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Interview Andreas Veispak: Head of EC´s Space data for societal challenges and growth Unit

Andreas Veispak is the Head of Unit for Space Data for Societal Challenges and Growth at the European Commission. His responsibilities include space-related data, user uptake, and new business models as well as international relations and outreach activities.

Firstly, Mr. Veispak, can you give us a picture of the current activities of your Unit, what you do and what is your mission?

The Space Data unit has been set up recently to reflect the fact that the Copernicus programme has become operational and that we increasingly need to focus on extracting as much value as possible from the data and information it delivers. So, if I was to summarise the mission of the unit in very simple terms, I would say that we have one overriding objective: to maximise the uptake and use of Copernicus (and space data more generally) among different user groups so as to fully exploit the societal and economic potential it offers.

More specifically, the unit is responsible for data policy, management, dissemination and access (essentially everything data related), for determining current and future user needs and promoting user uptake across different communities, for facilitating the development of new business models and stimulating innovation and new product/ service development in the downstream sector, for international relations of Copernicus as well as for communication and outreach activities.

The unit in this form is quite new, how does its mission fit with that of other units in DG GROW?

The overall mission of DG GROW is to develop the internal market in the EU, promote the competitiveness and innovativeness of European companies and to create the conditions for enterprises – particularly SMEs – to flourish and grow. Our unit’s objectives essentially mirror this overall mission and seek to apply it to the area of Earth Observation and space data. I mean this in the broadest sense as the innovative application areas for space data go far beyond the traditional space domain, including its combination with non-space data, and can cover sectors, which at first sight may not have much to do with space.

Consequently, we work together very closely with our colleagues across DG GROW. First and foremost, we work with our sister unit responsible for the Copernicus programme as our activities are intimately linked, we share the same objectives and we very much try to work as a single team. We also co-ordinate closely with other units in the space domain, such as our colleagues responsible for space policy and research or with those working on Galileo. Finally, we have close contacts with both the more sectorial units in DG GROW which can benefit from Copernicus data and information (raw materials and extractive industries are the first to come to mind) as well as those which are more horizontal (such as public procurement, innovation, digital and SME-related). This is only natural given that one of our main objectives is to bring the benefits of Copernicus and space data to other areas of society and the economy.

You have recently been appointed as head of this unit, what do you find has been your biggest challenge on taking over the reins?

I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of setting up the new unit, not least because we have an extremely motivated and hard-working team and because we work together with highly professional partners and stakeholders. It is always challenging to set up a new unit; in this case we operate on the boundaries of space, digital and numerous thematic areas, which means that often we enter completely new territory, try to look at approaches which have not really been tried before and for which there is no clear blueprint or guarantee of success. This implies a degree of risk and that’s probably the greatest challenge: to develop and apply a strategy without being sure whether and how it will work. The second challenge relates to the almost endless number of potential application areas for space data and information, especially when combined with other sources of data. Hence prioritisation and determining how to have the greatest impact with the means available becomes a key issue. This being said, it is also what makes the job so enjoyable.

Copernicus and “big data” have relevance for many other directorates in the EC, are you liaising with other DG’s and where do you see the main interest coming from?

In light of the digital dimension of Copernicus and its potential application across a variety of areas from the environment to transport to health to regional policy, co-operation with other DGs is essential. On data-related issues we work together closely with our colleagues in DGs JRC, CNCT and RTD. In particular, DG JRC has been of an invaluable help to us in analysing and developing our approach for data dissemination and access not to mention their involvement in the Copernicus land and emergency management services. With the public sector being the main user of Copernicus, we are also working on internal uptake by the other Commission services with a series of user DGs (e.g. MOVE, ENER, HOME, ENV, CLIMA etc.) to see how space data can best be used to help the development and implementation of their policies and what practical steps we can take to support this.


Copernicus is a European flagship programme; can you share your visión for what this means for Europe?

For me Copernicus is an excellent practical example of what the European Union and its Member States can achieve when we work together. Copernicus, Earth Observation and space in general is a natural area for co-operation at the European level: given the costs and the complexity involved, it makes sense to pool resources for mutual benefit and Copernicus is a very good example of this. As a consequence, Europe is well on its way to having a fully operational programme, which is a world-leader in its field and which will provide a constant stream of data well into the 2030s. This is not only a showcase for European technological excellence in space but also for products and applications derived from the data: products and information from the Copernicus services should provide us with a very good basis for different thematic applications. As importantly, Copernicus provides the planning certainty and predictability which different user communities – including the downstream sector – need to develop products and be able to rely on. When we consider that all this is made available on a free, full and open basis, I can only conclude that Copernicus represents an excellent example of a public good, which anybody can make use of and which offers opportunities many of which have probably not even been conceived of yet.

In a broader sense, when one considers that Copernicus encompasses both the space and digital domains, it is highly representative of two central pillars for economic and societal development in the 21st century. We are only at the very beginning of realising the potential it offers and Copernicus gives Europe a good position from which to benefit from these trends.

How do you foresee to ensure that the benefits stemming from the Copernicus programme are equally open to all European member states?

Copernicus has a free, full and open data policy and the data and information are already available to everybody across Europe meaning that everybody can already benefit. However, in light of the current and future volumes of data as well as the potential offered by combining Copernicus data and products with other sources of data, we are working on improving data dissemination and access. This is one of the key challenges of the unit and we are trying to – together with our partners in implementing Copernicus – upgrade the data dissemination and access system which would allow for quicker and easier access to the data and information as well as to the tools needed to exploit it.

EARSC represents the industry sector which delivers comercial services based on EO data. Companies have a strong interest that Coperncius can provide a lever for them to develop new business. How can we together ensure that the €7b already invested can deliver the expected increase in economic activity and jobs?

In my view, industry has a central role to play in ensuring that maximum benefits are derived from Copernicus. A significant part of our effort in the next years will focus on promoting the uptake of Copernicus data and products by the private sector to deliver further value-added products and services. The market for earth observation data is still quite young and much of the demand comes from the public sector. When we look at space-related markets as a whole (leaving the upstream sector aside for the moment), we see that a lion’s share of the value-added products and services pertain to telecommunications and satellite navigation with a much smaller role for earth observation.

The Commission, together with its Copernicus partners (ESA, EUMETSAT, the entities responsible for the services), is already delivering the essential: the data and information products. In the future, I see three main areas in which we are likely to act: first, improving the data dissemination and access system to facilitate the use of data by different users, reducing fragmentation and mutualising a part of the cost related to data exploitation and allowing for the development of new business models; second, measures to improve the development of innovation in the downstream sector be it through support to innovative ideas and companies, business development, the utilisation of a range of EU instruments from H2020 to COSME in this sector, improving the link between research and practical application, supporting the development of the necessary skills and competencies or supporting the internationalisation of European actors in third country markets; third, supporting demand by the end-users, particularly in the public sector to provide critical mass for rolling out innovative applications.

Access to the data and information coming from Copernicus is key, what plans do you have to improve Access to this by the private sector?

This is a key point as without a well-functioning data dissemination and access system, most other measures will not really be very effective. We are currently in the process of finalising our approach for the future together with the Member States and our partners in implementing Copernicus, but, in a nutshell, we will try to do two things: improve the performance of the existing conventional data dissemination system whereby the user can essentially discover and download the data; and increasingly start bringing users to the data by making Copernicus data and information available together with the necessary processing capacity and tools (most likely in a cloud environment) without users having to download it. Achieving the appropriate level of interoperability will also become key in this context.

In our recent position paper, EARSC has proposed to create a European Marketplace Alliance for EO Services as one means to help overcome the severe fragmentation of the sector which sees many small companies distributed throughout the EU Members States. In your view, how can this initiative best help the EC to meet the goals for Copernicus?

We are extremely encouraged to see an increased interest from private service providers and we very much welcome any initiative which helps to bring together supply and demand. I expect the key question and challenge for such initiatives will be the interaction between co-operation and competition. I also think initiatives such as the Marketplace Alliance can very much complement and fit with the approaches we are currently considering and we will seek to design any system in a way which not only leaves maximum room for industrial initiative but also allows to further build on it.

Contrasting the US and Europe we see very different approaches shaped by the different market conditions. In the US, investment has been made using demand pull through the NextView and EnhancedView contracts with DigitalGlobe. In Europe the investment has been made in supply-side push through building infrastrastructure and public entities delivering the Copernicus Services. So far the role of the downstream supply side has been largely secondary. Can you explain your perspective on this and how we may move to a more demand-led approach?

I think we need a combination of both the supply and demand side. I don’t think it is entirely fair to say that the approach in Europe has only been public sector driven. Just as our industry are constructing the space and terrestrial infrastructure so also a part of the delivery of the Copernicus services involves private sector actors. Similarly, our industry is able to benefit from the research programmes financed by the EU. I do, however, take the point regarding demand, which is still very much public sector driven and dependent on public sector financing. We will try to mutualise some of the costs related to the exploitation of the data so as to enable the downstream sector to focus on providing value-added services and to encourage the creation of environments where EO data and information and be combined with a host of other data to develop innovative products. At the same time, we will also try to maintain and consolidate the demand from the public sector to provide critical mass and to help us deliver on essential services.

Can you say a few words about how you view Copernicus in the context of international co-operation? What specific measures are being taken in this respect.

International co-operation is central to Copernicus and historically there is a strong element of bi-lateral collaboration with Europe’s key partners in Earth Observation or in multi-lateral fora such as GEO. This makes a lot of sense as many of the societal challenges, which Copernicus was set up to help address (e.g. environment and security) are global in nature.

Broadly, our approach to international co-operation has three main objectives: maximise the uptake of Copernicus data and information, bring international data and expertise into the data management system in Europe on the basis of reciprocity and help promote opportunities for European actors in international markets. More specifically, we have concluded data exchange arrangements with the U.S. and Australia in 2015 and this year we are focusing on Latin America and Africa.


In the US, the 2003 Commercial Remote Sensing Act has opened the market to private ventures leading to a number of new start-ups launching and operating EO satellites. By clarifying the boundary between the public and private sector with the simple principle that a commercial approach should be privileged whenever possible, the US government has liberated the private sector leading to new initiatives. Could you elaborate your thought on a possible European Commercial Remote Sensing Act?

I think it is extremely important for industry to have planning certainty and predictability in order to be able to plan investments into new products and services. Hence, I think it makes sense to bring clarity to what is a publicly provided service and what is left to the private sector and how the interaction between the two should take place.

Do you think it should be necessary to identify instruments that allow organising co-operation between EC DG-GROW and the EO industry sector in a more effective way? How do you perceive the role of EARSC in this respect?

I think it is essential for us to have an organised and structured discussion with industry and to be able to gain the industry’s views and feedback on the evolution and conditions in the market. We are taking steps to do this in a more systematic way and I think you are seeing evidence of this already. The Commission tries to achieve maximum inclusiveness when it consults with different stakeholder communities and we very much value EARSC as an interlocutor and the inputs which we have received through the different analyses and position papers.


Finally, looking to the future;

What do you see as being the biggest challenges facing you over the next few years?

I think there are two main challenges: first, improving and upgrading the data dissemination and access system for Copernicus and space data in general to improve its performance for users, to take advantage of the technological advances in ICT and to enable for new concepts of integrated data exploitation and value extraction to develop; second, to create the conditions for EO data and information to be increasingly used outside the traditional communities and to expand the size of the market for innovative products. You could summarise this as the challenge of being able to effectively bring together supply and demand side approaches in a coherent and inter-linked manner.

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?

As I mentioned beforehand, Copernicus – with its full, free and open data policy – offers a unique opportunity for the EO services sector and we very much see our role as creating an enabling environment for industry to be able to take advantage of it. It is still a relatively small market largely driven by public sector demand but it does the have advantage of offering opportunities to conceive, develop and provide products and services which do not exist yet and for which there is a demand from different end users. This is, in my view, the main challenge for all of us.

Thank you in advance for the elements of contribution to the Interview and for sharing your thoughts and comments with the EOmag readers.

Andreas Veispak, an Estonian, started his career at PricewaterhouseCoopers working on and leading numerous projects across different sectors of the economy in fields related to economic development, strategic advisory, mergers & acquisitions, project finance, public-private-partnerships, due diligence and corporate recovery.
He joined the European Commission in 2005 where dealt with the automotive industry and was responsible for questions related to industrial competitiveness, energy and the environment. In 2010 he joined the team at Director General of DG GROW (internal market, industrial competitiveness, space – Copernicus and Galileo – entrepreneurship and SMEs). In the summer of 2015, he became the acting Head of Unit for Space Data for Societal Challenges and Growth at the European Commission with responsibility for space-related data, user uptake and new business models as well as international relations and outreach activities.
Andreas was educated at the University of Oxford, UK, where he studied Modern History.