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From data sources to end-users – The road for sustainable capacity building in the Balkas, Middle East and North Africa

Earlier in May, the GEO-CRADLE project organised a dedicated session at the 10th GEO European Projects Workshop in Berlin, to discuss best practices for the sustainable exploitation of capacity building projects. The panel gathered experts from public, private and research sectors to share their lessons learned and present their recommendations for strengthening local EO value chains. From decision makers to the private sector, from data sources to the final user, each stakeholder has a vital role to play in the grander scheme of GEO. Read on…

Taking place under the auspices of the GEO-CRADLE project, the session gathered more than 60 participants from science, business and public administrations around capacity building efforts – both old and new. The main objective of the session was to present tools and methodologies that have been or are being put in place by capacity building projects to overcome the various challenges for the uptake of EO data and services at a regional level. Primary emphasis has been placed on understanding how the impact of such projects can be increased and how the project outputs can be sustainably exploited beyond their lifetime.

To shed light on these matters, GEO-CRADLE has invited speakers representing the private sector – GMV and Spatial Services Ltd, past or ongoing initiatives – AfriAlliance, AfriGEOSS, BalkanGEONet, ConnectinGEO, as well as public authorities such as Morocco’s Centre Royal de Télédétection Spatiale.

Companies should not dismiss the added value of a user’s local knowledge

Dr Ana Sebastian Lopez, Senior Project Manager at GMV, presented their activities within Wall-to-Wall Environmental Habitat Mapping in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Part of a broader project commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Environmental Agency, the project’s success can be attributed not only to the company’s rich experience, but also to a solid, established workflow. By adopting a bottom up approach, GMV was able to take advantage of the local expertise and thus better understand their client’s needs. Moreover, by building products and tools that concretely respond to local needs, their sustainability is increased. Local stakeholders should have a clear interest in using project outcomes on a long term basis. Ms Amal Layachi, Head of Department at the Centre Royal de Télédétection Spatial in Morocco also urged for a stronger support for partnerships between R&D, the private sector and universities. A stronger cooperation between the three stakeholder groups will ensure a better coordination of initiatives, cross-sector fertilization and support for greater data sharing. “If these three sectors actively work together, the structures created will become sustainable”, Dr Peter Zeil, Senior Project Manager at Spatial Services Ltd added.

“Capacity building begins with user empowerment”

Empowering local actors, whether they are universities or public authorities, is key when discussing sustainable capacity building initiatives. Local structures and national contact points should act as enablers to build upon. „Without such local structures, it is indeed difficult to ensure sustainability“, Dr Giovanni Rum, GEO Work Programme Coordinator argued. Capacity building should be done along the entire value chain, he continued. From policy to the final services, a harmonisation of activities around bilateral and multilateral projects with the European Commission (EC) is needed and this is what AfriGEOSS (GEO’s African EO community) strives to achieve. Whether through seed grants, twinning exercises or larger initiatives, the EC should continue to play a leading role in fostering know-how transfer to its neighbouring counties. Match-making EU to non-EU companies could also act as a catalyst for market development. Such pairing of skills and practices was highly recommended by both experts and participating delegates.

A new initiative carried out by AARSE and EARSC, which surveys the African private sector, highlights exactly this – the need for more EU-Africa joint projects and workshops, trainings and information exchange. Some delegates went even further to recommend directly replicating success stories across borders and countries. All in all, awareness raising proved insufficient to advance grassroots initiatives. Mapping gaps and making recommendations have also proven insufficient. But we should act on what we can, notably, by equipping local stakeholders with the right tools, tailored funding schemes and know-how. According to Dr. Uta Wehn, Assoc. Prof of Water Innovation Studies and AfriAlliance Project Director, UNESCO-IHE, such “African grass root initiatives, by being allowed to develop more freely, present more opportunities to ‘leap frog’ to smart management solutions, with the help of, for example citizen science”

“Greater awareness, more data sharing”

Programmes such as GEO and Copernicus do act as enablers in pushing for greater data sharing. However, data sharing remains an issue, even in Europe. Many end users of geo-information (public authorities and private sector) are still not aware of initiatives such as GEO, Copernicus and free, open and full access to satellite data (e.g. Sentinels). Furthermore, public raw data providers could be even reluctant to share their data. Such practices have lead to many cases of data duplication, not only at a regional level but also at a local one. When looking at the Balkan region, “sometimes the disconnection within countries is to a large extent greater than in-between countries” Mr Igor Milosavljevic, Senior Business Development Manager at InoSens argued. Mapping such duplications in order to prioritise capacity building needs will be amongst the key objectives of the ConnectinGEO project as Ms Ivette Serral, the project’s Technical Manager indicated. What’s more, the project will aim to build upon previous regional project expertise to offer a new set of recommendations to Copernicus and GEOs.

Amongst the many interesting takeaways from the session, one really stood out: For end-users to fully and sustainably reap the benefits of EO-based services, significant efforts need to be made in awareness raising, networking and capacity building at regional and local level. Capacity building projects such as GEO-CRADLE and ConnectinGEO should heavily promote data sharing principles, integration of regional capacities and concrete linkages with the strategic implementation of Copernicus and GEO in the EU’s neighbouring countries. The success of such projects relies on the strong involvement of all actors across the value chain, for which GEO-CRADLE – in cooperation with other initiatives in the region – will certainly strive. In that context, the next regional workshop of GEO-CRADLE takes place in Novi Sad from 14-15 July