Editor’s Note: This article is adapted. The full panel discussion on GEOSS may be viewed on www.ieeetv. The link appears at the end of this article.
Benefits of GEOSS: A Panel Discussion
There are over six billion people on this planet, 193 countries and more than five thousand languages. No matter the nationality or language spoken or the location, everyone is inextricably linked and hence affected by global environmental change. To better understand our earth, thousands of artificial satellites have been launched, tens of thousands of surface stations have been deployed on the water and the land, and aircraft daily analyze the atmosphere and the land surface below them. This massive amount of data helps us in many ways, from weather prediction to disaster reduction. However, better usage of Earth environmental data across disciplinary, geographic and political boundaries is essential for addressing the environmental crises the world community faces. To coordinate the collection and analysis of Earth data, the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is leading a worldwide effort to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) over a 10 year period. The following panel discussion by members who have been involved with the creation of GEOSS explains what GEOSS is and how it will affect us in our daily lives.
The panel members are:
Dr. Jose Achache, Director of the GEO Secretariat;
Dr. Jay Pearlman, IEEE representative for GEO and Chair of the IEEE Committee on Earth Observation
Helen Wood, Secretariat Director of the Ad Hoc GEO (predecessor to GEO)
Prof. Harold Annegarn University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Moderator: GEOSS is an effort to integrate the world’s Earth observing systems and make Earth information universally available for the benefit of society. GEOSS will impact our health, well being and our future. How can this very challenging goal be achieved? This is best done through cooperation on a global level, with scientists and engineers across all disciplines from industry, government and academia, working in partnership with leaders and decision makers.
Jose Achache: GEO is also an experience in creating a new kind of international intergovernmental organization. It’s not a UN organization. And the rules are very simple. In order to be a member, you have to accept the basic principles of GEO, which are the sharing of data and information and the sharing of observation systems. Once you are a member, the whole process of building GEOSS is a voluntary process.
Moderator: Using technology based on international standards, GEOSS builds upon existing national, regional, and international systems to provide comprehensive, coordinated Earth observations from thousands of instruments worldwide. The resulting system of cooperation provides an international mechanism to broaden the utility of these data into vital information for society.
Jay Pearlman: The challenge in creating GEOSS is the merging of many global systems that are built independently by governments and by organizations for their own purposes. The objective for GEOSS is the development of a unified framework so that diverse systems can work together and produce information that can be used for analysis of the earth as a whole, or for regions with issues such as tsunami response, precipitation and water, agriculture, as well as other areas directly impacting society.
Helen Wood: GEOSS is an interoperable framework to allow different systems to work together. This requires the creation of common standards and sharing agreements for both data and information. The systems themselves are built upon the technology that is typically addressed by standards ÛÒ computing technology, communications technology, even at the level of sensor interface and communication formats.
Jose Achache: A big challenge to GEO and the success of GEOSS will be data sharing and data policies. Today, the basic principle is that members agree to share data openly and freely, but recognize national or commercial limitations.
Jay Pearlman: There are always issues when you have data of detailed Earth observations that people who want to use them for their own purposes may try to keep them to themselves. We have to overcome that. Two things have to happen. One is to build trust. So, if they release data, they understand the way it’s going to be handled. The second thing is understanding that the data are of benefit to everybody.
Harold Annegarn: I believe that information is one of the necessary key components to alleviating poverty. GEOSS, by providing information on the spatial distribution of resources, whether it is rainwater, warning of floods, ownership of land, urban infrastructure, or weather, provides information in a democratic way that all individuals can have access to and hence enables good decision-making. In the long run, the success of GEOSS depends on economic benefits.
Helen Wood: What are we trying to do? Are we trying to save lives? Are we trying to improve our agricultural output for a stronger economy? Are we trying to improve our water management to avoid or minimize the likelihood of drought and famine? It’s all of these that we’re trying to achieve.
Jay Pearlman: The vision of GEOSS is to provide a service on a global basis to all users. We need to reach out to the people who are making the decisions. These are people from Europe, and the United States, but also from Africa, South America, Asia, all parts of the world. These are people that don’t all have the same level of capability, the same education, or even the same tools.
Harold Annegarn: The importance of GEOSS in Africa is that it provides support for systems at a critical level that is currently lacking, namely we don’t have communities of practice in geospatial data and in remote sensing. We are looking to GEOSS as one international mechanism, as a system of cooperation in which this shortage could be addressed. Many developing countries lack infrastructure ÛÒ transportation, electric power, and communications. Access to technology is a key issue.
Jay Pearlman: The speed of Internet access in the United States or Europe may not exist in all countries. And so when we reach out, we need to reach out in ways that people can understand from their own context.
Harold Annegarn: For instance, a farmer in Africa may need to know information on weather systems at some remote location. He doesn’t have a computer, he cannot afford a computer, but he is highly likely, nevertheless, to have a cellular telephone. So I believe that, at the lowest level of delivery, the cellular telephone networks in Africa will greatly facilitate and enhance the concept of GEOSS in being able to give even the common person, man or woman, access to advanced technology information.
Moderator: The Global Earth Observation System of Systems may best be understood as a beginning. As it becomes operational, the next crucial steps involve making the system relevant to sustaining healthy ecosystems on Earth.
Helen Wood: It’s very clear that Earth observations alone are not going to solve our problems across societal benefit areas. If you haven’t planned within your community, whatever your community is, on how to interpret these data and what decisions need to be made as a result of these data, and then you’ve lost an enormously valuable opportunity.
Moderator: As GEOSS moves forward, the ultimate challenge will be making wise use of this data as decisions are made. By building trust and sharing information across international and disciplinary boundaries, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems can have a positive affect worldwide.