Interview with Chris Steenmans, Head of Programme, ICT and data management at the European Environment Agency.

Firstly, Mr. Steenmans, mainly for our readers outside of Europe, can you give us a picture of the European Environment Agency (EEA), what you do and what is your mission?

The EEA is an agency of the European Union. Our task is to provide sound, independent data and information on the environment to decision-makers and the general public, in order to support sustainable development and to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe’s environment.

We are therefore a major information source for those involved in developing, adopting, implementing and evaluating environmental policy. Our main clients are the European Union institutions — the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council — and our member and cooperating countries. The business community, academia, non-governmental organisations and other parts of civil society are also important users of our information.

Today climate change and environmental issues are major factors determining the framework for international and national policy actions. How do you feel then overall about the use of Earth Observation to help these policy making? How important was the contribution of the Earth Observation to the latest SOER report on the assessment of the European environment’s state, trends and prospects, in a global context?

Earth Observation plays a significant part in assessing Europe’s environment. In 2015, the European Environment Agency released a report entitled “European Environment – State and Outlook 2015”, which analyses the state, trends and prospects of the European environment. Providing timely comparable information over large areas without the use of remote sensing is nowadays unthinkable. As such, the Copernicus Atmosphere and Land Monitoring services are among the key sources that contributed to the information presented in the report. In particular, the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service Imperviousness contributed to data that was used to highlight differences in urban sprawl between and within European countries, while the Urban Atlas provided detailed data for certain land cover and land use types, which was used to compare total green space in cities across Europe.

Copernicus

The EEA is the entity coordinating the pan-European and local components of the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service. How does and will Copernicus contribute to the EEA mandate?

The information emerging from Copernicus is integrated into environmental indicators and integrated assessments that feed into policy-making processes. For example, the EEA has significant experience with Corine Land Cover and Urban Atlas. The Copernicus programme offers a unique opportunity to ensure the long term and structural provision of more timely georeferenced information, thus complementing the aggregated data that is collected and made available by the countries through regular reporting. In that sense, Copernicus could become a game changer for land monitoring.

EARSC organized a workshop aimed at fostering the dialogue between all the European Entrusted Entities (EEE’s) and the private sector. The objective was to find a way forward for industry and the EEE’s to maximize the exploitation of Copernicus Services. We are now in the process to elaborate a roadmap together with the EEE’s, which will help on the Exploitation of Copernicus, where do you see the main priorities?

There are several aspects where improved dialogue between the EEE’s and the private sector would foster a broader use of the Copernicus services. First of all, I refer to the role of the EEE’s and industry in the production of the services: for the land monitoring service, the key focus is on the detection and mapping of changes of the biophysical Earth’s surface over time, in order to establish long term time series that facilitate reliable trend analysis.

In order to reach this objective, well-defined service requirements are needed, together with a fully understood and accessible work flow. This will ensure the high quality of the services, as well as their coherence and consistency, in line with the requirement of establishing time series. It will also allow for different companies to produce the services, following a fair and competitive market mechanism. Such competition may favour a shift towards the search for the best organisational setup, or the levels of automation necessary to make the difference in a competitive market.

I’d also like to highlight the opportunities offered by the Copernicus core services as a sound foundation for the development of downstream services. The European Commission, in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), has committed to the long term deployment of the Copernicus programme, based on an open data policy. For the first time in the history of European satellite remote sensing, this offers a unique opportunity for industrial investments in customer-tailored downstream services. In order to support this logic over the coming years, it is important that industry provides feedback to the EEE’s on the requirements for the core services, and that the EEE’s in turn take these considerations on board when working on the evolution of the Copernicus service.

As a key user of the data, the EEA is one such interface between the image data and the knowledge created from it and used by European policy makers, businesses and other stakeholders. How you can help on leveraging the exploitation of the Copernicus services inside the EC?

The use of Copernicus services in the European Commission is primarily linked to a broad range of Community policies such as environment, agriculture, regional development, transport, climate action, energy and so forth. Typically the Commission’s thematic directorates-general expect the Copernicus services to support the policy cycle, be it policy preparation, policy implementation or policy evaluation. Increasing the use of the Copernicus services in the Commission is, therefore, linked to the extent to which the services themselves manage to provide information that supports policies.

The definition of land services is one example where this is already taken on board to support environment policy: the setup of the Riparian Zones service is clearly linked with the activities of the MAES (Monitoring and Assessment of Ecosystem Services) group, managed by DG Environment. Similarly, the Urban Atlas is a service that provides valuable input for DG REGIO in supporting regional and urban policies and, in particular, the multi-annual Cohesion Report for which DG REGIO is responsible.

What can we do to encourage or enable further industrial participation in the provision of services? How do you perceive the role of EARSC in this respect?

The key role we see for EARSC as an umbrella organisation for the Earth observation industry is to create a structural information exchange channel between the EEE’s and industry, which functions in an open and transparent way. This should help to ensure fair competition, broaden the scope of potential downstream applications, further the exchange of ideas on future developments etc. In addition, EARSC can be instrumental for specific initiatives that help improve cooperation between the EEE’s and industry, such as recent work on the definition of commonly agreed accuracy assessment methods for certain categories of land monitoring products and services.

Industry & Procurement

EARSC is collaborating with EEA on an expert workshop on validation and certification of land products. How important do you see this activity creating a common understanding and forming a set of guidelines? How will the EEA expect to proceed with appropriate quality control procedures and its integration in the production process of the services?

A commonly agreed procedure for accuracy assessment on a per product or service basis was identified as an important topic during the implementation of the initial phase of the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service. The lack of such commonly agreed assessments sparked discussions on how exactly to measure the accuracy services, in particular newly developed ones, such as the High Resolution Layers in the pan-European component. We therefore believe the best way forward is to agree the best and most reliable approach upfront, which will obviously differ according to the nature of the product or service. The EEA intends to include references to a procedure for accuracy assessment as part of the initial internal QA/QC during production. Independent from this internal assessment, we will nevertheless continue to perform statistical validation on the final outcome of any product or service.

It is important to underline that such a product or service based accuracy assessment is clearly different from a company oriented certification process. Guidelines on how the accuracy of any product or service is measured, directly determine the quality of the Copernicus services. As such they are considered more important for consistency and coherence than any company level certification model, which might tell us about the capacities of a company, but not about the intrinsic quality of the deliverables themselves.

We enter the era of big data where we perceive there will be many opportunities to exploit data from many varied sources in combination. How does the EEA see the big data challenge in view of its role as EEE for the land monitoring service?

It seems beyond any doubt that the big data era will bring a major paradigm shift in the use of remote sensing for the environment, including land monitoring. On an almost daily basis, we will be able to exploit long term time series of satellite observations of the Earth’s surface for change monitoring on a per pixel basis. These new techniques have already demonstrated not only a tangible improvement in the level of accuracy of land cover/land use change monitoring, but also make a wealth of data available for integration with other data and information services.

However, there is still some work to be done in Europe before we can expect the systematic exploitation of these large volume satellite data sets to be fully operational. Ensuring the accessibility of time series of satellite image data together with relevant in situ data is a serious challenge, one that requires an improved data storage and dissemination architecture.

Furthermore, the sheer volume of image data calls for a move of data processing from production entities to big data centres, with a focus on processing services instead of download services. But with data centres spread worldwide, the challenge will be to tackle issues such as harmonised user interfaces, data protection and even cyber security. The Web Processing Service is a first attempt at harmonisation, but clearly top level initiatives are required. This would avoid multiple initiatives that leave the end user with an array of interfaces to deal with, thus jeopardising the optimal exploitation of big data. The situation can be compared to the differences in Earth observation file formats back in the early eighties, when the software industry was forced to try to keep pace with non-harmonised developments.

What is the EEA doing to make its data available to private enterprise (as well as individuals) so that it can be exploited in this way?

The EEA applies a full, open and free data policy to all our data and information products. We have, of course, provided support to the European Commission during political discussions on the Copernicus data and information policy and are extremely pleased to be able to offer an open and free data policy. In practice, for the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, this means that the full land monitoring portfolio is available to all commercial and public users via the land.copernicus.eu portal in three different ways: online map viewing, Open Geospatial Consortium compliant web-services and download of all datasets.

What issues do you see in making environmental data available for open use? How can we ensure that this benefits the European industry?

Our approach is one of full transparency concerning the collection, processing and assessment of the information and knowledge in our data and information products, including full traceability of underpinning data in our reports. A full, free and open data policy, together with a full traceability of data sources has contributed significantly to the credibility of the EEA.

Future

At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts and how your activities could contribute to the future development of the EO geo-information service sector?

A major challenge for the coming years relates to the awareness raising of the availability of all these free and open services towards industry and other stakeholders in Europe and beyond. A good communication strategy will be required.


Chris Steenmans is Head of Programme at the European Environment Agency (EEA). He is responsible for the programming and strategic development of the EEA ICT and data management, in close cooperation with the European Environmental Information and Observation Network (EIONET).
He coordinates the EEA contributions to the European Earth observation programme (COPERNICUS), the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the European Spatial Data Infrastructure (INSPIRE) and the European Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) and the UN Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM).
He graduated at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in 1981 as Msc Geoscience and was researcher at the Department of Cartography KUL until 1985. Before joining the EEA in 1997, he worked during 12 years in a number of private companies for providing remote sensing, data management, GIS and mapping services.
He has been actively involved in several international initiatives, including the European programme for Coordination of Information on the Environment (CORINE) for producing and providing access to European environmental datasets, the EU Programme of Community aid to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (PHARE) for the pre-accession strategy for the Central and Eastern European countries, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) for improving environmental monitoring, data and information sharing with South and East neighbours and the Russian Federation.