Building Capacity For Using Earth Observations

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By Marta Angoloti, National Meteorological Institute of Spain, and Alan Edwards, European Commission. The authors (together with three other officials) are co-chairs of the GEO Capacity Building Committee.

Technology has made it possible to interlink the world’s observation systems into one ‰ÛÏinteroperable‰Û Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS. This flexible and distributed network of content providers will greatly improve the quantity and quality of the Earth observations needed for addressing the risks of global environmental change.

But the real value of GEOSS can only be realized if its construction is guided by user needs rather than by technology. Decision-makers and users of information in all socioeconomic sectors must be able to access, interpret and apply the information that GEOSS gathers.

Ensuring that users are the driving force behind GEOSS will require maximizing the capacity of individuals and institutions to engage fully with Earth observations. It will also require filling in gaps in the existing infrastructure to ensure that GEOSS obtains and disseminates the right information. The Group on Earth Observations has established a Capacity Building Committee to strengthen the ability of users in both developed and developing countries to fully exploit the remarkable capabilities of GEOSS.

Individuals, Institutions and Infrastructure

The Committee is addressing three kinds of capacity building:

‰ª_ Individuals ‰ª_ educating and training individuals so that they can understand, access, use and develop Earth observation data and products;

‰ª_ Institutions ‰ª_ developing and fostering an environment for the use of Earth observations to enhance decision making. This includes building policies, programs and organizational structures in governments and organizations aimed at enhancing the understanding of the value of Earth observation data and products;

‰ª_ Infrastructure ‰ª_ strengthening the hardware, software and other technology components required to access, use and develop Earth observation data and products for decision making.

Over the past two years, GEO has made good progress in promoting the training and education of people on how to access and use Earth observation data and decision-support tools. For the providers of training courses, GEO offers a useful forum for networking with one another and with potential sources of students. This fruitful interaction will continue to expand and deepen.

A good example of what GEO can accomplish comes from the field of cross-border education. Because Earth observation is a specialized subject, students will often need to take advantage of training and education courses in other countries. But because national accreditation systems do not always recognize foreign qualifications, individuals are too often discouraged from pursuing cross-border training opportunities.

Working under the GEO umbrella, The Netherlands-based International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation is actively advocating solutions to this widely recognized barrier to capacity building. It is holding a series of workshops bringing together providers of capacity building, professionals in Earth observation and experts in accreditation and quality assurance in education. These experts are exploring the experiences of other science-education sectors, assessing gaps in capacity building and identifying best practices.

The next step is to bring these gaps and requirements to the attention of national and regional accreditation bodies. The Institute is also exploring how to expand cross-border opportunities for capacity building through improved e-learning systems, with the eventual goal of establishing a virtual university for Earth observations.

Like individuals, governments and institutions also need a greater ability to apply Earth observations to real-life issues. They need long-term programmes that build their capacity to make decisions based on Earth observations, to manage and protect natural resources and to engage the private sector in these activities.

One of the ways GEO can help is to promote networking amongst institutions with related needs. For example, the Chorophyll Ocean Globally Integrated Network (ChlorOGIN) project aims to establish indicators for ecosystems and fisheries management. At some sites, it will also measure light penetration into the ocean to assist with calculating plankton primary production.

The end result will include the production of decision-support tools in the form of ocean maps of chlorophyll content and sea-surface temperature. This GEO project is contributing to institutional capacity building by facilitating the transition from the separate regional networks operating today to a globally integrated network. ChlorOGIN’s effort to integrate regional networks includes a specific focus on building the capacity of institutions in developing countries.

Finally, investments in infrastructure are also essential. Hardware and software for acquiring, processing, interpreting and distributing observation data need to be upgraded and inter-linked. The need to expand access to information has led GEO to emphasize the development of GEONETCast, a near real-time, global delivery system for environmental information. GEONETCast obtains Earth observations from the various land, sea, air and space-based systems that contribute to GEOSS and then transmits this information to users via a network of communications satellites.

Targeted users include developing country institutions with limited or no access to high-speed internet. The GEONETCast team continues to engage existing and potential users to identify their priority needs and expects to provide services to almost every country in the world in the very near future. A key next step will be to link GEONETCast to other dissemination systems and to incorporate a broader range of data.

The GEO capacity-building strategy specifically identifies GEONETCast as a significant technology for advancing the capacity of Governments and institutions to exploit Earth observation infrastructure more effectively. It also sees the system as an efficient means for exchanging and distributing training resources to a larger number of individuals.

Mobilizing Resources

Building capacity requires gaining access to the necessary resources. The Capacity Building Committee has therefore developed a strategy through which GEO seeks to encourage resource providers to recognize the value of Earth observations and to channel funds and other essential assets into GEOSS.

The challenge is that Earth observation data and analyses are too often taken for granted. The contribution of these ‰ÛÏupstream‰Û inputs to final ‰ÛÏdownstream‰Û outputs, such as clean-energy systems, improved resource-management regimes, or response strategies for climate change or health risks, is not always recognized. Consequently, mobilizing greater resources to advance the use of Earth observations will require convincing potential investors and contributors that comprehensive, near-real time environmental information is an essential tool for managing decisions and projects and is worth paying for. To succeed, GEO will need to create mutual benefits by matching the strategies and priorities of potential resource providers ‰ª_ including governments, multilateral banks and the private sector ‰ª_ with those of Earth observation users.

The resource mobilization strategy that GEO is following was developed at a Symposium hosted by Spain in 2007. The ‰ÛÏSeville Roadmap for mobilizing resources for implementing GEOSS‰Û focuses on developing a global partnership and dialogue between resource providers and the managers and users of observation systems. GEO is now finalizing a practical work plan for pursuing the Roadmap’s goals.

One role that GEO foresees for itself is to improve the efficiency of capacity-building resources by coordinating existing efforts. GEO will serve as an honest broker that assists the providers and users of Earth observations, as well as potential resource providers. It will also collect information on current capacity-building efforts and needs around the world in order to identify gaps and possible duplication. More generally, both the resource provider and Earth observation communities will benefit from the implementation of GEOSS, which by coordinating Earth observations more effectively will help to leverage limited capacity-building resources.