The Future of Earth Observation – GEO-X

Osha Gray DavidsonEarth Observation, GEO/GEOSS News, Original, Plenary

At the Group on Earth Observations’ 10th Plenary and Ministerial Summit in Switzerland, Jan. 12-17, delegates from 90 countries and 77 international organizations charted a course for a second decade of “unleashing the power of open data to improve the quality of life for people everywhere.”

Osha Gray Davidson, Earthzine science writer.

Osha Gray Davidson, Earthzine science writer, attended the GEO-X plenary and reports highlights in the following blog.

Wrap-Up of GEO-X

Preparing to leave for Tokyo in the spring of 2004, Mike Leavitt, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, talked with a reporter about the still inchoate Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). They discussed the difficulties of sharing data obtained from space-, marine- and in situ-based stations, and that covered subject areas ranging from weather forecasting to monitoring oil spills to maintaining the productivity of fisheries. The technical challenges were staggering.
Near the end of the interview, Leavitt added that “not all the gaps are in technology. We also have to overcome gaps in politics and sociology. The machines can talk to each other; the challenge is to get people [of different nationalities] to communicate.”
Leavitt had hit on an important truth: Even in the most technologically complex projects, it always gets down to people. Yes, instruments must gather data that are both accurate and adequate. Computer programs must be able to analyze this massive amount of information. But the difference between success and failure on the ground is ultimately determined by how people interact.
The GEO 10th Plenary and Ministerial Summit that wrapped up recently in Geneva, was a potent reminder of what can be accomplished when a project has “buy-in.”
Impressive achievements from a decade of work were on display everywhere (read the daily updates below for a few examples, and a more lengthy account, here.) — as were admissions that there is still much to be done to achieve GEO’s goals.
“National capacity building is of huge importance, especially to developing nations,” said a delegate from Bangladesh during the opening plenary, and called for a greater effort within GEO to ensure that data on natural hazards such as cyclones reach end users.

In this composite satellite image, a dust storm is blowing off the coast of Morocco. Image Credit: NASA.

In this composite satellite image, a dust storm is blowing off the coast of Morocco. Image credit: NASA.

Still, it was bracing to walk through the plenary hall and watch delegates from 90 countries working with a common purpose. At one side event, I sat in on a panel discussion as experts from the European Union, China, Nigeria, the United States, the World Bank, Japan, Belgium, the World Meteorological Organization, Australia, and Italy tried together to navigate the labyrinth of laws that make sharing information around the world so difficult. (Perhaps it doesn’t mean much, but it was good to see that whatever their first language, when confronted with bureaucratic BS, people around the world grit their teeth and scratch their head in a common display of frustration.)
When the week was over and I was preparing to leave the Geneva International Conference Center for the last time, I reflected on a feeling that had been building since the first session. I felt hope. Journalists must, according to the rules of our trade, be suspicious of our own emotional reactions to stories we cover. We all have biases that refract the information that passes through us. We must perform reality checks on our emotions — just as scientists must ground-truth what the data appear to be indicating. Is GEO really making a significant difference in people’s lives? A difference large enough to justify the time and effort (and the carbon footprint) that went into the meetings in Geneva? Clearly, the delegates from around the world believed so when they unanimously gave their approval to extend the group’s mandate for another decade.

The challenge is to get people [of different nationalities] to communicate. Mike Leavitt, former EPA Administrator
As I headed to the exit, I saw Nancy Derby Searby, who manages the Capacity Building Program at NASA’s Earth Science Division. I had seen her at several events, but we hadn’t spoken. I introduced myself and asked Searby for her take on the week. Like me, this was Searby’s first time at a GEO plenary. She was enthusiastic about it. She had made many contacts and had learned much that would be valuable in her work.
“But, you know what really blew me away?” she asked. “It’s how willing everyone is to help each other. I’m really quite amazed.”
That made two of us — and three, if you count David Broder, the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter who interviewed Mike Leavitt in 2004, the year before GEO was officially launched.
After explaining the GEOSS concept in broad strokes, Broder admitted that a program to share vast quantities of Earth observation data across political borders in an effort that “promises benefits for all nations and people….may sound like pie in the sky.” After researching the program, however, Broder wrote, “I’m convinced it could be true.”

The column ran under the headline, “Some Good News In an Ocean of Bad.” It’s a description that seems just as applicable in 2014 as it was in 2004.

Live Blog from GEO-X

On Monday, Jan. 13, delegates from around the world will gather in Geneva for what will likely be the most important meeting for environmental Earth observation in the coming decade. The Group on Earth Observations’ Tenth Plenary and Ministerial Summit, or GEO-X , will set the agenda for Earth observation post-2015, when GEO’s original mandate expires.
In an interview earlier this month, GEO director Barbara Ryan told Earthzine that a lot has been done to make environmental information available to world leaders, researchers, non-governmental organizations and the general public. But, she added, “You know what? Greenland and Iceland are still melting. There are people who don’t have access to clean air and water. We have to do a better job.”
You can follow these historic meetings live – right here. I’m Osha Gray Davidson, science writer for Earthzine, and I’ll be traveling to Geneva to cover GEO-X , blogging updates on this page and providing links to conference studies and reports, starting on Monday. Look for shorter messages on our @Earthzine Twitter feed (using the hashtag #GEO2025).
And if you’re still hungry for coverage of GEO-X, you’ll find even more at our Earthzine page on Facebook.
Follow GEO-X on Earthzine — it’s the next best thing to being there.

January 17 – Ministerial Summit

At the GEO Ministerial Summit held today in Geneva, the group formally endorsed a plan to continue operating for a second decade (GEO was formed in 2005 with a mandate that expires in 2015). I’ll be writing an article about GEO post-2015, but for now, here is the statement released by GEO today.

Bruno Oberle, State Secretary, FOEN, Switzerland, GEO Co-Chairs and Ministerial Summit Co-Chairs congratulate each other after the successful conclusion of the Summit. Image credit: GEO.

Bruno Oberle, State Secretary, FOEN, Switzerland, GEO Co-Chairs and Ministerial Summit Co-Chairs congratulate each other after the successful conclusion of the Summit. Image credit: GEO.

 GEO to Keep Unleashing the Power of Open Data Mandate Unanimously Endorsed for Another 10 Years

In Geneva today, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) received unanimous endorsement to unleash the power of open data for a second decade. There was agreement to continue building on the organization’s first 10 years of pioneering environmental advances, which are designed to improve the quality of life of people everywhere. Fueled by open data, GEO’s efforts are now evident in most regions of the world. GEO is comprised of 90 member nations, the European Commission and 77 Participating Organizations.

“GEO is successfully meeting its mandate, which is to make data and other information open, accessible and easy to discover for decision makers around the world,” said Mr. Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment. “GEO’s vision is now operational, a proven force for putting sound science to work across nine essential areas: agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, health, water and weather.”

GEO’s mandate is to drive the interoperability of the many thousands of space-based, airborne and in situ Earth observations around the globe. Without concerted efforts to coordinate across diverse observations, these separate systems often yield just snapshot assessments, leading to gaps in scientific understanding and hampering data fusion in support of better decision making for society. GEO aims  to fill such gaps by providing a comprehensive, more integrated picture of our changing Earth. GEO is accomplishing this by establishing a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, known as GEOSS, and a Portal through which data and other information can be easily accessed at little or no cost.

Plenary. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine

Plenary. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine

“Rather than snapshot assessments, GEO gives us moving pictures of a changing planet,” said Mr. Cao Jianlin, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. “Our world does not work just in the sea, on land, in the atmosphere or in space, and our policies cannot reflect individual domains either.” China, for example, is partnering with 46 other GEO-member nations and several of GEO’s Participating Organizations to ensure that unprecedented data will be available to measure the effects of human activities and natural processes on the carbon cycle, the first such coordinated effort at the global level.

In Africa, 22 nations and 5 GEO Participating Organizations recently launched AfriGEOSS with the goal of strengthening that continent’s capabilities to produce, manage and use earth observations. “This new initiative gives us the necessary framework to support informed decisions about a range of priorities, including food security, access to clean water and sanitation, natural resources, and coastal and disaster management,” said Derek Hannekom, Minister of Science and Technology, South Africa.

By increasing the utility of open data about the Earth, GEO is helping to mitigate disasters, develop water-management strategies, support citizen observatories, and strengthen food security. GEO is driving the development of new tools, such as a cholera early warning system, as well as painting fuller pictures of complex environmental processes, including through global observations of ocean acidification at the global scale and observations of atmospheric greenhouse gases from space. GEO participants are also studying the footprint of mining practices, with the aim of minimizing future impacts on nearby communities and natural habitat, and focusing on links between air quality and health. There is also focus on the far-reaching consequences of melting glaciers and other serious cold-region concerns.

 “The Obama Administration continues to work to catalyze the emergence of new businesses, products and services powered by the U.S. Government’s open data. Increasing access to data and data sharing, both nationally and internationally, is crucial for unleashing innovation across our data-driven economy,” said Dr. Patrick Gallagher, performing the duties of the Deputy Secretary of Commerce.” GEO’s collaborative work to integrate open data about the Earth continues to drive the development of new tools, services and scientific insights that are used around the world to support sound decision making.”

January 16 (Day 4)

A victim of the "silent storm." Anthropogenic CO2 emissions are rapidly increasing ocean acidity, disrupting the ability of marine animals to build and maintain shells and skeletons. Image credit: NOAA.

A victim of the “silent storm.” Anthropogenic CO2 emissions are rapidly increasing ocean acidity, disrupting the ability of marine animals to build and maintain shells and skeletons. Image credit: NOAA.

We ask so much from the ocean, expecting it to provide us with an endless supply of protein and act as an unfillable reservoir for our waste. But there are limits on both counts and we are bumping up against them.
Researchers have long known that we are depleting fisheries around the globe as human population swells and our technologies for catching fish outstrips their ability to reproduce. What is new is the scientific research showing that we are changing oceans in a fundamental, even elemental way, as a result of our massive release of carbon dioxide.
“The ocean absorbs about 25 percent of the man-made CO2 emissions,” Carol Turley, a senior scientist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England, reported to GEO members. The CO2 combines with sea water to create carbonic acid, which, among other things, interferes with the ability of marine organisms to build and maintain shells and skeletons.
Ocean acidity has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution, Turley reported, and much of that has occurred over the last 40 years, creating what she calls a “silent storm” as the effects begin to cascade through marine ecosystems.
Richard Bellerby, a research scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, cited the need to continue building the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON), to collate and interpret information on ocean acidification. Bellerby’s research centers on the Arctic Ocean, a region that is, he points out, “the most sensitive global basin-wide system in the world, in terms of acidification.”
Libby Jewett, director of the Ocean Acidification Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, stressed the role that satellites can play in gathering data on ocean acidity.
“Satellite observations on sea surface temperature, salinity, and winds,” said Jewett, “can be used to understand the changing chemistry of the ocean.” She cautioned, however, that since these interactions vary by location, researchers still need to develop algorithms for specific regions.

Photo of the day


It’s alive! UNEP Senior Advisor Jacqueline McGlade and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner react as UNEP Live, a state of the art Earth observation platform, goes online. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) unveiled an Earth observation mega-data portal today: UNEP Live. The site has a number of features that set it apart from other Big Data platforms. In an interview after today’s program, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner explained why he believes that UNEP Live has the potential to “move us into not just a new frontier of science, but a new frontier of action.”
That interview and an in-depth look at UNEP Live will be the subject of a feature article in a forthcoming issue of Earthzine. For now, head over to UNEP Live and take it for a spin.

French SPOT satellite series.

French SPOT satellite series. Image credit: Astrium.

At today’s Plenary session, France announced a major step forward for “data democracy.” While several nations have provided satellite scenes at no charge through the Internet, it is believed that this is the first time a private provider will be making such a major commitment to the GEO mandate of providing broad, open data-sharing.
I asked the French representative for a brief explanation of the plan and here’s what he sent me by Email:

France through its national space agency CNES and Airbus Defence and Space (a major private-sector data provider which, through its Geo-Intelligence programme line, includes the former SPOT image) has recently made a decisive step toward providing improved access for non-commercial use related to global change assessment to the substantial archive of imagery acquired by the SPOT family of satellites.  This archive, which now totals over 30 million images acquired during 27 years of operations, has substantial scientific value in tracing the evolution of our planet.
Processing of an initial set of 100,000 SPOT scenes has already begun and this data will be made available during the course of 2014. The GEO community is invited to join in maintaining this initiative and extending the availability of images over their areas of interest.

January 15 (Day 3)

GEO Director Barbara Ryan, welcomes Georgia as the 90th member nation as GEO-X gets under way.

GEO Director Barbara Ryan, welcomes Georgia as the 90th member nation as GEO-X gets under way. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

The 10th GEO plenary opened exactly one hour ago, with representative from 90 countries — including the newest member, Georgia — and several observer and member scientific organizations. Kathryn Sullivan, representing GEO Co-Chair, the United States, opened the session with a message that could be summed up as, “Pat yourself on the back for the first ten years of work, but roll up your sleeves, because we’ve got a lot to do in the next ten.”
Indeed, it was apparent from the side events leading up to today’s plenary that we are entering an era of unprecedented  environmental challenges. Earth observation is just one component in solving these problems, but representative here clearly believe it is a foundational one. Which makes sense. If we don’t know how and why the environment is changing, how quickly it is changing, how can we adapt? How can we hope to design methods of mitigation? In short, how can we survive? The short answer is: we can’t. Information in a host of areas must be collected and it must be shared – as widely as possible. Exactly how to accomplish this is the subject of this plenary.
You can find a variety of GEO publications here, and a report on GEO progress to date, here.

January 14 (Day 2)

Zdenka Willis, director, IOOS.

Zdenka Willis, director, U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, NOAA. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

As the director of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), Zdenka Willis has a problem – one that’s common to most of the nearly 1,000 people running from session to session in the giant Geneva International Conference Center. The problem is that Willis isn’t an economist. She has plenty of degrees: a BS in marine science from the University of South Carolina, a Master’s degree in meteorology and oceanography from the Naval Postgraduate, and a Master’s in national strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. And Willis, who grew up on the beaches of South Carolina searching for shark’s teeth, spent 25 years in the U.S. Navy Meteorology and Oceanography office. But advanced formal training in economics? Sorry, no. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is when you’re working to develop programs for the long haul.
“Sustaining earth observations is something we all struggle with,” Willis told me in between sessions. While researchers gathered here understand how vital Earth observation is to creating a sustainable environment, they’re constantly having to justify their work in economic terms. It’s not enough, Willis says, to explain the scientific importance of her work. She also has to be able to show how that work is used.
“Understanding the economic impacts [of Earth observation] is becoming increasingly important,” she explained.
Fortunately, there are workshops here that include business-people, or economists, who help EO researchers and scientists think about how to connect their work with actual businesses needs.
“There are a number of ways to frame this discussion,” Willis said. “One way we are trying to do this within the IOOS, is trying to identify the magnitude of the ocean enterprise by evaluating companies in two categories.” First are the producers, “those that provide either hardware or a data management or modeling capability.” Next are the “intermediaries,” businesses that “take ocean observing data and provide a value added service.”
It’s a lot of work. But the good news is that protecting the environment is more and more frequently the most cost effective way to do pretty much anything — from building power projects to keeping the oceans healthy.

January 13 (Day 1)

Geneva International Conference Center, site of the GEO-X Plenary

Geneva International Conference Center, site of the GEO-X Plenary. Image credit: CICG.

The 10th plenary gathering and ministerial summit of the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) got underway in Geneva this morning with a record-breaking number of participants: 730 scientists, researchers, activists, and policy makers from 52 Member countries, and the European Commission, and 46 participating organizations, according to GEO spokesman, Robert Samos.
The actual plenary begins on Wednesday, but the side events of panel discussions and presentations were crowded, including some that were standing-room only. That was the case with the afternoon session, “Understanding Socioeconomic Benefits and Impacts.”

Jay Pearlman

Jay Pearlman, IEEE. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

While the economic benefits of Earth observation may seem obvious, the speakers at the workshop pointed out one large real-world problem: the benefits only occur over time, but political support for funding must often come before the benefits are reaped, or even obvious. Jay Pearlman, of IEEE, pointed to one example of this problem. When modern investments in Earth observation began, the need for space-based data on climate change wasn’t widely appreciated — if at all. There are dozens of other examples (which I’ll cover in a future article on the subject), and participants from several disciplines and many countries all had their own stories of wrestling with this problem.
But having the political will to gather data is only the beginning of a process.

Ganiy Agbaje, AfriGEOSS

Ganiy Agbaje, AfriGEOSS. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson/Earthzine.

The international community still must work at developing and implementing principles for sharing data — the subject of another workshop. Ganiy Agbaje, of AfriGEOSS, discussed the challenges of data sharing for the huge landmass of the African continent.
Another issue is the need to reconcile historical policies based on national security (or “hand-cuffs” as one speaker called them) with modern realities in which data-sharing is vital to the economic, strategic, environmental, and social interests of all countries.
And, indeed, that’s a key point of GEO. As director Barbara Ryan told me in an interview, “The economic value is not in Earth observation data in and of itself. The value is in what people do with that data. That’s also where the true societal value comes. Degradation of forests, die-off of coral reefs. You name it, you want access — and only broad, open, data-sharing policies will make that possible.”
January 12
OK. Honestly, I’m still in the U.S.A. And it’s still 1/11 here. But, it’s 6:17 am in Geneva, Switzerland, on 11/12, so I’m going to go ahead and post this under Saturday’s heading. Call it “blogger’s license.”
My nerdy mind’s spinning, perusing all the sessions at GEO-X next week. The problem is that many of the ones that sound most interesting run  concurrently. You can see the entire list yourself, here. I notice that the U.S. Mission in Geneva just posted its own “greatest hits” list of GEO-X sessions. I’m not sure what standard they used (all of the selections sound great, but they’ve left out some stellar sessions), but I notice they didn’t solve the overlap dilemma. Several of their choices run at the same time. Here’s their list:

Tuesday, January 14, 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

From Observation to Decision: Swiss Sponsored Biodiversity Day

A demonstration of regional, national and international observation systems and how their data is used to evaluate the status of ecosystems.

Tuesday, January 14, 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m

Visualizing the World’s Food Systems

Learn about dynamic new approaches to manage risk, address market volatility and move towards resilience by strengthening food production capabilities and projections.

Tuesday, January 14, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Global Initiative for Cholera Early Warning

Learn about an emerging Cholera early warning system to mitigate risks and save many lives.

Wednesday, January 15, 12:30 to 2 p.m.

New Achievements of China Earth Observations Technology

The achievements and progress of China earth observations, especially in Chinese Carbon Satellite, data sharing, global environmental monitoring, etc, and the international cooperation on the upper topics in the framework of GEO.

Wednesday, January 15, 12:00 to 2:00 p.m.

Citizens Observatories

CITI-SENSE describes the development of citizen observatories to improve the quality of life in cities and empower the public to contribute to and participate in environmental decision-making.

Thusday, January 16 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

The Silent Storm / Ocean Acidification

Presentation by the United States: Presentation of the first report on the global economic impact of ocean acidification by the recently established network of 28 countries charged with studying the scientific and practical consequences of this global issue.

Thursday, January 16, 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Serving the World Community by keeping the Environment Under Review – UNEP-Live

UNEP will demonstrate how its mandate to keep the environment under review is increasingly facilitated by open data served up by a wide number of institutional arrangements/connections and technical mechanisms, including the GEOSS broker and UNEP-Live platform, EonE/GNoN et al.

Thursday, January 16, 2:20 to 4:30 p.m.

Copernicus today and tomorrow

The European Commission presents recent developments in the six sectors of the European Earth Observation system Copernicus (land monitoring, marine monitoring, atmosphere monitoring, emergency management, security and climate change)

Thursday, January 16, 16:30 – 18:00

High Level Roundtable – “Perspectives on the Value of Earth Observations”

Global leaders share their perspectives on the value and role of Earth Observations data and information in decision-making

Bruno Oberle, State Secretary for the Environment for the Swiss Confederation

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP),

Professor Philippe Gillet, Acting President of École PolytechniqueFédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Serge Troeber, Chief Underwriting Officer Corporate Solutions, Swiss RE

Moderator: Ms. Karine Siegwart, Vice Director of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)