established an ad hoc intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, co-chaired by the European Commission, Japan, South Africa and the USA, and tasked it with the development of a 10-Year Implementation Plan.

Supporting GEOSS through its evolution is Earthzine’s core mission. Interviews with Director of the GEO Secretariat José Achache on meeting GEO challenges and articles on ICEO/GEO/GEOSS capacity building are featured on other pages.

Here we present Dr. Zoran Stančič, Deputy Director General for research in the European Commission since 2004, who also brings a wealth of experience and insight into the EC’s support for GEOSS. A second interview detailing Europe’s current research initiatives will follow in two weeks.

Prior to joining the EC as representative of new member state Slovenia, he served as State Secretary for Science at the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport in Slovenia from 2000 to 2004 and Deputy Director of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts from 1999-2000. Trained as an engineer, he is an expert on quantitative methods in archaeology and remote sensing.

Earthzine’s Editor-in-Chief Paul Racette and Dr. Jay Pearlman, chair of the ICEO, put a series of questions to DG Stančič to develop an understanding of the scope of the European Commission’s commitment to GEOSS.

This is first of two parts. Read the second part here.

Earthzine: The EU has made substantial financial contributions to GEO. What are the benefits that GEOSS is bringing to Europe?

Stančič: I would like to begin by saying that the European Community is strongly engaged in supporting the development and implementation of GEOSS in many different ways, from the provision of financial and personnel resources, to infrastructure development and data and knowledge sharing.

Then let me highlight the major challenges that Europe has identified facing the GEOSS. In his address to the GEO Ministerial Summit held in Cape Town in November 2007, the Research Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, stated: “the two areas of perhaps the greatest challenge for the future of the GEOSS are: data sharing and capacity building. Reaching effective agreement on the modalities of international data sharing is essential, and a real breakthrough will be needed. Capacity building – particularly in developing countries – is vital for the availability and successful use of geo-information.

Addressing these challenges at the European level brings benefits both to us as Europeans and to the GEO community, as we share our experiences with our partners in GEO.

Europe will benefit from the free and open exchange of data that is being promoted within the GEO and we are responding to the challenge of implementing the GEOSS Data Sharing Principles.Image of the EUMETSAT logo.

For example, the basic objectives and principles set forth as the foundation of the proposed Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Data Policy are similar to those expressed in the GEOSS Data Sharing Principles.

I was also delighted to hear the announcement made by Dr Lars Prahm, the Director General of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), at the GEO-V Plenary held in Bucharest on 18-19 November, that the EUMETSAT Council agreed at its meeting in July 2008 that its data and products, including real-time data, will be made available free of charge to the five GMES pre-operational core services from 2008-2010. This is a clear example of how Europe is drawing benefit from its engagement with the GEO.

Earthzine: How will GEOSS be used to better inform EU decisions?

Stančič: Protecting the environment is essential for the quality of life of current and future generations and is a high political priority for the European Union. The challenge is to combine this with continuing economic growth in a way which is sustainable over the long term. European Union environment policy is based on the belief that high environmental standards stimulate innovation and business opportunities.

The EC’s objectives in this area are:
• To promote sustainable development, preserving the rights of future generations to a viable environment.

• To work towards a high level of environmental and health protection and improvement of the quality of life.

• To promote environmental efficiency.

• To encourage the equitable use, as well as the sound and effective management, of common environmental resources.

Credit © European Communities, 2008

Credit © European Communities, 2008

The EU Environment Action Programmes are linked to these overall objectives. The current action program, the 6th EAP, was adopted by the European Parliament and Council in 2002 and runs until 2012. It identifies four environmental areas for priority actions: climate change; nature and biodiversity; environment, health and quality of life; natural resources and waste.

By facilitating access to global environmental data and information, the GEOSS is creating the basis for more informed EU decision-making on critical environmental issues.

The GEOSS will also help to effectively realise the EU’s objectives in other policy areas, including the timely delivery of valuable humanitarian aid following natural or man-made disasters.

Earthzine: Many of the issues GEOSS is addressing are global and must be addressed from that perspective. What is the EU doing to improve Earth observation and information access in developing countries?

Stančič: The European Commission recognises that GEO actively seeks to promote effective capacity building initiatives to support the universal use of the GEOSS, particularly in developing countries.

Indeed, as I mentioned before, Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik has identified capacity building, particularly in developing countries, as being one of the major challenges faced by the GEO in implementing the GEOSS.

The European Community is therefore making significant efforts to meet this challenge. As a concrete example, Europe’s contribution to address the availability of data in developing countries can be found through the contribution of the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), that made the spare capacity of their EUMETCast data broadcast system available to the GEO.

As such, EUMETCast formed the basis of GEONETCast, a global network of satellite based data dissemination systems. GEONETCast is putting a vast range of essential environmental data at the fingertips of users around the globe, especially in developing countries. Most importantly, this is a user-driven, user-friendly and low-cost information dissemination service that aims to provide global information as a basis for sound decision-making in a number of critical areas, including public health, energy, agriculture, weather, water, climate, natural disasters and ecosystems.

Actions from the Environment Directorate of the Research Directorate-General also support projects that address the aims and objectives of the GEO and which also help to enhance the national and regional capacity of GEO members. As an example, building upon the work of EUMETSAT, the European Community is funding the DevCoCast project which aims at strengthening the involvement of developing countries in the GEONETCast initiative.

Capacity building for the Black Sea Basin Observation and Assessment System. Black Sea photo by Georgi Petrov http://www.gpetrov.com/

Capacity building for the Black Sea Basin Observation and Assessment System. Black Sea photo by Georgi Petrov http://www.gpetrov.com/

The DevCoCast project will:

1. disseminate existing environmental added-value datasets (both in-situ and satellite based) from various sources in Africa, South- and Central America and Europe in (near) real time and at no cost via GEONETCast to a broad range of user communities in developing countries and

2. promote and support the use of these products.

The DevCoCast project sets up a number of pilot cases in Africa, South- and Central America and Asia and will hopefully have a big impact within the budget available to it, (approx 1.85 million euro).
Another example, which covers the Black Sea Region, including Romania where the very successful GEO-V Plenary was recently held, is the project called EnviroGRIDS, which aims at building capacity for a Black Sea Basin Observation and Assessment System. The environment theme of the European Community’s 7th Research Framework Programme will contribute 6 million euro towards the total budget for the project of around 8 million euro. The EnviroGRIDS project will bring together several emerging information technologies that are revolutionizing the way we are able to observe our planet in order to help bridge the gap between science and policy in that region.

A further contribution from the European Union is that of the Development Directorate-General of the European Commission. Through the European Development Fund (EDF), the EU supports development programs and actions for the benefit of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. In particular, together with the European Space Agency (ESA) and EUMETSAT, the EC is developing with the African Union Commission, an action plan for Earth Observation for the next EU-African Summit of January 2010.

Earthzine: There are both technical and geo-political issues in building an Earth Observation System of Systems. What are the geo political barriers to international cooperation for global research? How can they be overcome?

Stančič: As your question implies, the majority of the challenges that the GEO has to face are not technical, but political. By way of example, different GEO members have very different policies in areas such as access to data and data pricing, that is applying a commercial value to data and seeking to raise revenue by the sale of this data.

Within the GEO governance structure we recognise the right of each GEO member to develop its own policies and we respect these policies. The GEO will not seek to try and overcome the barriers that such policies may put in place by trying to negotiate new regional or global policies.

Rather, we rely on something that although it is intangible, really does exist, and that is the “GEO Spirit”. While it is difficult to provide a single definition of the “GEO Spirit”, it does encourage us as a community to seek “light governance”, avoiding detailed and cumbersome bureaucratic and legal procedures, while promoting, by consensus, a dynamic implementation of the GEOSS.
Image of the Inspire GeoPortal logo

It is through this consensual approach that we are striving, and so far in my opinion succeeding, to work to overcome the barriers that do exist.

Earthzine: What is the role of education and public outreach to realizing the societal benefits of GEOSS?

Stančič: The challenges today’s society faces are serious and complex, including: climate change, depletion of natural resources, desertification, emergence of new diseases, the impact of human migrations, loss of biodiversity, etc.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, highlighted the urgent need for coordinated observations relating to the state of the Earth.

Then at the Summit of the G8, held in June 2003 in Evian, France, the G8 heads of state affirmed the importance of Earth observation as a priority activity.

And the 2008 G8 summit in Tokyo reaffirmed its support for the GEO by stating the need “to accelerate GEOSS efforts to meet the growing demand for Earth observations“.

Hence the GEO does currently enjoy political backing in support of its efforts to implement the GEOSS.
But while it is vitally important to have this political support, the full benefits of the GEOSS can only be realised if all of society is aware of the benefits that the GEO can deliver and is able to make use of them. Hence it is imperative that the GEO pursues an active outreach campaign, so that all possible stakeholders, from ordinary citizens to local, national and regional authorities, companies, international organisations and policy makers can make full use of the GEOSS capabilities.

And having made these stakeholders aware of the potential of the GEOSS, many will then need training and education to support them as they take their initial steps in attempting to use the full potential of the GEOSS.

So I do see outreach and education as an important element in enabling us to deliver the full societal benefits of the GEOSS.

Earthzine: GEOSS objectives are best served by free and open access to data. Yet there are significant differences in data policies among nations. What is the European approach for moving toward free and open access?

Stančič: As I mentioned before, the European Commission recognises the importance of this issue. Commissioner Potočnik stated during the ministerial in Cape Town that sharing data is perhaps one of the two greatest challenges facing the GEO community. He went on to say that: “Reaching effective agreement on the modalities of international data sharing is essential, and a real breakthrough will be needed.

The commission supports the full and open exchange of data, metadata, and products shared within GEOSS, provided relevant international instruments and national policies and legislation are recognised.
We therefore greatly appreciate the work that has been undertaken to date to prepare the white paper and implementation guidelines for the GEOSS data sharing principles. It is our position that the emphasis in the implementation guidelines should be placed on promoting the benefits of full and open access to GEOSS data through a process that directly engages both data providers and users. We believe that such an approach will be more effective in providing an open exchange of data than one that is restricted to a methodology that tries to reconcile all of the many relevant data policies.

The declaration issued following the GEO Ministerial Summit in Cape Town in 2007 also paves the way for the further elaboration of the data sharing principles. In this regard the declaration reads: “We support the establishment of a process with the objective to reach a consensus on the implementation of the Data Sharing Principles for GEOSS to be presented to the next GEO Ministerial Summit (in 2010)”.

The commission fully supports the decision taken at the GEO-V Plenary that took place in Bucharest in November 2008 to create a “Data Sharing Principles Task Force”, to accelerate work on this matter in the build-up to the 2010 GEO Ministerial.

Earthzine: An issue with GEOSS is the ability for sustainability as a voluntary organization? How can this be addressed?

Stančič: I see this as an important challenge, the need for GEO members to provide adequate support to the work required to implement the GEOSS.

The “voluntary” nature of the GEO has been a major factor behind our initial success and the momentum we have built up as we take this initiative forwards. However, to maintain this success there is a need to ensure that adequate resources are committed in support of the various tasks and initiatives that are required if the GEOSS 10-year implementation plan is be successfully realized.

To date, many contributions have been truly “voluntary”, i.e. people have dedicated whatever time they could find within their existing workload to address GEO tasks and other related issues. But many GEO members have found it difficult to go beyond this and provide significant resources dedicated to supporting GEO, in particular with regard to personnel.

It is important to remember that given the nature of the GEO, no member or participating organisation can be obliged to commit resources in support of GEO actions. However, this does not mean that the greater part of the GEO effort should be provided by individuals on a voluntary basis. A message from the plenary in Bucharest was to ask GEO members and participating organisations to “volunteer” to commit dedicated personnel and financial resources in support of GEO tasks and initiatives. The GEO community has so far always risen to the challenges facing it and I remain hopeful that this will again be the case with regard to this issue.

Earthzine: Many of the core capabilities that are being developed in Europe can provide a basis for global information systems. What is your vision for the next decade?

Stančič: Let me first elaborate a number of the core European capabilities to the GEOSS that you referred to in your question. These are very broad, ranging from involvement at the national to the pan-European scale. At the European level, involvement in the GEO and the implementation of the GEOSS has encouraged us to build our contribution around strong supporting pillars which include:

• The European Union’s spatial data infrastructure directive, which provides a foundation for standardisation that will contribute towards long term regional and global convergence;

• The GMES initiative (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), where together with the European Space Agency, (ESA), we have recently launched the first GMES services in pre-operational mode;

• The European Community Research Programmes, where I would like to emphasise three lines of actions:

– The Joint Research Centre, or JRC, provides scientific advice and technical know-how to support EU policies. Many of its various activities focus on turning data from Earth Observation satellites into quantitative information;

– The Information Society and Media Directorate-General (INFSO) delivers ICT tools, instruments, infrastructures and best practices that can be exploited in building the GEOSS. In particular, the GéANT & eInfrastructure Programme focuses on the provision of infrastructure to access knowledge and scientific data and to create virtual research communities.

I was delighted to be able to welcome the DANTE Organisation, which has built and is operating the GéANT pan-European backbone network services to the National Research and Education Networks, as a new GEO participating organisation during the recent GEO-V Plenary;

– The European Community Research Programme and the actions funded within the Environment Directorate of the Research Directorate-General. We believe that in planning and integrating R&D activities funded in regional or national programs, into GEO activities, we will “make it happen” for GEO.

And this is what we do in the European Commission’s Framework Programme. Each year, with the support of the European member states, we have a call for proposals that tries to cover identified gaps in the GEO work plan with projects that can address any societal benefit areas or transverse areas.

• I’ve already referred in an earlier answer to the Development Directorate-General of the European Commission and the EU supports provided through the European Development Fund (EDF).

• Finally, I must also stress the huge contribution of the pan-European organisations in support of the building of GEOSS. In their domain of expertise, ESA, EUMETSAT, the European Centre for Medium range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF), EuroGeoSurveys and the European Environment Agency, among others, bring recognised and most often operational contributions to the development of the objectives of GEOSS.

Now, as I look towards the future, I am very encouraged by what the GEO has achieved to date. We have shown ourselves to be an organisation that is both able to recognise its limitations and mature enough to address them quickly and efficiently. The “light” system of governance that was put in place when the GEO was formed looks to be working well and is providing an interesting “alternative governance model” for intergovernmental initiatives.

In June 2008, the initial operating capability phase of the GEOSS was launched. This represented an important milestone for the GEO – entry into the first phase of actual GEOSS operations.

It is vital that we now broaden the capability of the GEOSS by offering as complete a range of data and services as possible. If we can achieve this, we will gain widespread acceptance for the credibility of the GEOSS and support for its continued implementation and development.

We must also demonstrate very clearly in the coming years the added-value that is brought by the GEO initiative and the implementation of the GEOSS. That is why initiatives such as the proposal to develop a worldwide Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON), which will both link and leverage the efforts of stakeholders to collect, manage, share and analyse observations of the status and trends of the world’s biodiversity is important, as it is an initiative that clearly shows the added-value of the GEO.

I very much hope and believe that as we reach the conclusion of the 10-year implementation phase of the GEOSS in 2015, we will have established a fully operational GEOSS as the preferred entry point for access to comprehensive, coordinated and sustained observations of the Earth system, in order to improve monitoring of the state of the Earth, increase understanding of Earth processes, and enhance prediction of the behavior of the Earth system.

Next: Deputy Director General Stančič on European research areas.

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