Democratizing Earth observing: A conversation with GEO pioneer Rob Adam
Following the creation of the ad hoc intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations in Washington in 2003, South Africa’s Rob Adam was selected as one of GEO’s four co-chairs, alongside colleagues from the U.S., Japan and the European Commission. At the time, Dr. Adam was directing the rebirth of South African science and engineering as Director General of the government’s Department of Science and Technology. Adam quickly swung into action to advance GEO’s goal to build the Global Earth Observation System of Systems or GEOSS, working in particular to double developing country membership in GEO and pushing for investment in their capacity to participate in Earth data collection and application.
In June Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley reached Adam by telephone at the Pelindaba nuclear research center where he now serves as CEO of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. Since arriving at Pelindaba last year (and handing off his GEO responsibilities) Adam has helped chart a course to reduce South Africa’s heavy dependence on coal – a path that Adam says GEOSS is likely to help guide in years to come.
(click here to listen to the full interview.)
Earthzine: Why have you been so passionate about engaging developing countries in earth observation?
Adam: There’s a widening knowledge gap between the developed and the developing world and in the end what’s going to make the difference is not resources, but knowledge.
I saw GEO as a pragmatic step to close that gap. The North was offering data and some expertise in synthesizing data. And they were not just dishing this out. They were asking for participation. The very process of gathering data, whether it’s data on disease or data on crop cover or soil erosion–is knowledge-intensive and can help countries develop winning characteristics for the future.
The most glowing example of this is weather. There have been huge improvements in prediction, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the Northern Hemisphere the current 3-day forecasts are as accurate as 1-day forecasts were 30 years ago. But if you look at the South, 30 years ago it was behind the North by two days. Nowadays there’s no difference. There’s been a convergence as a result of satellite data and deployed weather buoy data to produce an accuracy which really doesn’t differ between the hemispheres. There has been a conscious process of sharing data and technology with respect to weather data.
Earthzine: Which means farmers in both hemispheres now make better decisions on irrigation and harvesting times, and teams fighting brush fires are strategizing with more reliable predictions…
Adam: Right. This is beginning to happen in other areas such as in disease prediction. We now know, for example, that we’re potentially going to have outbreaks of malaria or typhoid or cholera if there’s a particular temperature or rainfall profile over a period of weeks, or if surface water accumulates.
I think the real value will come at these boundaries between different disciplines where the data from one discipline is used to predict all sorts of other things. You can see vast benefits coming as data sets are analyzed and merged.
Earthzine: Why are GEO and GEOSS so critical for
South Africa and why did you feel it was important to get involved personally?
I saw GEOSS as a multilateral political challenge because getting countries to cooperate on substance in a multilateral environment is often difficult. To secure consensus you very often get reduced to the lowest common denominator and you end up really doing nothing.
I saw on the one hand the technical challenge of deploying Earth data as a public good and then the political challenge of actually putting it together in a way which didn’t just give you some talk-shop.
Earthzine: Do you see a path forward to even greater developing country involvement in GEO and GEOSS?
I think developed countries can really assist in two ways. One is flagship collaborative projects such as, say, funding a series of weather buoys deployed in
Oceania that are then linked to local education systems. The other one is simply building up local science education systems. You can’t hope to collect data unless you’ve got people to do that.
Earthzine: This is what people refer to as ‘capacity building’?
Adam: Yes, and it walks on two legs. There’s no such thing as technology simply being remote sensing and digital imaging and so on. You’ve got to have people to “man” it and without those education programs you end up with technology which is simply run by expatriates or doesn’t run at all.
Earthzine: Looking to the broader GEO process, what do you see as the biggest challenges to actually building GEOSS?
Adam: The issue of data sharing between countries. There were many old hands in this who said unless we actually do share the data this thing’s going to fall apart. Others said you can’t expect agencies to just give their data away–that as soon as you force that as a precondition for joining GEOSS you’ll scare them all away.
I don’t think that conundrum has really been solved yet. Because of pure economic interest you’re going to struggle to get countries to share information about their fish stocks, for example.
It comes down to having a mechanism to decide what kind of data is sharable without commercial risk. And
I’m not sure we’ve cracked that.
Earthzine: What do you think about the supply of data that is potentially available?
Is there enough observing of the Earth today?
Adam: There are a lot of data gaps, particularly in developing countries. Go to Google Earth and look at the
United Kingdom or the
U.S. and then look at the Amazon rainforest. You just get a different resolution entirely. The same would go for disease data. The same would go for the information used in town planning, etc. There’s a sparseness when you move away from the developed world.
Earthzine: Looking now to climate change, how would you characterize public perceptions of environmental change in
Africa in general and in
South Africa in particular?
Adam: You know it’s been a remarkable thing. Five years ago the average person hadn’t heard about climate change. Two years ago there were arguments about it. People were skeptical and thought that the jury was still out. Now there’s a perception that the weather is changing. People feel it. There’s a feeling in the general population that this thing called climate change really is real.
We’ve seen it happen in our energy debate in
It’s had a profound effect. Two years ago we were just going to burn coal forever. We were about to embark on a massive new power station build because we’re growing very rapidly economically. Originally the build was going to be almost entirely coal with some renewables thrown in and maybe one nuclear power station. Then we started putting our heads together and said ‘ok a power station lasts 60 years. During the lifetime of that power station are we sure that we’re not going to be asked to internalize the cost of carbon dioxide mitigation?’ Once you do that the whole cost equation changes. The plan now is to go ahead with 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power.
Earthzine: Every country has to reassess their energy systems today. Will GEOSS help each choose a sustainable energy mix for the future?
Adam: Energy is an interesting paradigm because it links up all kinds of things. Resources, the integration of data on grid costs, future development patterns, topography–all of that is related to the problem that you’re trying to solve. What you’re doing to get an answer there is integrating probably ten different data sets.
It’s a classic example of integrated planning, which GEOSS will support.
Earthzine: Just as energy technology evolves so too will our data gathering technologies. What do you envision earth observation will look like in 2025?
Adam: What you’ll find is the integration of large and small. Large will be satellites and small will be the backyard monitoring operations–schools, community centers, private houses linked in through broadband providing data of national significance.
I would like to think that the small will begin to predominate. That will depend critically on capacity building in education systems.
And in the digital environment things change over a 2-year timescale. Over ten years it’s unrecognizable. So what will emerge there in opportunities for integrating data and for cost-effectively taking things down to not just the village but the household–that is a frontier which one can almost hardly begin to imagine.
I foresee the deregulation of data inputs into a global integrating system. That may be romantic on my part but
I think the evidence bears it out.
Earthzine: Will it help to further increase public awareness of our impacts on the Earth?
Adam: The more public awareness the more politicians see it in their interest to devote money and the easier it is to get people involved. There’s nothing better than capturing the public’s imagination. You’ve got to do it on the right issues–you can’t distort things–but there are enough good examples where data integration has been of assistance. Just Google Earth is amazing and there are all sorts of imaginative tools you can link that to as well. The explosion of popular-orientated information given broadband boggles the mind. Five years ago you couldn’t imagine that.
Democratizing Earth observing: A conversation with GEO pioneer Rob Adam