The Group on Earth Observations Looks Toward a Second Decade of Data Sharing

Since 2005, the international Group of Earth Observations has been working to make vital data about our planet widely available and create a Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

satellite view

Satellite views of Borneo captured in three different bandwidths. Image Credit: Geo Forest Carbon Tracking Portal.

The image that best captures the raison d’etre of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) — which is holding its 10th plenary in Geneva, Switzerland, this month — is not a satellite image. Strictly speaking, the image doesn’t even fall into the category of Earth observation; it is a rather ordinary looking graph from a PowerPoint presentation used by Barbara J. Ryan, director of the GEO Secretariat, at a workshop hosted by the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing in Ankara, Turkey, in November.

Increasing demand for free Landsat data. Image credit: GEO.

Increasing demand for free Landsat data. Image credit: GEO.

The slide graphs the number of images delivered from the Landsat series of satellites to governments, academics, non-governmental organizations and other institutions from October 2007 to June 2013. A line indicating the number of scenes crawls along the bottom of the X-axis until Oct. 1, 2008. Then, it lifts off like a Saturn V rocket, passing the 1-million mark in less than a year. The last data point (June 10, 2013) is just shy of the 12 million scene mark. In 2001, the best year for Landsat image sales, an average of 53 scenes were purchased a day. Today, that figure stands at around 5,700 scenes a day. Ryan has a simple explanation for this rapid increase.

“On Oct. 1, 2008,” she said in a recent interview with Earthzine, “the United States government stopped charging for Landsat scenes. It was a sea change.”

The decision was announced by then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne at the 2007 Cape Town GEO Ministerial Summit on Earth Observations for Sustainable Growth and Development.

“World leaders must make decisions to benefit humankind,” Kempthorne told the gathering. “They will make better decisions if they have access to coordinated, comprehensive and sustained earth observation.” While much progress had been made, the Secretary declared that it was time for governments to “move to the next level.”

“If we are to make real advances,” Kempthorne said, “we must share data, information and knowledge across national, cultural, and language barriers. We must achieve global data compatibility. We must embrace the idea of science without borders.”

The best way to make “science without borders” a reality, says Ryan, is to implement broad, open, data-sharing policies, a strategy that has guided GEO since its founding in 2005.

“Especially when it comes to Earth observation,” explains Ryan, “there was a realization that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” For example, governments collected data about natural disasters, but the same information also could have an impact on human health. Broad, open data policies allow societies to leverage data, says Ryan, and by doing so, help create an interconnecting, sustainable, world-wide data network, known as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

Barbara Ryan, secretariat director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Image credit: TEDx video by GEO.

Barbara Ryan, secretariat director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Image credit: TEDx video by GEO.

GEO has grown since its 2005 founding to include 89 countries and the European Union and 67 intergovernmental, international, and regional organizations. Earth observation data come from land and marine based systems and 19 satellites.

Some 186 countries have used the data provided by GEO (out of a total 193 U.N. member nations). While an increase in the number of users and in the amount of data available represents a clearly positive trend, the way in which countries are using those data is also changing for the better. When GEO was formed, most requests were one-offs, images or records that provided a single snapshot. Increasingly, consumers are requesting data for a single place over a period of time – showing a more sophisticated use of data to identify trends, progress that GEO director Ryan says underscores the need for long-term planning.

“Decisions that societies take to benefit humankind have to be informed by sustained Earth observation,” she says. “Satellites can’t just be there for one or two years. We need a sustained, multi-decade commitment to Earth observation.”

The chart “Advances in Global and Regional Weather Forecast” shows the benefits of such a commitment. Between 1981 and 2010, the accuracy of 3-day weather forecasts in the northern hemisphere rose from about 70 percent to about 98 percent. The change shown on the chart isn’t simply due to advances in technology. As the chart shows, the difference in accuracy between forecasts in the northern and southern hemispheres has begun to collapse over time – revealing a nearly uniform global improvement that is, in this one vitally important area, eliminating differences between the hemispheres.

 

Advances in weather forecasting. Image credit: GEO.

Advances in weather forecasting. Image credit: GEO.

“I think this is one of the best Earth observation stories out there,” says Ryan. “Lives are being saved. Property is being saved. It’s a phenomenal development.”

At the upcoming meetings in Switzerland, Ryan expects that advances in data-sharing and leveraging will allow this kind of story to be replicated far into the future in all nine GEO Societal Benefit areas.

“I’m hoping,” Ryan says, “that there will be an acknowledgment that a lot has been done, but, you know what? Greenland and Iceland are still melting. There are still people who don’t have access to clean air and water. We have to do a better job.

“We’d like to see another 10 years in this grand global experiment. We already have an organization of governments and participating organizations working together voluntarily. Now, let’s recognize the role that the private sector can play, especially through development and commercial banks. GEO has accomplished a lot, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

The GEO events begin on Jan. 12 with a meeting of the GEO Data Sharing Working Group, and continue with a host of side events on Jan. 13-14Monday and Tuesday, covering topics from air quality to food security to early warning systems for detecting cholera outbreaks. The GEO-X Plenary begins on Jan. 15 and runs through Jan. 16Thursday evening. The GEO Ministerial Summit will be held on Jan. 17. For more information, see the GEO events calendar.

 Unleashing the power of Earth Observations: Barbara Ryan at TEDxBarcelona.

Topic: ,