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Interview with JOSE ACHACHE, Director of GEO Secretariat

In this issue of EOMAG, EARSC will have the opportunity to feature an interview with Mr. JOSE ACHACHE, Director of GEO Secretariat. First of all, thank you very much for taking some time from your busy agenda and giving us the occasion to talk about some aspects relevant for the European and International Earth Observation sector.


As Director of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat, Mr. Achache is responsible for managing programmatic and administrative support to GEO, coordinating the development and implementation of Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), and maintaining effective working relationships with the broader GEO community…. but please let us know few personal words on the GEO´s office daily running and the interactions with GEOSS?
Last year the world faced a major global food crisis. Last week, the World Water Forum failed to agree on a coordinated approach to water resources management. Forest carbon monitoring will be one of the key issues of the post-Kyoto agreement on carbon emissions reduction. Having to work every day to build an information system to provide answers and support decision-making on such important issues is a privilege and a challenge. It requires jumping from one subject to another 20 times a day, interacting with many different communities and traveling the world over. Exhausting yes, but who would complain…?

Are GEO’s objectives being translated in a concrete manner into Earth observation activities at national, regional level global levels?
Yes they are. While GEO of necessity involves itself with process and procedures – the meetings and documents and phone calls that are needed for coordination and information sharing – we are also changing reality on the ground (and in the air, the oceans and space). New and better observation systems and services are steadily becoming a reality. The disaster-response system SERVIR in Central America and, soon Africa; the China Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program; and the Argo fleet of ocean-monitoring buoys are just a few examples. One ongoing initiative that I trust will be realized in the near future is the creation of a global carbon monitoring system. Another practical recent achievement was the decision by the United States to open up the full Landsat archive – which contains the largest collection of satellite imagery in the world – to all users free of charge. Dick Kempthorne, the previous US Secretary of Interior who made this decision, was directly inspired to do so by his participation in the 2007 GEO Ministerial Summit. In less than a month this decision led to a 30-fold increase in the demand for space imagery; this is a great demonstration of the value of the data policy being advocated by GEO.

How GEO is coordinating the network all existing and future observing systems? and how relevant is GEO to sustainable development?
The coordination required for constructing GEOSS is driven by an agreed three-year work plan for 2009 to 2011, which in turn is based on the ten-year implementation running from 2005 to 2015. But new ideas and opportunities for coordination continue to emerge organically from within the community. The coordination of observation networks is taking place on a voluntary, best-efforts basis, and it is really bottom up rather than top down. First the representatives of governments and organizations share ideas and information, they see where the gaps and the opportunities are, and then they coalesce into partnerships for coordinating work on a particular theme or issue. Their progress is reported back to the rest of the GEO community through what we call Task Sheets as well as reports at meetings, and this in turn inspires new ideas and new partnerships.

What are the most significant achievements at GEO Secretariat? How was born the GEONETCast concept and how is it working?
The GEO Secretariat plays a key role in guiding the overall process and bringing people together. We contribute our own ideas, a number of which have had an important influence, and we stimulate new connections between various people and organizations that may not have occurred otherwise. We also encourage more governments to join GEO, we promote GEOSS amongst key groups such as scientists, donors and the media, and provide other general coordination and support.

As for GEONETCast, it was born from the recognition by NOAA and CMA that EUMETCast could easily be extended to provide a global service and one which addresses all GEO societal issues. Currently, this facility can broadcast information and key data sets over 90% of the continents.

From your dedicated experience and know-how, how has the concept of Earth Observation developed over the years? And what about the lessons learnt?
The world’s capacity for and interest in Earth observation has increased geometrically over the past two or three decades. Certainly the first photographs of the Earth from space changed the way people saw their home, expanding their perspective from their village or country to encompass the entire planet. At the same time science has continued to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all aspects of the Earth system – the geosphere, atmosphere, biosphere and so on. New technologies such as SAR, growing national investments in satellites and other monitoring instruments, and of course the planet-wide challenges of sustainable development, the depletion of the ozone layer, the loss of biodiversity and perhaps most importantly climate change have also contributed to the growing interest in environmental monitoring. All of these elements have combined to make earth observation an essential tool for the modern world.

Today, services based on Earth observation are blooming. Google is determined to increase its provision of information. Cisco has come up with “Planetary Skin”, which is directly inspired by the concept of GEOSS. I have the feeling that this is only the beginning, that we are close to an explosion of demand and that growth in the near future will be exponential.


Could you briefly comment on the GEOSS Governance models?
When GEO was launched in 2005, governments easily recognized the benefits of collaborating on GEOSS, but they had to decide what form it should take. The answer they hit upon was to rely on the extremely flexible form of governance embodied by GEO. As suggested by the informal nature of a “Group,” GEO has a limited legal identity based on a multilaterally agreed 10-Year Implementation Plan. GEO has established a small secretariat to facilitate collaboration, and contributions to the secretariat’s budget are strictly voluntary. The staff consists largely of experts seconded from governments and organizations for two or three years, and overhead is reduced by working in English only and limiting the amount of documentation for meetings. Collaboration on networking the world’s Earth observation systems takes place through specific “Tasks”, which are informal arrangements led and implemented by all governments and organizations willing to participate. Governments and organizations also “contribute” their national systems, instruments, services and tools – known as “components” – to GEOSS. This flexible and completely voluntary approach is working well.

GEO will need to mobilize financial resources, especially with regard to enhancing observation capacities. How do you view this challenge?
The current financial crisis, of course, does not make our efforts to mobilize resources any easier for the immediate future. But building GEOSS is a long-term enterprise, and government investments in satellites and other instruments involve multi-year programmes. Given the growing importance of Earth observations, natural resource management and global environmental degradation, and the fact that collaboration through GEO means that each government is getting more bang for its investment buck, I am confident that public investments in Earth observation will continue and even expand. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be channelling more resources to developing countries and to users who need to strengthen their capacity for using Earth observation information and services. The European Commission through its 7th Framework Programme has been a very generous provider of resources for both producing and using Earth observations. But clearly resource mobilization is a vital issue that we need to continue working on.

How do you see the role of GEOSS in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)?
GEOSS can make an essential contribution to support environmental conventions, which after all are the centrepieces for global cooperation and decision making on a number of key issues. Last year’s meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a decision explicitly recognizing the potential of GEOSS in supporting the implementation of the Convention. I have also signed an MOU with the Executive Secretary of the CBD setting out the various ways that GEO and the Convention can collaborate, and the emerging GEO Biodiversity Observation Network is already interacting directly with the Convention. I am hopeful that our work on a global carbon monitoring system, including an innovative component on forests, will be seen as useful by the Parties to the Climate Change Convention.

Moving towards a global scene, GMES and GEOSS should work in concert to determine the plan for ensuring the proper system(s) components and the proper architecture are in place to meet user requirements, how is this management taking place?. Full and open sharing of data between systems is essential, How is being built the architecture for the technical operation of the system of systems (features as data capture, data collection, processing, dissemination, storage/archiving, exchange, products and services, etc)?
Officially, GMES is the European contribution to GEOSS, together with many other FP7-funded projects. As such, the European Commission, ESA and Member states will define how GMES will fit in the global picture of GEOSS. Architecture is not the issue since the approach we have taken for GEOSS is not to enforce a common architecture but to recommend simple interoperability requirements. The development and availability of services will be more important and, on this one, we have continued exchanges of information between the GEO Secretariat, the Commission and ESA. The other critical issue will be the data policy of GMES. As you know, GEO is strongly advocating for data sharing principles which will guarantee free and open access to data and information. The sudden boost in requests for Landsat data, following the shift in data policy at the US Geological Survey that I mentioned earlier, is a striking demonstration that there is great demand on the part of users for involvement in GEO, including in developing countries. The success of CBERS for Africa and GEONETCast are two other examples where GEO has been instrumental in improving access and generating an increased use of Earth observations.

How do you see the future steps for GEOSS and GMES?
GEO is only five years old, which is very young for an intergovernmental body. Despite that, we have already achieved a great deal, with a number of what we call “early achievements”, a growing network of contributors, growing support and commitment by key players, and an ambitious and targeted work plan. At our next ministerial summit, to be held in November 2010, I am optimistic that we will be able to demonstrate that we are now moving beyond the start-up phase to the phase of real, concrete implementation. New systems, new information resources, truly effective internet portals, and integrated data sets will be starting to come on line. We need to prove that GEO is not a mere chat shop but is a factory for producing real and tangible systems and services that would not otherwise exist.


What will cooperative efforts between GEO and Industry will bring? and what type of dialogue mechanism could take place with the service industry?
Engaging the private sector is critical for the success of GEOSS. Companies have a great deal of expertise, and they are key investors in new technologies. Just as collaboration amongst governments can help to leverage public investments, bringing in the private sector can help to spread the burden and the work. The challenge is getting the incentive structure right. How do we meet the needs of the private sector for profitability while also ensuring that GEOSS remains a global public good? We have started to explore this issue from different angles and to engage with different industry sectors. Our engagement with Iridium is a good example. We invited them to a meeting with a number of space agencies to present their case for piggybacking public-sector monitoring instruments on the Iridium communications satellites, which have some spare capacity. Recently the oceanography community has started to explore how to engage the shipping industry in hosting ocean monitoring instruments. There have been other openings as well, and this remains a major priority for us. We are completely open to dialogue with the private sector.

How can your organization help our industry and how can we help you?
As with the Iridium example, we have the power of convening, of bringing public and private sector interests together to discuss this issue freely. Because we are active with different industry sectors, we can facilitate the flow of ideas and potential models for cooperation. I invite industry to help us by thinking through possible frameworks for combining public and private interests and to share their insights and proposals with us.

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 on the right track?
The same as yesterday and the day before: shifting the emphasis from data to end-to-end services. I have been constantly advocating for this shift over the last 10 years. And it is becoming urgent for Europe to put its act together since the other big players are now moving in this direction. If Google Earth and Google Ocean are merely attractive displays supporting commercials, future developments like Google Forest may deliver real services, and not just to the citizen but even to the public sector. After Microsoft, with Virtual Earth, we now have Cisco Systems announcing Planetary Skin, an ambitious project for a global information system of systems “closely inspired” by GEOSS.


What are your comments on the latest developments in the earth observation arena for the service of the citizen? How will GMES and GEOSS be innovative in the coming years meeting the expectations of the citizen?
For the average citizen, Earth observation probably brings to mind weather forecasts and Google Earth, and perhaps not much beyond that. But as I just mentioned, things are changing. The concerns of the citizen include climate change and a need to understand better the world they live in.

GEOSS, itself a system of systems, will change the way people view our shared planet. They will increasingly see the Earth as a system of interlinked systems. This emerging paradigm is well understood by scientists and many policymakers, but less perhaps by much of the general public. The integrated data sets and information services available through GEOSS will make it easier for people to recognize how climate affects the water they drink, how rain patterns affect the energy supplies, how extreme weather events such as droughts affect their health, and so forth. As advances are made in the interface between data generation and information delivery via internet portals, GEOSS will increasingly serve as a powerful educational tool. People will be able to track changes in the Earth system, model it on their home computers and explore various future scenarios. Just as photographs of Earth and then the internet resulted in a paradigm shift in the way people perceive the world, GEOSS will one day soon also contribute to a paradigm shift.

Dr. Achahe, thank you for your time, and for sharing your thoughts and comments with the EOmag readers.

The goal of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (or GEO) is to integrate today’s fragmented earth observation measurement systems to create a comprehensive Global Earth Observation System of Systems (or GEOSS) for monitoring and forecasting changes in the global environment. It is a bold idea requiring an unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination between national agencies with diverging interests, as well as the emerging commercial interests building business models around the sale of climate data.

José Achache – [photo: Joerg Reichardt] – source

Eomag! 17_ Interview with Jose Achache, Director of GEO Secretariat.pdf