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Free data proves its worth for observing Earth

Since late 2008, when Landsat Earth observation images were made available to all users free of charge, nearly 30 million Landsat scenes have been downloaded through the U.S. Geological Survey portal – and the rate of downloads is still increasing.

That’s a lot of free data about the state of the planet. But what is it worth? How valuable can something free possibly be?

The worth of many things is related to scarcity. If there are too many houses or diamonds, bushels of corn or barrels of oil for sale, the price for these items falls. A free market determines the market value of what we might hope is a $500,000 house or a $5,000 diamond.

The concept of market value breaks down for goods and services that society has determined should be freely available to everyone. Free data for Earth observation fits into this category. It is a public good ­- along with public education, public roads, and public parks. While these services are not actually free (they are, of course, funded with public money), we know that the broad use of such services benefits all of society so the cost to each individual user is largely borne by all.

The United States Department of the Interior’s policy of releasing the full Landsat archive at no cost allows researchers around the world in government, in the private sector, and at universities and institutions to generate even more data applications that are good for society. These purpose-driven data applications – known on mobile devices as “data apps” – can serve commercial endeavours in agriculture and forestry; they can enable land managers in and out of government to work more efficiently; they can help us define and address critical climate and environmental issues.

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Source: United States Geological Survey