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Interview Dr. Stephen Coulson, head of the industry section in ESA's directorate of Earth Observation Programs in ESRIN


Value Added Element (VAE) is a component of ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programme, Mr. Coulson, could you briefly explain your daily activities at the VAE office in ESA? What exactly is the role of your team? And how is the liaison with other programmes and divisions?

Two words come immediately to mind to describe daily life in the office; busy and hectic ! We are a team of 6, but at any one time we are handling 60+ small, very diverse activities in the VAE program, as well as finishing a few much larger activities in the GMES Services Element program (eg. Polar & Sea ice, Maritime Security, Coastal water quality, Land motion). The approach we take is pro-active; we work side-by-side with industry service providers to make sure that the users involved are getting the very best out of what European industry and European EO missions are capable of delivering, and that it is in line with their requirements. Each member of the VAE team has developed specialist technical expertise in specific areas of EO applications and services over the last decade, and they can bring that practical experience of working with a wide range of users to the benefit of new activities right at the start. We are operating at the ‘front-end’ of the EO applications development process. We are talking to user communities (both public and private sector) who need information solutions in order to carry out their daily activities, and we need to match up these requirements with what we know EO can deliver in terms of well-validated services where the performances, limitations and constraints are known and we are on solid ground. We have two other teams in ESRIN working further ‘down the line’ in the development process; one group working with 1000+ scientists in developing new algorithms and techniques, and another group building on this work developing new applications in support of international environmental treaties and conventions. We are in constant cooperation with these colleagues, both to know the technical status of what’s cooking, and to feed-back new ideas from users of what needs developing. In addition, we work with our colleagues in ESTEC who are running the Integrated Application Promotion (IAP, that makes use EO, Navigation and Telecommunications technologies) to ensure that their activities take full benefit of what has been done in EO before. Add on top of all this the frequent events where ESA participates or organises to share its experiences and develop this domain, and you can appreciate why I began with those two words; busy and hectic!


Under the Eoworld title, ESA is committed to sustainable development initiatives in developing countries: what concrete progress in market development can industry expect? How ESA did the first approach to International Financial Institutions? How were the first links within the World Bank? Why the interest?

During the Spring 2011 EOmag issue, EARSC have learnt from Mr Anthony Bigio from the Sustainable Development Network at the World Bank that you are running a common project called “eoworld”, could you explain further the initiative?

eoWorld is a collaboration between World Bank and the European Space Agency to demonstrate the benefits that EO information can bring to Bank activities. We think there is a manifest need for reliable up-to-date and historical geospatial information in the planning, implementation, monitoring and completion phases of Bank investment projects. EO information can meet some (not all) of this need in a globally consistent manner.

With this in mind, eoWorld was started ‘bottom-up’ by focussing on 15 actual on-going Bank projects, and covering a wide range of EO information services in the land, marine and urban risk sectors, in different areas around the World. The Bank project teams specified what types of information were needed, and ESA then supported European providers (selected via open competition) to produce and deliver EO information services against these requirements. A first progress report has been published jointly by the World Bank and ESA (see Fig. 1). There has already been a significant investment in time and effort form the Bank in setting this initiative up. This has been led by Finance, Economics and Urban Development (FEU), both within their department but also across other departments of Sustainable Development Network (SDN). There is a huge interest in this both within the Bank and within the EO service industry. The attraction for the Bank is that ESA can provide independent technical guidance and oversight for non-experts to better understand and access the highly-specialised EO service sector. The attraction for industry is that ESA can facilitate access into a large organisation that would be otherwise be extremely difficult for small specialised companies. I think this is a good example of ESA opening new opportunity for both of these communities. fig.1.eoWorld Progress Report

Which was the selection procedure to decide on the interest of a project among the sustainable development projects? How is today the status of these projects? How do you envisage future activities?

We are now finalising these first 15 projects. The EO services have been delivered and benefits are currently being assessed by the Bank and local users. The Bank took the decision to hold a special session on the eoWorld initiative and first results during SDN Forum held during February in Washington DC. This involved some of Bank teams (enthusiastically) informing their colleagues of what impact using EO information had in their projects. The event was chaired with the high-level commitment of the SDN-FEU Director, Zoubida Allaoua, and the ESA EO Director, Volker Liebig (see Figure 2).

fig.2. Opening Panel session ‘Earth Observation for Development’ Feb 29th World Bank Washington DC (center : Volker Liebig, ESA Director of EO Programmes, Zoubida Allaoua World Bank Director of Finance, Economics and Urban Development)

You can see more about this on the Bank web site dedicated to EO ( But the ‘acid test’ is what happens after the project completes? Here we are very pleased to say that in the majority of cases, the Bank wants more of what has been delivered, and they are actively pursuing this under their own resources. We could not have hoped for a better result. Furthermore, this has raised sufficient interest to start discussions on a longer-term, more strategic collaboration on EO (the next phase of eoWorld). The idea is to look at priority areas for the Bank, and then map out a 3-5 year plan of cooperative action where, together with industry, ESA can demonstrate the full potential of EO information on a larger scale. First discussions on these priority areas include (but are not limited to) : oceans, forestry, disaster risk reduction, urban, and fragile states. Over the next few months, ESA will interact further with the Bank to finalise what could be done in the longer term. We hope to be in a position to start this more strategic collaboration by the end of this year. I have to say that the World Bank is leading the way forward in the use of EO information for development investments, but the opportunity doesn’t stop there. We have just started a very similar initiative with the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg (supporting 10 projects), and are in first discussions with European Bank of Reconstruction and Development in London, and the International Finance Corporation in Washington. As the momentum builds over the next few years, this could and should turn into a significant development opportunity for the European EO service industry (but first, let’s demonstrate the benefit!).


The goal of the OGEO group is to enable more and better business between the Oil &Gas industry and Earth Observation services industries how were the first steps of this initiative?How were established the goals for 2011 (Ogeo portal, Joint project industry and follow up workshop in Dec 2011)… and how ESA will measure the success of the OGEO group?How do you see the OGEO group developing and what can EARSC be doing more to help this?

The Oil & Gas industry is no stranger to EO. They have been using it for at least 20 years and go through phases of in-sourcing and out-sourcing this technology. Within my team, we have had several activities with individual companies to explore EO services, both in Oil & Gas and Renewable Energy. A good example was with Shell Canada to use high-resolution land cover mapping in support of land reclamation and sustainable development of the Athabasca Oil Sands (see Figure 3).

fig.3.Land Use Change 2005/2006, Athabsca Oil Sands Development (Jack Pine), based on SPOT-5 data

This made it into the company’s annual sustainable development report (see Figure 4) and led to a sustainable follow-on business in EO service provision. A few years ago, we decided that, in order to gain momentum in this sector we had to go beyond individual projects with individual companies and open up a dialogue with the complete industry sector. So we pooled all our results and organised a workshop attended by 40 companies in 2010 to figure out what could be done to grow adoption of EO information in more Oil & Gas companies (see Figure 5). That led to the set-up of OGEO – the Oil & Gas Earth Observation working group, including Shell, Exxon, BP, Total and Woodside – and to the establishment of an EO portal for the industry to better exchange information needs and EO capabilities. This initiative took a significant step forward in late 2011, when the OGEO members decided to formalise the group within the framework of OGP (the association of Oil & Gas Producers).

fig.4.Shell Sustainable Development Report (2006)
fig.5. ESA Oil & Gas Workshop Report 2010

We are now finalising the terms of reference and cooperation with both ESA and EARSC. A first task will be to provide guidance to the OGP on how EO could help in a new Joint Industry Project (JIP) on oil spill best practices, currently being defined in response to last year’s Deep Water Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. This all may sound very bureaucratic, but it has put in place a formal mechanism for two industry sectors (Oil & Gas, EO services) to cooperate. We will be looking to further support this as the basis for long-term expansion in activity between the two communities. Again, this is something that is very difficult for individual EO service companies to do, and an example of how ESA can support the EO sector. As a final word, we are currently working with the Re/Insurance industry to start a similar initiative to this.


What is your view on the future partnership between ESA and EARSC to foster the growth and development of the industry? How do you see these cooperation in the years to come?
EARSC is THE single trade body for the EO services sector at European level, and as such, the natural partner with which the ESA EO industry section should be working with. I think that in the last few years, EARSC has become more established and more effective, especially since the appointment of a permanent Secretary General, Geoff Sawyer. The collaboration between ESA and EARSC is closer, more interactive, and more productive. EARSC have been fully involved in both eoWorld and in OGEO, making valuable contributions and representing industry as a whole. I expect this cooperation to grow and develop even stronger over the next years (we have a lot to work together on!).


At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts on your vision for the future tasks ahead for VAE-ESA and EARSC? In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the commercial earth observation industry is facing in the next 3 years? Industry has recognised the importance of the value added programme as one of the major tools supporting the development of EO applications and services. In the new phase which is coming from 2013, which major issue you have in mind? Do you have overall recommendations on the future development of the geo-information service sector, and would like to ask to give some hopefully positive messages to the members of EARSC.

The single biggest challenge is to move the provision of EO information services on to a sustainable basis that the industry can develop by itself in the longer-term. The biggest users of this type of information are (and are likely to remain) Public sector : Government departments, organisations and agencies. Here, the joint EU-ESA initiative of Global Monitoring of the Environment and Security (GMES) should be the turning point. This should move EO from a science-driven R&D technology, to a source of data for operational monitoring of all aspects of the Earth’s environment (Land, Atmosphere, Oceans, Cryosphere). The Sentinels will be ‘data-monsters’, producing more data in 5 months than Envisat has produced in 5 years (even with 10 instruments). Sentinel-2 with A and B units operating together will give global coverage of the Earth’s land surface at 10m resolution every 5 days. This represents a phase-change for EO, but the raw materials (data) have to be easily and readily accessible, which is why a free and open data policy is crucial.

However, I don’t see any ‘killer app’ or overnight miracles. This is a process that took at least 25 years in Meteorology, and it will take time with EO for the environment. Nevertheless, GMES represents a tremendous opportunity for EO and the EO services industry. The work that we are doing together now with the Development Banks, the Oil & Gas and the Re/Insurance industries should be preparing the ground for the EO services industry to further exploit and expand these sectors with GMES in the near future. But where will the business opportunities come from? As a last remark, I would like draw attention to a simple statistic : in the last decade 6 out of the 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa, and this is predicted to rise to 7 out of 10 in the next 5 years (see Figure 6). The implications are that European companies will need to develop capabilities, contacts, offices and staff in these fast-growing countries outside of Europe. So, I look forward to continue to working with EARSC and its African affiliates in the near future !

fig.6. The World’s fastest growing economies in 2011 (source: Economist)

Dr. Stephen Coulson, head of the industry section in ESA’s directorate of Earth Observation Programs in ESRIN.
Stephen Coulson has over 25 years experience in the field of Earth Observation and its applications, the last 20 of which have been with the European Space Agency. Since 2000, he has been managing an ESA program to support the development of the European EO services industry and is head of the Industry section in the Directorate of Earth Observation Programs in ESRIN (Frascati, Italy). He has a degree in physics from University of Durham (UK) and a Ph.D in theoretical physics from the University of Southampton (UK).

Stephen Coulson
Head of Industry Section
Directorate of EO Programmes
ESA/ESRIN, Frascati Italy
voice :+ 39 06 94180556

Eomag!29_Interview Dr. Stephen Coulson Hesad ESA Industry Section EO programmes ESRIN.pdf