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Editorial Summer 2013

The recent conference organised by ESA on big data proved to be a useful and interesting event. The term “big data” belongs more to the marketing than to the technical world but it proved a strong enough pull to get around 200 people at the 3 day workshop to exchange on what it means for the world of Earth Observation. “Big data” embraces a number of other terms which are entering the everyday language alongside GIS such as the cloud and crowd-sourcing and which have relevance to EO service providers. Behind the marketing lie some very serious subjects which were discussed during the workshop.

The means to access data from Sentinel satellites was one such subject along with the means to combine with other data sources not just other satellite data but also a variety of others. We have been and are still concerned about how industry will gain access to the large volumes of Sentinel data that will start pouring down to Earth starting in the next 12 months. It seems that it will remain under the responsibility of national authorities to provide suitable portals which is strange for a European programme. ESA will provide a central Portal to serve the GMES/Copernicus services so assuring the primary mission of the programme but the second mission is not being given enough attention.

I say the second mission because in the recently published Copernicus regulation from the European Commission, it is declared that the Copernicus programme shall contribute to the following general objectives:

  • protection of the environment and provision of support to civil protection and security efforts;
  • support of the Europe 2020 growth strategy by contributing to the objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth; in particular, it shall contribute to economic stability and growth by boosting commercial applications.

Furthermore, these shall be monitored through 2 indicators:

  • data and information made available in accordance with the respective service-level delivery requirements for environment, civil protection and security;
  • market penetration and competitiveness of the European downstream operators.

We really welcome this focus on developing economic benefit through the downstream industry but to achieve this second goal means that European industry must have not just good but excellent access to the data. Hence it is frustrating that this has not been given more attention earlier, but we are now in discussion over this issue and a second meeting to address the industry concerns is planned for late September.

Overall, I am delighted that the messages from EARSC have been heard and reflected into the EC regulation. We have been continually pushing the message that the European industry is anticipating benefits from the Copernicus programme, not through the programme directly (ie participation in the Copernicus services) but through being able to develop and exploit the skills and knowledge that will come as a result. Of course, for each company, participation in the provision of Copernicus services will be an important step, but we believe that the major benefit will come from taking the data and products into other markets such as commercial customers and government customers outside of Europe. This was borne out in our recent industry survey which showed that the industry expects to derive most benefit from the Copernicus programme as a result of free access to Sentinel data.

This is a major finding and a big step forward from what might have been found in earlier years and a major finding demonstrating that the industry is moving away from a focus on research to that of operational business.

In the impact assessment supporting the EC regulation, it is estimated that more than 9000 direct jobs in the downstream services sector will be created or maintained as a result of the programme. In our survey, we find that there are some 5000 highly skilled employees in the sector today. This only accounts for those in industry and not those in the public sector so the goals seem realistic. Nevertheless, as the big data conference showed, there are many pressures on the industry and competing technologies as well as international competition is going to keep us on our toes.

In particular, new and innovative ways of distributing and accessing data are shown to be very important. Google presented their ideas in this respect which could transform the way in which companies and individuals are able to manipulate, process and combine data from as many and as diverse sources as we can imagine. The cloud, social networking and non-space observation platforms will all contribute to this transformation in which European companies are also playing leading roles. It is therefore critical that we can take advantage of the Sentinel data to create more change and more innovation. This is behind our support for a free and open data policy but nevertheless, the challenge is enormous as we seek to ensure that the European investment into the Copernicus programme is able to deliver on its objectives.

Best wishes,
Geoff Sawyer
EARSC Secretary General