Images of the Earth, such as those captured by NASA’s Landsat satellites, sea surface temperature measurements, and other forms of satellite data play a critical role in helping Earth scientists understand and map the changing face of our planet. But geospatial data has far-reaching social and economic benefits too, especially as society blazes into the new and interactive realms the digital era has enabled.
ÛÏInformation and data are a global currency. The 24/7 digital economy and global business environment have paved the way for even more competition,Û said Peter Sullivan, surveyor general of Canada and commissioner for the International Boundary Commission. He was speaking at a workshop on the Socio-Economic Benefits of Geospatial Information, held at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, from June 12 to 14.
The three-day conference brought together a multinational group of about 80 participants, including scientists from academia and U.S. federal agencies as well as speakers from the private sector, economists, and government representatives. The aim was to explore geospatial data’s contribution to society at large, as well as methods for quantifying and communicating that contribution to decision-makers and the public.
ÛÏWe’re building a capability and a community to develop methods and the validation of those methods for the impacts of improved Earth observation on various societal issues and societal decisions,Û said IEEE fellow and event co-organizer Jay Pearlman.
Outlining the economic gains associated with the use of geospatial data, by governments, the private sector, and the public featured prominently on the agenda.
According to a 2008 report, the financial gains from using spatial information account for between 0.6 and 1.2 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP). The report, produced by Australian economic consulting firm ACIL Tasmin, focused on sectors including agricultural, fisheries, property, mining and government.
Sullivan stressed the potential that government open data policies, such as those contained in Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government, have for fostering job creation, innovation and economic productivity. Canada currently provides more than 260,000 geospatial data sets to the public at its Open Data Pilot Project website.
ÛÏMaking data readily available, accessible, and reusable will be the hallmark of successful governments,Û he said.
Governmental use of geospatial data also has the capacity to cut expenditure and increase efficiency. In England and Wales, between 2008 and 2009 the GDP was an estimated å£320 million (about $500 million) more than what it would have been if local governments had not made use of geospatial information for service delivery, according to a 2010 report co-produced by British firm ConsultingWhere and ACIL Tasmin.
When it comes to assessing the returns on investing in geospatial technology, however, Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, argued that there is not a single measure that can capture the impact of geospatial information at the policy level. He also explained that improved economic data is required to make assessment studies more robust.
ÛÏClearly, economics is not the only criteria in decision-making,Û he said during his presentation. ÛÏIf we make decisions on that basis, I think we’re going to fail to generate effective policies. We need that holistic approach. We need a good reason for funding the studies, and the results can vary from different countries to different cultures.Û
Return on investment is a ÛÏbusiness school term,Û which is important for businesses and their profits, said Hertzfeld. The benefits of government programs are spread over many different uses and industries, which makes it difficult to capture these benefits with just one number, he explained.
Of course, financial gains aren’t the only benefits associated with the use of geospatial data. Various publicly available data tools and services empower citizens to make informed decisions about their health and safety. In the U.S., for instance, federal scientists use satellite measurements to predict drought risks and provide early warnings for those living in vulnerable areas, through the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AIRnow air quality index also is a valuable public resource. The website receives about 4 million views per year, making it one of the agency’s most popular sites, said Phil Dickerson, director of AIRnow, in an interview after the conference. About 8,000 iPhone apps for the tool have been downloaded since the app’s release in November last year, he said.
The agency is researching the viability of coupling NASA aerosol optical depth data, which provides a measure of airborne pollutants like the particles emitted during wildfires, with its current monitoring system. That combination could potentially increase the scope of air quality coverage the EPA can provide at less cost than deploying more monitors, he said.
The main benefit of AIRNow is in helping people who are sensitive to poor air quality from being exposed, he said.
Geospatial data plays an increasing role in public and private decision-making, and has been shown to have financial and social rewards, but securing public funding is not always easy for scientists, especially in the current economic climate. While President Obama’s budget request for 2013 includes increasing NASA’s Earth Science budget by $15 million and NOAA’s overall budget by $166 million, the ways in which future federal funding for science will be allocated under the Budget Control Act remain to be seen.
In order to better articulate the costs and benefits associated with geospatial research endeavors, conference presenters mentioned the need for future collaboration between Earth scientists, economists, and social scientists.
ÛÏI think the Earth science community has to take the first step to invite the economics community in,Û said Lawrence Friedl, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division’s Applied Sciences Program, during his presentation.
The language used in the business and policy communities is often an economics based language, Friedl said in an interview. An increased familiarity with this language will be beneficial for earth scientists, he said. To help facilitate this familiarity, NASA is soon to release a primer on economic terminology for the earth science community.
Other speakers touched on the need to align technological capacities with budget limitations and the needs of decision-makers and end-users.
A typical scientist wants to use the most advanced model to further the discipline, but that’s often not appropriate for policy problems, explained Robert Chen, director of Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Making trade-offs between state-of-the-art models that rely on costly data and less advanced but more cost-effective models is a challenge, said Chen.
Speakers also emphasized the importance of communicating the value of collecting and using Earth observation information, such as that used for risk assessment and early-warning systems, which communities can use to plan for the future.
ÛÏFraming information as expert knowledge gets us only so far,Û said Roger Pulwarty, chief of NOAA’s Climate and Societal Interactions Program, during his presentation.
ÛÏFraming information as Û÷why this matters to the things you value’ is quite a different thing.Û
To generate ideas for improving the ways that the benefits of geospatial data are measured and articulated, the workshop’s break-out sessions focused on the use of case studies and methodologies for assessing the value of geospatial data, as well strategies for communicating the benefits of such data to users.
Recommendations included incorporating non-monetary benefits into impact assessments and case studies, as well as analyzing the ways in which geospatial data can boost productivity in the public and private sector.
Participants also highlighted the need for further cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as those produced through the National Science Foundation’s Sustainability Research Networks Competition, which awards grants to teams of scientists, engineers and educators, and called for the creation of a multi-disciplinary community to work on geospatial data impact studies.
For its part, NASA’s Applied Sciences Program is considering issuing a request for information to get a clearer picture of the types of organizations that could perform economic impact analyses for the application of earth observation and geospatial data, Friedl explained. These groups could then be made aware of future solicitations, he said.
There will be a session on techniques for assessing the benefits of geospatial data at the American Geophysical Union’s upcoming Fall Meeting.
Brendon Bosworth is an independent journalist who focuses on science and environmental issues, largely in the Rocky Mountain West. You can follow him on Twitter @BrendonBosworth.