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Interview with Barbara J. Ryan, GEO Secretariat Director.

Barbara J. Ryan is Secretariat Director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) located in Geneva, Switzerland. In this capacity, she leads the Secretariat in coordinating the activities of nearly 90 Member States and 50 Participating Organizations who are striving to integrate Earth observations so that informed decisions can be made across nine Societal Benefit Areas including agriculture, biodiversity, climate, ecosystems, energy, disasters, health, water and weather.


Could you briefly explain your daily activities as mainly being responsible for managing programmatic and administrative support to GEO? What are the most significant achievements at the GEO Secretariat?

Like most Secretariats, our primary job is to facilitate and support the work of our Member States and Participating Organizations. Today, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is comprised of 89 Members (88 Countries and the European Commission), 67 Participating Organizations, and 7 Observer Organizations, so, the coordination components associated with our work is substantial. You can see from the attached map (fig.1), that our geographic coverage is quite large. Yet, there are still gaps in selected parts of the developing world, most notably in Africa, the Pacific Island States and South America.

The primary objectives of GEO are to improve and coordinate observation systems, advance broad, open data policies and practices, foster increased use of Earth observation data and information, and ultimately build capacity. We do this through the design, construction and implementation of an annual Work Plan whereby GEO Members and Participating Organizations identify, propose and conduct Tasks which address Strategic Targets in the nine GEO Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs) (fig.2) – agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, health, weather and water. A lot of our work is centered on communicating the importance of integrated Earth observations, and maximizing the use of data and information across these nine SBAs.
fig.1. Created in 2005, to develop a coordinated and sustained Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) to enhance decision making in nine Societal Benefit Areas (SBAs). GEO today: 89 Members, 67 Participating Organizations

fig.2. A Global, Coordinated, Comprehensive and Sustained System of Observing Systems
The most significant achievements of the entire GEO Community, and by extension the Secretariat, have been both programmatic and political. Observations that have traditionally been collected for one application area are being used in other application areas, therefore leveraging them to a much greater extent than previously planned. GEO Member States are increasingly sharing data so that global monitoring initiatives like the Global Forest Observation Initiative (GFOI), GEO Global Agriculture Monitoring (GEOGLAM) and GEO Biodiversity Observation Network (GEOBON) can be built on data and information that is both harmonized internationally and quality-assured.

GEO has also had a positive impact on a number of policy and/or political decisions (fig.3 below). The change in the U.S. Landsat data policy was announced at the GEO Ministerial Summit in South Africa – a decision that has resulted in more than 9 million downloads of Landsat data over the internet at no charge to the user. And most recently, the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters announced universal access to its assets for all GEO Members.

What exactly is the role of your team in coordinating the development and implementation of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), and maintaining effective working relationships with the broader GEO community?

Each Member and many of the Participating Organizations own and operate their own observing systems – including space-based, airborne and surface-based systems. Participating in GEO allows these individual Earth observation systems to contribute to a Global Earth Observation System of Systems or GEOSS, resulting in a framework, a construct, actually an infrastructure that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Like any system with different owners, policies and practices differ among the owners. The role of our team is to find the areas of commonality, increase and advance interoperability and strive to reduce the barriers that limit the full development and implementation of GEOSS. As one might imagine, communication is key to working in this international environment. And with English being the language with which we conduct our business, communicating in a clear, open and transparent fashion for all 89 Members, not just the native English speakers, is essential.

How is GEO coordinating the network of existing and future observing Systems? And how relevant is GEO to sustainable development?

GEO leverages the work of other organizations to coordinate the network of existing and future observing systems. A good example is that of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), an organization which brings together many of the world’s space agencies. And in recent years, as the space-coordination arm of GEO, CEOS has substantially revised and refined its agenda or programme of study to help meet GEO’s goals and objectives. Similar conversations are occurring with organizations like the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) for the climate component of GEOSS, with the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) for the ocean component of GEOSS, and with the European Environment Agency (EEA) for prototyping the surface-based or in situ coordination so desperately needed for full Earth observation integration to be realized.

In reference to GEO’s relevance to sustainable development, one has only to look at our nine SBAs. Each one – agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, health, weather and water – pertains directly or indirectly to sustainable development. This, however, should be no surprise given the genesis of GEO closely followed the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. In 2003, Environment Ministers from the world’s industrialized nations (G8) recognized the unmet potential that Earth observations can play in addressing many of society’s key environmental challenges, and in 2005 the intergovernmental mechanism of GEO was established with the Secretariat located in Geneva, Switzerland.

GEOSS and GMES (Copernicus)

How is the liaison with other programmes as the European Earth Observation programme, GMES?

We are fortunate that Europe has coined GMES as the European component of GEOSS. As indicated above regarding our EEA discussions, the policy alignment of GMES with GEOSS has a significant positive impact on both efforts. For example, to the best of my knowledge, EEA is the only organization that is attempting to tackle the issue of increased coordination of in situ observations across domains. If successful in Europe, this would serve as a substantial contribution to global coordination (and leadership) for in situ observations. GEOSS implementation has benefitted substantially from the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme (FP7) where potential grantees are asked to identify how their research projects will advance GEOSS implementation. We are asking other GEO Members to undertake similar efforts. And lastly, although I was not personally involved in the deliberations, I imagine that GEO’s global advocacy for broad, open data policies had some impact on the European Union’s proposed GMES data policy.

As you may know GMES governance is being discussed. Are we very far away to think that GEOSS governance could serve as a model? What about data policies?

This is actually a more complicated question than it may first appear. As a voluntary organization, GEO has no authority to mandate or require that a Member or Participating Organization takes any particular action. And therefore, traditional thought would likely drive a governance model toward a fully-sanctioned body with legal mandates. Yet, what we have observed in the few short years of GEO’s existence, is that substantial influence (with resultant actions) can be exercised in selected areas – data policies is one such example. Combining this fact with the speed at which many, if not most, international organizations reach consensus and ultimately affect change may argue for environmental governance mechanisms to be more like GEO. At the very least, GEO could be used more extensively to test, in a quasi research and development mode, policies and practices before they are transitioned to, and adopted by, operational entities.

How do you see the role of GEOSS in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)?

Following the last question regarding environmental governance, I believe the early efforts with GFOI and GEOGLAM are, in fact, prototyping what might actually result in more formal MEAs.

How do you see the future steps for GEOSS and GMES?

As previously discussed, the GMES data policy and the early in situ coordination efforts (by EEA) are proceeding nicely and will continue to be good steps for GEOSS and GMES. It also goes without saying that most, if not all, the GEO SBAs will not only benefit from, but need GMES to materialize. We understand the funding challenges that lie ahead, but are optimistic that the gains to be made from full implementation of GMES will outweigh the costs.

Full and open sharing of data between systems is essential. How is building the architecture for the technical operation of the system of systems (features like data capture, data collection, processing, dissemination, storage/archiving, exchange, products and services, etc.)?

As one might expect, each of these functions is progressing differently in different places. The overall architecture for GEOSS does not call for each of these functions to be performed in one centralized location. For example, over the last few years, the strategy to seek individual data sets for GEOSS registration has been replaced with a strategy to reach out to data brokers – organizations or entities who already have responsibility for conducting each of these functions for their respective data and information – and to develop interoperability arrangements between databases and organizations. This action has resulted in benefits accruing on both sides. GEO Members are benefitting from access to increased data and information, and partners of the individual brokers are being exposed to data and information across a broader suite of SBAs than they had originally.

What has not yet been fully exploited is the development of value-added products and services downstream from each and every one of these data sources. It is in this downstream development component where the true and substantial economic value lies – not in the actual data stream itself.

Dialogue with EO Industry

What will cooperative efforts between GEO and Industry bring? And what type of dialogue mechanisms could take place with the service industry?

I firmly believe the cooperative efforts between GEO and Industry will bring the value-added products and services that have not yet been realized from Earth observation data. If you believe, as I do, that the economic value of geospatial data lies in the products and services produced from these data, and not in the data itself, then GEO can focus its efforts upstream, while the commercial sector focuses its efforts downstream producing value-added products and services. From my perspective, we have just begun to tap the potential economic value of geospatial data and information with examples of products and services built around the GPS, marine and weather domains. Much remains to be exploited.

How can your organization help our industry, and how can we help you?

Less than two months ago at our annual Plenary meeting, GEO Members approved a much broader strategy for stakeholder engagement in GEO which includes involvement with the private sector. We have had preliminary discussions with EARSC and other Associations (of commercial companies) to help frame the best way forward. As implied above, I believe GEO can provide a marketplace for commercially produced products and services thereby helping your industry, and in return GEO Members and Participating Organizations will benefit from enhanced applications of Earth observation data and information. These enhanced applications will be used to save lives and property during disasters, bring clean water to those who need it, ensure more stable food supplies for the world’s poor, mitigate the impacts of a changing climate, help create an energy secure world, and the list goes on. There is no end to the creativity and potential that exists when Earth observations become more widely available.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the commercial Earth observation industry is facing in the years to come? What kind of downstream service industry would Europe benefit from? Is the European Earth observation community on the right track?

At the risk of being criticized by those who face these challenges on a daily basis, one of the biggest challenges facing the commercial Earth observation industry is likely to be the uncertainty associated with what actions governments will take and when these actions will be taken. In my experience, there is usually a fair amount of confusion regarding roles and responsibilities between the public and private sectors, and sorting out the public-good components of a programme from those that are (or will be) commercially viable into the future is not easy.

What is your opinion on the development of the EO market?

Much progress has certainly been made, but you can tell from my previous responses, that in my opinion, it falls very short of its full potential.


How do you see the planning and budgeting process in GEOSS? What in your opinion is a suitable budget envelope for the years to come for an operation system?

Planning and budgeting for GEOSS occurs at several levels – first and foremost, it is the substantial resources that Members put into planning, development, operation and maintenance of observing systems. Without these national and international investments, there would be no systems to allow the creation of a system of systems. In addition to the actual infrastructure costs, the investments made in conducting science and research are equally substantial. Again, without these investments, the GEO Work Plan would be a shadow of itself. And lastly, but to a much lesser degree, Members and Participating Organizations make voluntary contributions for Secretariat operations. As financial pressures for governments mount, we must all do a better job of showing the added benefit that can be accrued by more, not less, coordination and cooperation. Participation in GEO has facilitated multi-lateral funding arrangements allowing project costs to be spread among partners, thereby reducing the financial liabilities of a given party. We expect these arrangements to increase substantially in the future.

How do you see the future steps for the next GEOSS implementation plan?

As we move toward the end of the first 10-year Implementation Plan, I expect that we will see more globally integrated monitoring initiatives, like GFOI, GEOGLAM and GEOBON, but across the other SBAs. The Energy SBA, for example, in my opinion, is primed for a globally integrated initiative.


At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts on the future development of the geo-information service sector? Do you think the Global Earth Observation activities are on the right track? And the European ones?

I am extremely excited about the future development of the geo-information service sector. Although we have discussed many challenges throughout this interview, I am quite optimistic that almost everyone wants to see things work better. I also believe very strongly in the power of place – the place where we were born, the place where we live, even the place where we will die. Integrated geospatial information is a prerequisite for unleashing that power, and we in GEO look forward to working with you on this very important task.


Barbara J. Ryan is Secretariat Director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) located in Geneva, Switzerland. In this capacity, she leads the Secretariat in coordinating the activities of nearly 90 Member States and 50 Participating Organizations who are striving to integrate Earth observations so that informed decisions can be made across nine Societal Benefit Areas including agriculture, biodiversity, climate, ecosystems, energy, disasters, health, water and weather.

Before assuming this position in July 2012, she was the Director of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Space Programme. She had responsibility for the space-based component of the WMO Global Observing System (GOS), coordinated space-based assets to meet the needs of WMO Members in the topical areas of weather, water, climate and related natural disasters, and also served as the technical focal point for WMO’s activities with GEO. Before joining WMO in October 2008, she was the Associate Director for Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Reston, Virginia where she had responsibility for the Landsat, remote sensing, geography and civilian mapping programs of the agency. It was under her leadership that implementation of the Landsat data policy was reformed to release all data over the internet at no additional cost to the user — an action that has resulted in the release of more than 9 million Landsat scenes to date. As the 2007 Chair of the international Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) she led the space-agency response to the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) satellite requirements for sustained measurement of the GCOS Essential Climate Variables (ECVs). She holds a Bachelor´s degree in Geology from the State University of New York at Cortland, a Master´s degree in Geography from the University of Denver, and a Master´s degree in Civil Engineering from Stanford University.

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