Seeking Mutual Benefits: Bringing Private Sector Partnerships to GEO

As part of its goals for the coming year, GEO is seeking to increase interactions with the private sector. In an interview with Earthzine, Geoff Sawyer of EARSC explains how partnerships can benefit both communities.

The Plenary Panel on Commercial Sector Engagement at GEO XIII in Russia, 2016. Image Credit: Author

The Group on Earth Observations’ (GEO) purpose is to promote the use of Earth observations to contribute to informed decision-making across the globe. In addition to government and open access data, one pathway for translating observations into real-world applications is through commercial data and information providers.

Recognizing the opportunity for benefits to the EO community and commercial businesses, GEO is now moving toward greater engagement of the commercial sector.  At the GEO XIII Plenary held in Russia last year, this conversation around commercial sector engagement took a central role, with a plenary session devoted to the topic and commercial sector representatives sharing their insight and experiences with the group. In a GEO XIII interview with Earthzine, Geoff Sawyer, a commercial sector liaison, explained the envisioned opportunities.

Sawyer is the secretary general of EARSC, the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies, a nonprofit trade association. EARSC operates as a marketplace that enables users and data or data-product suppliers to find one another. Much as GEO acts as a convening body to bring together governments, nongovernmental organizations, and others to coordinate and share observations, EARSC brings together users and suppliers—helping provide a network to better understand what sort of information is available.

Sawyer has interacted with GEO in the past, but the 2016 plenary was a special event for him. Last year, as part of the push for better private sector engagement spurred by the ministerial declaration from GEO XII, EARSC joined GEO as a participating organization, and for the 2016 plenary Sawyer was invited to join the panel speaking on Commercial Sector Engagement. This is a commitment that Sawyer takes seriously.

“I didn’t want (participating organization) to be just a title. I wanted to be constructive and commit to the engagement,” he said.  

Geoff Sawyer at GEO XIII. Image Credit: Author

Interest in interactions with the private sector is not new in GEO. The idea was initially proposed in 2005 when the organization was first founded, but greater emphasis was needed at that time to establish structure of organization and how it would engage with governments. Now past its first decade, GEO is able to reconsider engagement with the public sector more seriously—a move that Sawyer is pleased to be a part of.

“We see it as a ‘win-win process’,” he explained, “We think that GEO can help the- the industry (the private sector) promote what it’s capable of doing and provide access to global datasets, and the private sector can contribute toward meeting the goals of GEO: supporting the sustainable development goals of the UN as an example.”

Partnerships like this are especially important because of the rapidly changing landscape of the Earth observations data world. The volume of data being collected, how it is shared, and what data users interests continue to alter, even if the vision of putting observational data into users hands has not.

For example, speaking of his own experience over the last decade at EARSC, Sawyer said, “I’m not sure the objectives have really changed, but the world has changed around us, enormously.”   

Coming out the plenary, key messages from the sessions and plenary panel suggested that companies generally see value in developing relationships with GEO and vice versa, although the form that this relationship should take and its implications are still under consideration. Moving forward from GEO XIII, GEO continues to seek input on best practices for engaging with the private sector.

Elise Mulder Osenga is IEEE Earthzine’s senior science writer. Follow her on Twitter @mountain_lark.

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