SERVIR partnership increases capabilities of Himalaya regional organization ICIMOD

SERVIR continues to put resources into the hands of local experts through its newest partnership with regional Himalaya development organization ICIMOD.

ICIMOD uses SERVIR resources to map changes in glaciers, like this one at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Credit: ICIMOD/Paribesh Pradhan.

ICIMOD uses SERVIR resources to map changes in glaciers, like this one at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Credit: ICIMOD/Paribesh Pradhan.

Founded in 2004, SERVIR (The Regional Visualization and Monitoring System) is a joint venture of NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that partners with regional organizations to “provide Earth observations and predictive models based on data from orbiting satellites,” according to the SERVIR website.

SERVIR Himalaya is the latest addition to the family of SERVIR regional centers. Located in Kathmandu, Nepal, SERVIR Himalaya follows the implementation of two other regional hubs. SERVIR Mesoamerica was established as a partnership between SERVIR and Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and The Caribbean (CATHALAC) through 2011. SERVIR Africa, a center based in Nairobi, Kenya, is currently working on projects of its own and is based on a partnership between SERVIR and the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD).

The SERVIR Himalaya regional center is a partnership between SERVIR and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

ICIMOD logo. Credit: ICIMOD.

ICIMOD logo. Credit: ICIMOD.

In 2010, SERVIR began its partnership with ICIMOD to improve environmental and developmental decision-making in the Himalaya region, according to SERVIR regional coordinator Basanta Shrestha. “The main objective is to promote environmental sustenance and livelihood,” said Shrestha in an interview with Earthzine.

“ICIMOD has been focusing on sustainable mountain development and promoting Earth observation for the past two decades,” said Shrestha. “It has been a perfect marriage in the sense that the upgrade in the GEOSS framework provides the basis of promoting Earth observation for societal benefits.”

According to Shrestha, ICIMOD is primarily a knowledge organization that provides useful information for sustainable mountain development.

ICIMOD serves the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, a mountainous region of Central Asia that spreads over part or all of each of its eight member countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal (which houses the main office), and Pakistan.

“Our mission is building capacity and applying technology to meaningful policies and programs,” said Shrestha. “That coincided very well with the SERVIR mission.”

“One of our biggest challenges can be working with the big difference in capacity. For instance, India and China are very technologically advanced, while a number of our member countries are in the nascent stages.”

Shrestha said that one of the best ways to promote capacity building and data sharing among countries is to focus on applying the data to common issues, like climate change. “We have taken a conscious effort to have a good framework to offshoot key applications. We’re focusing on creating a foundation of data and information infrastructure at a regional scale.”

Shrestha says that the expanded capability born of the SERVIR/ICIMOD partnership is applicable to a variety of GEOSS societal benefit areas. “One area is forestry and climate change issues on the regional scale. We’re helping member governments to come up with different ways of mapping land cover.” According to Shrestha, land cover is one of the key data sets to consider when studying the regional effects of climate change on forestry.

Food security and water research also have benefitted from the SERVIR/ICIMOD partnership. Further, ICIMOD can use remote sensing data to map glaciers, which can help scientists investigate the impacts of climate change.

The increase in data quality from the SERVIR partnership also is being used to spot and respond to natural disasters. A top project in this area is the forest fire monitoring system. “In Nepal, forest fire incidents are increasing year by year,” said Shrestha. “We now have the ability to acquire data from NASA, process it, and provide alerts. It is innovative technology to provide the right kind of information to our end user communities.”

Sudip Pradhan currently works to maintain and expand the forest fire monitoring system. “We started this program in 2012,” said Pradhan in an interview with Earthzine. The fully automated system sends Short Message Service (SMS) alerts to fire chiefs in the relevant districts when a fire is detected.  “Not only do we give the latitude and longitude of the alert, but we also attach other valuable information like administrative boundaries, slope, elevation, and whether the alert falls on any protected land.”

According to Pradhan, the program has made progress in 2013. “We started out by downloading data from the NASA servers, which would take three to four hours,” said Pradhan. “This past January (in 2013) we installed a MODIS receiver, which means we can get the data in 20 minutes.” The Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA research satellites have direct broadcasting capabilities, so ICIMOD can now collect data each time a satellite passes overhead, said Pradhan.

“We process the data and send the notification within 20 minutes of satellite overpass,” said Pradhan. That timeframe includes processing the raw data, seeking out fire hotspots, and notifying the appropriate people. “The results are disseminated via SMS and our Mountain GeoPortal.”

Screenshot from the Forest Fire Monitoring tool on ICIMOD’s Mountain GeoPortal, showing cumulative forest fire incidents in Nepal from January 2012 (when the system went online) through the end of 2013.

Screenshot from the Forest Fire Monitoring tool on ICIMOD’s Mountain GeoPortal, showing cumulative forest fire incidents in Nepal from January 2012 (when the system went online) through the end of 2013.

Aside from development and maintenance, the system is entirely automated with a turnaround time of about half an hour from data collection to SMS notification.

Pradhan says maintaining an accurate user list has been one of the biggest challenges for using the fire-alert system effectively in Nepal. “Government employees are often transferred from one district to another, and the user database wouldn’t know, so the SMS might be sent to someone working in a completely different district. (In 2013), before fire season began, the Forest Department assigned one person to look at this user management. From (2013) onwards, the Forest Department will be in charge of the user database.” Because of the system’s effectiveness in Nepal, the SERVIR/ICIMOD team is currently working to implement the system in Bhutan, another ICIMOD member state with serious forest fire concerns.

Fire disaster strikes Chepang family in Dhading district of Nepal. Credit: ICIMOD/Nabin Baral.

Fire disaster strikes Chepang family in Dhading district of Nepal. Credit: ICIMOD/Nabin Baral.

“We have already implemented the system with email alert features,” said Pradhan. “We plan to integrate the SMS feature before the fire season next year.”

Pradhan said he also thinks that it is possible to use the SMS alert model for other types of natural disasters or emergencies. But implementing the alert system has not solved all of Nepal’s fire problems.

“One thing we don’t have is a feedback mechanism—right now, it’s one-way communication,” he said. “We detect a fire and send the alert, but there could be small incidents on the ground that the satellite misses because they are so small.” Pradhan hopes that within the coming years, users will be able to report fire incidents to the regional center via SMS.

The SERVIR/ICIMOD partnership has not only been technologically beneficial to the region, Shrestha said. “We’re very proud of the SERVIR Himalaya youth program. We’re launching a number of youth programs to create awareness of Earth observations and geospatial technology as well as having critical mass in future to utilize technology and Earth observation information.”

One recent event was the Kathmandu branch of the International Space Apps Challenge, an international hackathon sponsored by NASA and regional partner organizations. Teams participating in the hackathon have 48 hours to develop an app to solve a prescribed challenge using NASA data from missions and satellites.

SERVIR Himalaya and ICIMOD have also partnered with NASA’s DEVELOP program, which allows students, recent graduates, and early career professionals to conduct applied science research projects with the help of NASA mentors. Some of these projects—ranging in topic from food security to climate change—have been submitted to and taken prizes in Virtual Poster Sessions hosted by Earthzine.

 Correction – Pradhan’s quote was updated to clarify the timeliness with which the data are processed.