A GEOSS perspective on Air Quality and Health in Europe: the EGIDA Methodology

By Dr. Aasmund Fahre Vik (NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research),
Prof. Dr. Markus Quante (Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht),
Dr. Jana Moldanova (IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute),
Dr. Volker Matthias (Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht)

Photo of traffic in Europe with visible fumes escaping the cars. Credit" Sergiy Serdyuk

Emissions from traffic contribute significantly to air pollution problems in Europe. Image Credit: Sergiy Serdyuk.


Through the European Union (EU)-funded project EGIDA (Coordinating Earth and Environmental cross-disciplinary projects to promote GEOSS), an effort to strengthen contributions from science and technology (S&T) activities to GEOSS were undertaken. A special task focusing on air quality, and especially that of relevance to human health, examined currently ongoing European projects and initiatives to analyze their degree of involvement with GEOSS.

GEOSS promotes sharing of data and access to Earth observation infrastructure through internationally standardized data exchange mechanisms. The air quality issue is a multinational concern and GEOSS seems an ideal approach for connecting existing observing systems and for sharing data globally. The analysis that was performed in the EGIDA task did, however, identify several challenges with the current/previous approaches for GEOSS implementation in the field of air quality monitoring and assessment. An alternative approach based on community networking principles may be needed. Experiences from previous involvements in GEOSS by the air quality communities are discussed in this article and approaches for improving their sustainable contributions are suggested.

The EGIDA methodology

Key to the EGIDA project was the development of an “EGIDA methodology” which provided a general guideline for how S&T communities may be analyzed and approached. It was designed to be a general procedure which should support a sustainable contribution of projects and initiatives to GEO/GEOSS. Four use cases were defined and set up to test the methodology in different scientific contexts, to provide feedback to the general rules and to test them on a concrete science application. The task on air quality was one of these use cases and (in contrast to the other use cases) focused around a single environmental theme. The revision of the EGIDA methodology is not discussed in the current article, but key findings from the analysis of GEOSS implementation in the Air Quality and Health communities are presented.

The EGIDA methodology consists of five networking activities and six technical activities. The methodology was applicable both to a whole scientific community and a single project. In the former case, the methodology would support activities to study the different projects in the community to find suitable ways of setting up sustainable contributions to GEOSS. The five networking activities supported (1) the identification of prime stakeholders in the community, (2) an assessment of their GEOSS-awareness, (3) ways of dissemination/improvement of awareness of GEOSS, (4) tools for establishment of a GEOSS-network in the community and (5) ways of ensuring sustainability of necessary (re)engineering processes. The six technical activities were dedicated to a technical and managerial analysis of the data management situation in the community and provided assistance on design, development, implementation and assessment of a fully GEOSS interoperable data system. The main objective of the currently described work was to apply as many of these activities as possible to check their validity or applicability for the issues addressed in the air quality and health community.

The Air Quality community

The use case “Pan-European Air Quality for Health” differs somewhat from other EGIDA use cases as the international and inter-regional character of air pollution has been recognised already in the 1970s and through the four following decades international structures for monitoring, reporting and evaluation of air pollution, including the data management, have been established on both UN-ECE and EU levels. The Convention on Long Range Transport of Air Pollutants (LRTAP) ratified in 1979 has been an UN-ECE political instrument in the reduction of key harmful pollutants in both Europe (including Asian countries formed from former USSR) and North America. Initially, the Convention focused on acidification problems. Today, the main focus is the effect of air pollution on human health. EU collaborates closely with the Convention and the LRTAP protocols are put in law together with further air quality legislation through EU directives. In North America, LRTAP is implemented through bilateral agreements between Canada and the U.S. One can see some decoupling between the air quality structures on American and European continents given by the political premises. LRTAP also works actively with improvement of reporting and ratification of LRTAP protocols by the countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA).

The air quality community has traditionally not been deeply involved with GEOSS and the official data repositories are generally not available in the GEOSS common infrastructure. This could be due to the fact that satellite observations have not been used much and because the LRTAP, EU and U.S. Air Quality data infrastructures were established long before GEOSS. The projects and programs generally have little or no incentives to contribute to GEOSS except for informal agreements on data sharing with no real obligations for technical infrastructure. An overview of the two existing European air quality data reporting frameworks and infrastructures is given in the following section:

The EMEP program (Co-operative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-range Transmission of Air Pollutants in Europe) with the main elements of: (1) collection of emission data (hosted by Centre on Emission Inventories and Projections (CEIP), Austria), (2) measurements of air and precipitation quality in background air (hosted by EMEP Chemical Coordinating Centre (CCC), NILU, Norway), (3) modelling of atmospheric transport and deposition of air pollutions (NOX, SOX, ozone, particulate matter (PM), etc., hosted by the EMEP Meteorological Synthesizing Centre (MSC)-West, Norway; heavy metals and persistent pollutants by MSC- East, Russia) and (4) integrated assessment modelling (from year 1999, hosted by Centre for Integrated Assessment Modelling (CIAM), Austria) has been established by the first protocol signed under the LRTAP Convention.

A map showing annual mean concentration of PM10 data (μg/m3) as reported to Airbase for the year 2008; the two highest concentration classes correspond to the annual limit value (40 μg/m3) and to a statistically derived level (31 μg/m3) corresponding to the short-term limit value. Image Credit: ETC/ACC Technical paper 2010/1.

A map showing annual mean concentration of PM10 (μg/m3) as reported to Airbase for the year 2008; the two highest concentration classes correspond to the annual limit value (40 μg/m3) and to a statistically derived level (31 μg/m3) corresponding to the short-term limit value. Image Credit: ETC/ACC Technical paper 2010/1.

EU reporting of air quality data is regulated by Decisions 97/101/EC and 2004/461/EC and reporting of emissions by the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive 2001/81/EC. All member states (including Norway and Switzerland) report their air quality data annually (regional and urban background, street level) and emissions to the European air quality information system maintained by European Environmental Agency (EEA). Data are made publicly available through the Airbase system. The more recent air quality directive 2008/50/EC and its related implementing decision 2011/850/EU aims to streamline monitoring and data reporting further and will be implemented by January 2014.

The air quality monitoring and reporting to AirBase and EMEP is organized in different ways in the individual EU countries, in some all or the majority of measurements and reporting being national responsibility (e.g. Germany, Austria, The Netherlands) in others being a combination of nationally organized regional background networks and local stations driven by local governments (e.g. Sweden, Norway, Finland).

Analyzing GEOSS involvement in the air quality community

In a first step, the community was surveyed in order to gain an overview on its structure and possible networking activities. Overall, about 21 large projects/initiatives were identified, of which 10 representative ones were finally chosen for a more in-depth analysis in the second step. These projects/initiatives were:
1. EMEP – European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme

2. PANGEA – Publishing Network for Geoscientific and Environmental Data

3. PASODOBLE – Promote Air Quality Services integrating Observations – Development Of Basic Localised Information for Europe

4. Eionet/EEA – European Environment Information and Observation Network

5. MACC II – Monitoring atmospheric composition and climate

6. ACTRIS – Aerosols, Clouds, and Trace gases Research Infra Structure Network

7. TRANSPHORM – Transport related Air Pollution and Health impacts

8. GMOS – Global Mercury Observation System

9. CARIBIC – Civil Aircraft for the Regular Investigation of the Atmosphere Based on an Instrument Container

10. ECDS – Environmental Climate Data Sweden.

Of importance to the selection was that the projects or initiatives should have a relative long-term perspective on operation. Short-term or already finished projects were not considered for further analysis. It also was important that a variety of project types were selected such as long-term official monitoring obligations (EMEP, Eionet/EEA), GMES service projects (PASODOBLE, MACC II), scientific infrastructure projects (ACTRIS, CARIBIC), data management activities (PANGEA, ECDS), etc. Only projects of relevance to air quality were furthermore selected and other initiatives related mainly to climate change, stratospheric constituents, etc., were not chosen.

For the evaluation of the projects and initiatives, a survey was compiled, which consisted of a set of questions to be posed to the projects. These addressed the objectives, data availability and policy, GEOSS relations and stakeholder involvement. More specifically, the blocks of questions were:
I. Project information: Collection of general information on the project related to the scientific topic, coordination aspects, funding, time frame, and dissemination measures;

II. Results of the project: Addressing objectives, data gathering, data quality assurance, data storage, open data assessment, restrictions, long term data management;

III. Contribution to GEOSS: Reasons for not contributing to GEOSS (behavioral, legal, financial, technical), necessary measures to allow a registration to GEOSS;

IV. Stakeholders: Collection of information on potential stakeholders involvement in the project and data.

To avoid too large of a work load on the cooperating projects and to increase their willingness to participate, the query was limited to a key set of questions. It was further decided, to fill out those parts of the survey for which publicly available material were accessible by members of the use case team. Other more specific questions were forwarded to representatives of the selected projects, who also inspected the answers formulated by the team.

Results and key findings

The complete results of the survey are documented in the EGIDA document “D4.5 Report on EGIDA Methodology Transfer Use-case: Pan-European Air Quality for Health” which can be downloaded from the EGIDA web pages.

The main results from the survey and the process of applying the EGIDA methodology on the air quality use case is given below. As stated in the introduction, the GEOSS initiative seems an ideal approach for connecting existing air quality observing systems across borders and continents, but our survey documented that there are currently very few sustainable contributions to GEOSS from the air quality community. The reasons for this are discussed in the following and suggestions for how the situation can be improved are provided.

A. Lack of incentives

All participating projects/initiatives in the survey collect data which are made available in one way or another to the public or other stakeholders. All projects are aware of GEO/GEOSS, but the awareness stretches from only having heard about it to having formulated dedicated work packages in the project proposals. Most projects seem to have an idea what GEO/GEOSS stands for, but the actual procedure for contributing best and sustainably to GEOSS appears to be rather unclear to many. The majority of the projects are not yet registered with GEOSS, although some of the them, being themselves systems-of-systems, have some of their components/services aligned with GEOSS or are registered via a third-party process (MACC-II; registry via the Air Quality Community of Practice (AQCoP)). In general, the basic goal for an interoperability and traceability of air quality data and related services is well accepted by all projects. Thus, some of them have laid out their data in compliance with the INSPIRE metadata implementing rules (PASODOBLE) or are part of GMES (MACC-II). Both are operating close to GEOSS objectives and the latter is by definition a European contribution to GEOSS.

All projects acknowledge the existence of GEOSS, but only a few have a dedicated working package/links addressing a registry in the GEOSS-CI. The ranking of this opportunity to make their data available to potential customers through GEOSS is rather low. We judge that the benefits of GEOSS remain unclear for the projects, and thus no financial resources and working capacity (if available at all for this purpose) are spent toward that direction.

The benefits of being involved in GEOSS need to be made visible more clearly – a collection of compelling examples seem not be sufficient. At this point, we would recommend incorporating a list of clear benefits of registering in GEOSS, which is easily understandable by the different types of customers/stakeholders to be expected. Reference to the implemented compelling examples, through which the user has to find its own way (interpretation) to such benefits, may not be convincing.

An often stated reason for not using the GEOSS option for disseminating the data or services of Air Quality & Health (AQ&H) projects are missing resources, which may either be financial, technical, legal or behavioral. Lack of dedicated financial resources appears to be a major barrier toward a GEOSS registry. There is no real critical mass of air quality data available there and since data producers/providers have no funding to develop the required infrastructure to serve GEOSS, it becomes difficult to dedicate resources.

There don’t appear to be any incentives for registering. Most of the projects have other ways to present their results or disseminate their data, besides not seeing the direct benefits. Therefore, no special efforts are made to look into the GEOSS option and assess the necessary (and often very limited) technical (re-)engineering work, unless it is mandatory, as with some of the more recent EU-funded projects. Since AQ&H data producers/providers have no funding to develop the required infrastructure to serve GEOSS, it becomes difficult to identify, raise and dedicate resources to this direction. So, also partly behavioral reasons are responsible for not considering GEOSS as an additional way to offer data to the community (stakeholders). Missing knowledge of the technical necessities and available support to register is another reason to step back from a contribution. In general it is concluded that forming a substructure or group within a social benefit area like the Air Quality Community of Practice (AQCoP) is helpful in streamlining the contribution of many projects or activities toward a common contribution (registry) to the GEOSS-CI. The AQCoP is a loosely organized international group of scientists who come together to collaborate on interoperability and exchange of air quality-related data. The work is based on standards made available from GEOSS centrally (OGC web services), but the group also contributes to international standardization through its involvement in the adoption of netCDF-CF as an OGC standard.

Instead of generating a new network, it was considered useful to connect to existing relevant initiatives which already have a certain momentum. The GEOSS Air Quality Community of Practice is an obvious candidate and it is suggested as a good candidate for bringing the air quality community closer together and to create a sustainable contribution to GEOSS.

B. Sustainability of contributions

Barriers that hamper a sustainable contribution to GEO/GEOSS for most of the projects/initiatives have more of a financial than a technical character. While often the initial registration procedure is already not persuaded because of a lack of resources, the funding of the (re-)engineering process is especially the reason of not making a long term sustainable commitment. A national/international central coordination point like the national GEO secretariats could be a first step toward organizing a sustainable GEOSS contribution, but the funding questions (for simply guaranteeing an up-to-date infrastructure and sufficient engineering capacity) will stay central.

Most of the projects/initiatives assessed have a finite duration (although some of them have an unclear running time, e.g. EMEP). But many of them have thought about keeping the data available after the end of the project. The way this may be achieved is different for the different projects, and some of them have only a faint idea how a long-term assessment can be maintained. Some of the projects rely on the basic funding and infrastructures available from national laboratories or institutions or the influence of a European institution like the European Environmental Agency (EEA) to maintain the (re-)engineering process.

Organized initiatives by a group of projects to raise the necessary funding beyond the end of the individual projects cannot be seen. On the political side, the first step was to propose GEOSS as the central way to disseminate the data of the projects. The European Commission has within its Seventh Framework Programme taken measures to urge proposal takers to use GEOSS as the interface to their stakeholder/customers. But currently there seem to be no national or international initiatives or procedures to allow for longterm funding which opens a sustainable contribution to GEOSS, which covers keeping the archives of historical and current air quality and health data open and which allows for continuing updating the data for the years/decades to come.

Overall, the sustainability of the (re-)engineering of GEOSS contributions from the Air Quality & Health area is, and is likely to be in the near future, an open question.

C. Identification of national/regional data repositories

Many air quality observation datasets and emission inventories in EU are reported annually and registered in the EEA’s Data Centre and in EMEP databases. The data reporting is organized nationally through national institutions. The national reported data are usually also accessible through national data portals. Data that are not available through these infrastructures are often those obtained in purely research projects — many are modelling results. If these data are to be made accessible, they need to be registered in some data portal. One example could be in Sweden. The Environment Climate Data Sweden (ECDS) consists of a clearinghouse mechanism, allowing for the searching and publication of relevant data and a service infrastructure, providing additional support to scientists throughout the whole research process. While ECDS is a Swedish contribution to GEOSS, however, the meta-database is registered in GEOSS only on the lowest level. In Germany, the PANGEAE data base is registered in GEOSS. The availability repositories that accept data from research projects and non-standard monitoring systems are crucial for securing long-term availability of the data and for ensuring optimal use of publicly funded research.

D. Implementing an air quality system of systems

The technical implementation of the AQ&H related systems-of-systems as a sustainable contribution to the GEOSS-CI is dependent on many aspects. Typically, specified data interfaces need to be set up for the integration of data and related services into the GEOSS common infrastructure. The actual ways data are stored, described (metadata) and searchable are quite different for the many underlying sub-systems. A common portal as a searchable platform within a community for a relevant group of subsystems would be helpful. Registering these overarching portals to GEOSS would be helpful for the data suppliers as well as for the data users/stakeholders. So structuring the available infrastructures as a system-of-systems before registering to GEOSS would be the suggested way to proceed. Some positive experiences have been made in the Air Quality & Health community during developments taking place by setting up the GEOSS AQCoP system, which still is an ongoing and growing process (technically, the global chemical modelling services of MACC-II are already implemented via this common system). Also, EIONET/EEA has shown an interest in connecting to this system.

It seems obvious that a common metadata harvesting protocol is needed to gather metadata from the different subsystems-of-systems in order to generate a common metadata system. A practical step toward this data architectural goal would be the implementation of the OAI-PMH harvesting protocol by GEOSS. Here, the GEOSS specifications on Architecture and Data Management need to be adopted, where the INSPIRE Implementing Rules and Technical Guidelines can be used as a basis to facilitate the interoperability. The existing rules may be extended following the specification from the dedicated communities of practice as the above mentioned GEOSS Air Quality Community of Practice.

Open data sharing seems not to be a general barrier for surveyed projects in general. An agreement by the many data supplying bodies on a common data policy is available. Often, a written data policy document exists already and is available via the project web pages.

The projects assessed in general have their own catalogue service, which needs to be re-engineered to be assessable via the GEOSS portal. The provision of viewing services are not yet central for most of the projects, and the usefulness of such a service (e.g. to better reach the stakeholders) needs to be communicated.

Advanced services applying to a group of systems-of-systems, like a service of chaining or merging different data sources or the mediation between heterogeneous data structures toward a common product are not yet addressed by the Air Quality & Health projects. A major effort — making visible the benefits; harmonizing the envisaged products of the different interest groups; finding the necessary funding — would be essential to proceed into this direction.

One issue which also should be considered in this context is the fact that there are many system-of-systems initiatives happening at the same time and they are normally not coordinated or aligned at all. In the air quality world, the following more or less parallel examples can be listed: (1) WMO-WIS (including developments taking place with the WMO-GAW and GAWSIS data centres), (2) DCIO (Data centre Interoperability Initiative, led by ESA and focusing on satellite cal/val), (3) ACTRIS (three existing data centres are being linked through metadata exchange into a common portal for common data discovery, access, analysis and processing), and (4) the revision of data reporting taking place under Eionet in response to the Implementing Provisions for Reporting of Air Quality information (Decision 2011/850/EU). The latter also is strongly related to INSPIRE. In addition to the thematic system of systems initiatives, there are a number of cross-cutting initiatives such as INSPIRE or ENVRI that try to harmonize across different data collection and production systems.


The air quality community is generally aware of the GEOSS initiative, but has so far provided little contribution to this system of systems. Reasons for this include: lack of incentives for establishing a contribution, lack of sustainable funding, lack of suitable repositories and lack of harmonized technical solutions. The GEOSS Air Quality Community of Practice is seen as a good candidate for bringing the air quality community closer together to create a sustainable contribution to GEOSS.

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