Insight for a Changing World: 14th GEO Plenary

GEO pivots its strategic mission to focus on putting it vast resources into the hands of users.

The Group on Earth Observations has amassed more than 400 million Earth observations resources. Though its focus during the past decade has been collecting data from providers, the organization is pivoting to put these assets in the hands of end-users around the world.

Essentially, how do pictures of the Earth turn into useful information?

in situ

Earth observations are those in, on and around the Earth, whether from space or in situ. Combining in situ and space-based observations into easily accessible information to influence decision-making is GEO’s goal. Image Credit: NASA

GEO and its member states and organizations seek to ensure Earth observations are used in decision-making at local, national, regional and global scales.

As the 14th Group on Earth Observations Plenary kicked off in Washington D.C. Oct. 25, 2017, about 700 people in attendance met to discuss the importance of making Earth observations data available and more readily accessible.

“We are moving from a data-centric approach to a user-centric approach,” said Barb Ryan, GEO director. “It’s about closing the gap between users and providers.”

GEO’s shared vision is to realize a future where decisions and actions for the benefits for humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observation information and services.

breaking into geo

Breaking GEO into a set of numbers makes for a powerful snapshot of the organization’s impact. Additionally, there are now 118 participating members. Image Credit: GEO

Around the world, 105 nations are members of GEO. These include: 27 African nations, 21 nations in Asia/Oceania, 34 nations in Europe, 16 nations in the Americas and seven Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly part of the USSR).

The flagships initiatives at the programmatic level, including GEO BON, GEOGLAM, GFOI and GOS4M, produce tangible results toward fulfilling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Regional frameworks such as AmeriGEOSS, AfriGEOSS, AOGEOSS and EUROGEOSS do their work closer to where national decisions are made.

But there are still gains to be made. Small island developing states are among the most susceptible to a changing Earth and climate, yet many do not yet have membership in GEO.

Combining space-based observations with in situ measurements is another growth area globally.

“We need a greater focus on integrated space-based and in situ observations,” Ryan said.

Increased participation by national statistical agencies—census bureaus—offers the opportunity to combine Earth observations with population data.

And there exist many barriers to accessing data. Chief among them is opening up data that is not openly shared.

Ryan said that while she worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, prior to instituting an open-data policy the agency sold 53 scenes a day, for $4 million revenue annually. After the open data policy took effect, USGS now provides 5,700 scenes a day of Landsat imagery. That economic benefit equates to $1.7 billion annually for the U.S., and the economic impact is much greater globally.

“You are inhibiting economic growth if you do not implement broad open data policies,” Ryan said. “Open data is so essential for the future and for humankind.”

Underscoring the importance of Earth observations, GEO assembled a 10-part documentary series that highlights the importance of full and open access to Earth observation data, information, and knowledge for humanity as it faces unprecedented social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Visit the GEO YouTube channel to watch the remaining videos in the series.

Kelley Christensen is Earthzine’s science editor. Follow her on Twitter @kjhchristensen.

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