GEO XI Takes the Pulse of the Planet

EarthzineEarth Observation, GEO/GEOSS News, Original

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“Earth Observation has no boundaries.”

— Mmbonei Muofhe, Deputy Director General, Department of Science and Technology, Republic of South Africa.

15 November

The GEO XI came to a formal end late in the day on Friday the 14th, but for the 260 delegates from nearly 50 countries who participated in the week’s events, Geneva XI was more of a launch pad for ambitious projects that will require even more work in the coming year.

Members of AfriGEOSS at GEO XI. Image Credit, Osha Gray Davidson.

Members of AfriGEOSS at GEO XI. Image Credit, Osha Gray Davidson.

“We have in this community capable institutions with various expertise that if they were to be put together in sustainable partnerships would achieve wonders and identified gaps will start to be addressed,” said Andiswa Mlisa, scientific and technical officer for GEO. In point of fact, Mlisa was responding to a question I asked her about the side event meeting of AfriGEOSS (a continent-wide organization devoted to developing the Group on Earth Observations System of Systems). Still, her comment applies equally to the GEO community as a whole.

At the end of the AfriGEOSS side event, members were asked to submit a single word describing how they felt. The results are seen in this word cloud.

At the end of the AfriGEOSS side event, members were asked to submit a single word describing how they felt. The results are seen in this word cloud.

During the opening of the Plenary and at Friday’s conclusion, several member nations and organizations expressed their regret that the meeting that was originally planned for Libreville, Gabon, had to be moved to Geneva when it became clear that some delegations were considering cancelling out of fear of Ebola – despite the fact that there have been no cases of the extremely dangerous disease in that country during the entire outbreak. Most delegates, however, were pleased by the announcement that a GEO plenary will be hosted somewhere on the African continent in the near future.
The commitment to Earth Observation by African GEO member nations is impressive, as evidenced in a statement to the Plenary by Mmbonei Muofhe, head of the South African delegation and Deputy Director General in the government’s Department of Science and Technology.
Here’s an excerpt from his message to the Plenary:

Open Access to Earth observation data has remained a matter of priority for South Africa and the African continent at large, as data is fundamental in resolving a number of societal challenges. National mechanisms and policies to address pertinent issues related to the sharing of data so that they can be accessed easily are already in place.

Since Earth Observations has no boundaries, South Africa recognizes and affirms its commitment to co-ordinate and contribute to the successful implementation of EO activities at all levels.

Since our last statement to Plenary, on the national level, South Africa has forged ahead in operationalising the use of Earth Observations for evidence based decision-making, policy formulation, planning and monitoring. The South African Earth Observations community is active in 18 GEO tasks, 22 components and has leads on 6 components. There are now 11 active communities of practices in SA-GEO covering a wide range of interests including natural resources, both terrestrial and marine; Education & Awareness, Legal & Policy, EO infrastructure, Calibration & Validation and synthetic aperture RADAR.

Land cover change mapping has received due attention with South Africa playing a prominent role in the AfriGEOSS “Working Group on Land Cover Mapping for Africa” having members on both the Executive Board and the Technical Advisory Committee. The SA-GEO Land cover Community of Practice has also succeeded in facilitating government departments, industry, and academia to agree on scale, resolution and classes for the national land cover programme.

GEO Appathon 2014

The first place winner in the GEO-App 2014 competition: Growers Nation.

The first place winner in the GEO-App 2014 competition: Growers Nation.

Announcing the winners of the GEO Appathon 2014, GEO Director Barbara J. Ryan hailed the competition as representing, “a tremendous success in raising awareness about GEO and Earth observation data world-wide, and it has led to the development of applications using Earth observation data that could have significant impacts across the globe.”
Nearly 250 people on 32 teams from 49 nations participated in the competition that began May 7, 2014 and closed on Aug. 31.
“That really blew our expectations out of the water,” says Dan Williams, organizer of the event. Given that this was the very first GEO-Appathon, Williams hadn’t thought there would be so much interest. “This showed us the high levels of interest people have in not only the GEO-Appathon, but also in Earth Observation data,” he said.
First place honors went to Growers Nation, which received a $5,000 award — part of the $20,000 in prize money donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (US AID).
“It was fantastic to hear that we had won,” said project developer Tobias Sturn in an email. “We hope that this prize will bring many more people to use the app. The more people that use it, the more useful it will become to all!”
The Growers Nation app is a synthesis of soil and climate data, social networking tools, and a simple but aesthetically pleasing user interface that works on both iOS and Android operating systems and on five platforms, including the Android phone, Android tablet, iPhone, iPod, and iPad. Sturn, who is a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, is currently developing the GEO-App for a Windows-based OS.

Screenshots of the Growers Nation app.

Screenshots of the Growers Nation app.

Growers Nation draws on the following 10 data sets that are available through the GEOSS Data Portal:

  1. WorldClim Minimum Temperature (Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley)
  2. WorldClim Maximum Temperature (MVZ)
  3. WorldClim Mean Temperature (MVZ)
  4. WorldClim Precipitation (MVZ)
  5. WorldClim Elevation (MVZ)
  6. Shuttle Radar Topography Mission Digital Elevation Model (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
    The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

    The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). Image Credit: USGS.

  7. Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (University of Maryland)
  8. Harmonized World Soil Database Soil Texture (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Food and Agriculture Organization, ISRIC-World Soil Information, ISSACS, Joint Research Centre of the European Commission)
  9. Harmonized World Soil Database pH Topsoil (IIASA, FAO, ISSACS, JRC)
  10. Köppen-Geiger Climate Map (Institute for Veterinary Public Health, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna)
Tobias Sturn, project developer of Growers Nation.

Tobias Sturn, project developer of the Growers Nation app.

“There are two main audiences for the app,” explains Sturn. “The first is small farmers who are mostly located in the developing world.”
Growers Nation helps farmers to maximize yields by supplying the best data available about their precise location. The app is especially useful in developing countries where inadequate nutrients is a frequent problem. The app promotes the planting of specific varieties of crops based on available nutrients. A user’s forum that is part of the app, helps farmers to establish “best practices,” by sharing information about plant varieties, fertilizer usage, and irrigation.
But the app is also designed for people anywhere in the world who simply want to grow food.
“Many people have gardens or small plots of unused land but not the knowledge about what can grow well,” says Sturn. “The app can also serve an important educational role and teach children about food, nutrition and how easy it can be to grow food.”
Sturn says he designed Growers Nation with seven GEO Societal Benefit Areas in mind.

The App provides information regarding what crops can be grown in which locations and allows users to view profiles of vegetation status (from NDVI), supplied by the flagship GEOGLAM (Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring) initiative via UMD.


The App relies on climate data sets to determine where different plants can grow.


The App encourages citizens and farmers to grow a wider variety of crops with potentially higher micro-nutrient and vitamin content.


The App encourages more people to use their existing gardens and agricultural space more efficiently, which could better harness the ecosystem services of the land .


The app encourages people to grow food locally, which decreases the food miles and hence the energy needed to transport food, especially if this leads to a drop in demand for food products that are imported from distant locations.


The App provides social networking functions that allow users to chat with one another, where events such as pests, fires, floods or droughts might be topics of discussion. For example, farmers can give each other advice on which new drought resistant varieties they have used and which one worked best.


The App presents users with detailed current weather data and weather forecasts. In a future extension we also plan to provide detailed advice on when to plant, water and harvest based on this weather information.

Sturn brought a unique perspective to designing the app: he earned a Master’s degree in Game Engineering and Simulation from FH Technikum, Vienna, Austria, and has produced computer games through Emoak, a company he created.
Just for fun, check out his game, Paper Climb.
But Sturn is also interested in what he calls “serious games with a purpose.” At IIASA, he developed the game, Cropland Capture, which collects land cover classifications in order to generate a better global cropland map.
Although Growers Nation is already a mature app, Sturn has plans to further refine and expand its capabilities.
“In the future,” he says, “we will add many more features such as the ability to interface with a soil moisture sensor. The app will give much more detailed advice such as when to water the plant, and we will also add market information, which is very useful for farmers in developing countries.”

GEO Director Barbara Ryan announcing the winners of the GEO-App 2014 competition at the GEO XI Plenary in Geneva, Switzerland.

14 November

Representatives from each member nation made statements at today’s final plenary session. I obtained a copy of the statement read by a delegate from Armenia, Dr. Shushanik Asmaryan. This was Dr. Asmaryan’s first address to GEO. It was also Armenia’s inaugural statement, not coincidentally since that country became an official member of the international body only yesterday.
Asmaryan is the head of the GIS and Remote Sensing Department at the Center for Ecological-Noosphere Studies (CENS), National Academy of Sciences, in Yerevan, Armenia.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the context of GEO activities, since 2011 Armenia has been undertaking national and international initiatives in order to use the mechanisms and tools of data processing, storage and sharing provided by e-infrastructures:

Dr. Shushanik Asmaryan, addressing the GEO plenary, 14 Nov. 2014, on Armenia's first appearance as a member nation.

Dr. Shushanik Asmaryan, addressing the GEO plenary, 14 Nov. 2014, on Armenia’s first appearance as a member nation.

A well-established institution in Armenia – the Center for Ecological-Noosphere Studies CENS – was instrumental in allowing the development of a Spatial Data Infrastructure to share many important environmental data and information. Data sets from the Center are now discoverable and accessible through the GEOSS.

A number of projects (Swiss-Armenian ARPEGEO and FP7 EcoArm2ERA projects) have been implemented by CENS to build capacities in Armenia for efficient environmental data management and data sharing adopting international standards.

Here, I would like to stress the facilitating role and coordination of the University of Geneva (UNIGE). Due to their efforts, Armenia became an associative member of EU/FP7 EnviroGRIDs and EOPOWER projects coordinated by them and promoting the GEO/GEOSS framework among the Black Sea basin countries, including the two South Caucasian republics: Armenia and Georgia.

In 2014 in the framework of the EOPOWER project and under strong support of University of Geneva, a set of practices and guidelines – the so-called EGIDA methodology – was applied to contribute to institutional capacity building at CENS to optimally use Earth Observation resources towards sustainable development in Armenia.

Presently, we are developing a number of joint projects in partnership with different countries. Protection of pastures, urban planning, desertification, are some of the important issues we are investigating and in this context we are looking forward participating to the GEO communities of practices..

At the national level, we plan to establish a single coordination mechanism for data sharing, cooperating in an integrated manner with other agencies, organizations and levels of governance concerned with GEO Societal Benefit Areas. To that end, we are committed to endorse and act in the spirit of the GEOSS 10-Year Implementation Plan and others to follow. In the end I would like to express our gratitude to GEO Secretariat for a well-organized meeting.

Thank you.

The final day of the GEO XI Plenary gets underway with statements from member nations. We’ll publish the country written statements when they’re available.

GEO XI Plenary session, 14 Nov. 2014, WMO-OWW, Geneva, Switzerland. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson.

GEO XI Plenary session, 14 Nov. 2014, WMO-OWW, Geneva, Switzerland. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson.

13 November


First prize winner in the GEO Appathon: Growers Nation.

The winners of the GEO Appathon 2014 were announced today. We’ll have more on the competition and on the winning apps soon. For now, congratulations to the winners and to all participants!
1st Prize: Growers Nation App.
2nd Prize: Weather Hazard App.
3rd Prize: Geofairy App.

At this morning’s opening plenary, the following five countries officially joined GEO as members.
The Republic of Senegal
The Republic of Bulgaria
The Republic of Seychelles
The Republic of Armenia
The Republic of Poland
The inclusion of these five brings the total number of member nations to 94 plus the European Union.

World Weather Globe at the World Meteorological Organization, site of GEO Plenary XI. (Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson)

World Weather Globe at the World Meteorological Organization, site of GEO Plenary XI. (Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson)

12 November

In just a few hours, the winners of the 2014 GEO Appathon will be announced at the Plenary — complete with a live demonstration of the winning apps. The competition, with $20,000 in prize money donated by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), was launched in May 2014.
In announcing the Appathon, GEO  explained that the project was a way “to start unleashing the huge potential of Earth observation data to help all of us make informed decisions about the planet.” The Appathon is a variation on the “hackathon” which has become increasingly popular in the last two years.
The video below does a good job explaining the motivations for the Appathon and capturing some of the enthusiasm for the project.

10 November

[Posted on 11 November due to technical difficulties.] Flying over the Texas Panhandle today, on my way to GEO’s 11th Plenary in Geneva, Switzerland, I was inspired by this year’s theme (“Taking the Pulse of the Planet”) to photograph the small part of the planet I was hurtling over at 35,000 feet.
It’s not just drought that’s slamming Texas. Sure, the historically low amount of precipitation falling on Texas, Oklahoma and other western states, is bad enough. Texas had $7.62 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 alone.  Looking at the window, I saw a parched landscape dotted with dozens of circles like the ones below. They’re the product of the dryland farming technique called central pivot irrigation. Water is pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer to grow a variety of crops. The Ogallala is shallow but huge, with water underneath 225,000 square miles of the Great Plains, from north Texas to Wyoming, and supplies 30 percent of the total groundwater used for irrigation in the United States.

In this false color image, the dark green shows vegetation and the other colors reveal varying degrees of moisture. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson

In this false color image, the dark green shows vegetation and the other colors reveal varying degrees of moisture. Image Credit: Osha Gray Davidson

Even before global warming, we were depleting the Ogallala — pumping out water faster than it could be replenished by normal rainfall. The problem has grown far worse, with the “new normal” of reduced precipitation and increased temperatures that dry out the soil through evaporation.
The Ogallala has often been likened to a bank account — with water being withdrawn for irrigation and deposits coming in the form of rain. The problem is we’ve been over-drafting this account even when times were good. Now, we’re in a perverse situation in which ranchers and farmers are forced to increase withdrawals at precisely the time that deposits are slowing dramatically. Checking the pulse of our planet from six miles up reveals a patient in distress.

 8 November

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) meets in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Nov. 12, beginning its second decade of work. Earthzine will be there, providing live coverage of GEO-XI. Earthzine science writer Osha Gray Davidson will be blogging from Geneva on this page, and providing updates through our twitter feed @earthzine and on Facebook.

You can get an idea of what to expect from GEO’s statement (below) and read our coverage of GEO-X, from January 2014. For complete information about this important Earth observation organization, visit their website.

Geneva, 7 November 2014
Under the theme, “Taking the Pulse of the Planet,” 275 members of the GEO community, from more than 45 countries, will chart the next steps in creating and implementing a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) during the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Eleventh Plenary Session to be held on 12-14 November in Geneva, Switzerland.
One highlight of the conference will be announcement of the winners of the GEO Appathon, a global “app” development competition built on the 80 million-plus resources currently available through GEOSS. The Appathon attracted 250 competitors from 50 countries and will generate easy-to-use decision tools for mobile devices and computers.
GEO’s mandate is to harness the power of Earth observations from sources across the globe to provide more and better information to leaders in government, industry, and civil society confronting fundamental decisions affecting people and societies world-wide.
Key GEO initiatives that will be highlighted during the meeting include, developing a comprehensive system to monitor the availability and quality of fresh water, in partnership with the World Health Organization, the UN Environmental Programme and other UN agencies as part of the UN Sustainable Development agenda. GEO is leading the creation of an Africa-wide technological and human infrastructure so decision makers have the capacity to access and utilize Earth observations in making key decisions. To strengthen agricultural activity and reduce market volatility, GEO is coordinating the assessment of growing conditions of the world’s major crops through a combination of regional expertise, ground observations and analysis of meteorological and satellite data.
GEO is a voluntary partnership of governments and organizations that envisions “a future wherein decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations and information.” GEO Members include 94 nations and the European Commission, and 77 Participating Organizations comprised of international bodies with a mandate in Earth observations. GEO’s agenda spans nine Societal Benefit Areas, including agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, health, water and weather.