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The Group on Earth Observations Transitions to Greater Outreach

Interview by By Matt Ball for Sensors&Systems. The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is working to build the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) by coordinating collaborative capacity across Member nations. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball spoke with Barbara J. Ryan, GEO secretariat director, at the recent Geospatial World Forum in Rotterdam. The conversation covered the mission and outlook for the group, as well as a new directive for broader outreach to the public and the private sector.

S&S: We first met when you were at the U.S. Geological Survey and were promoting the National Map. What has been your path to the international role as secretariat director at GEO?

Ryan: Well, Matt, I joined the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) right out of college and never did I expect to spend the majority of my career (34 years) there. It was during my last eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, that I was associate director for geography. It was in that capacity that I managed remote sensing, the topographic mapping program (The National Map), and the USGS geographic analysis and monitoring research functions.

While The National Map had a domestic focus, we would interact internationally, much like this meeting, with other national mapping agencies around the world to see their technological and policy developments. We were all facing the same challenges, primarily how to move all this information from paper into a digital arena, and how to share the information more broadly.

The remote sensing part of the job also allowed us to establish international partnerships, largely based on the Landsat program. When the USGS assumed flight operational responsibilities for Landsat back in 1999, with NASA building and launching the satellites, and the USGS handling operations for Landsats 5 and 7, we became a full member on the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS). It was several years later that CEOS stepped up to become the space coordination arm of GEO. So, that’s generally how I became familiar with GEO, and then about five years later I moved into the director’s position here.

S&S: Is the primary goal of GEO around monitoring global change?

Ryan: The primary goal is the assurance of Earth observations so that we can address society’s environmental problems. While many of our activities are targeted toward monitoring global change, we’re actually more concerned about the assurance, continuity, sustainability and interoperability of observing systems, so that monitoring across multiple domains can be done. .Governments, research organizations and others actually do the monitoring, we just want to make sure that the assets are in place, and that the data from these monitoring efforts is shared broadly. One of GEO’s primary objectives is to advocate broad, open data sharing, particularly if the data was collected at taxpayer expense — the citizens of the world should have access to that information.

S&S: So, gaps in Earth observation is part of the mission, along with cataloging what is in place and knowing what is planned?

Ryan: Yes, there are several targeted gaps in observing systems, either temporal or spatial gaps in key data sets, as well as inadequate access to information in different areas of the world.

S&S: One of the things that has fascinated me about the history of Landsat is the ongoing need to get data back from ground stations around the world in order to create an archive. Because, given its longevity, there simply wasn’t the technology to archive all the information centrally when the program began.

Ryan: Yes, you are right, and that’s actually an interesting story because the on-board capabilities were not robust enough with the early satellites to have on-board storage recorders. The program had to use international ground stations to download data so that storage space for the next collect could be made available.

So, while the United States needed those ground stations around the world to store data, the funny thing about the approach is that it built an international network that has survived and actually thrived over the last 40 years. I am convinced that the reason Landsat is so popular and used more around the world than almost any other satellite is because of the roots of the international ground station network.

While the USGS continues to interact with the international ground stations to ensure a copy of all the historic data is stored in the USGS archive, I think there’s still a fair amount that is not back in a centralized archive, so that effort is ongoing.

S&S: Doesn’t the depth and completeness of the archive become critical when wanting to explore global change?

Ryan: Absolutely. I would argue that one needs 20, 30 and 40-year views on how the landscape is changing to truly study the impact humans are having on the landscape, including, agricultural practices, urban growth, glacial loss, climate change, and the list goes on.

S&S: One observation approach that I’m really excited about is the National Science Foundation (NSF) National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) that incorporates both ground-based and aerial observation, with a view toward a 20-year consistent record to understand climate change.

Ryan: NEON was just getting its start when I left the USGS, and we are now working at GEO to strengthen our relationship with the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, and similar organizations around the world. From a US perspective, the federal agencies that are most involved in GEO are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, USGS, the Smithsonian, USEPA, and increasingly the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A best practice here in Europe that we are trying to encourage globally is that of the European Commission’s Framework Programme. The Commission earmarks research, science and technology resources for GEOSS implementation. So, the calls for proposals that go out to European researchers requests that the proposers articulate how their project will advance GEOSS implementation. It has been a good way of advancing GEO goals through the European Commission, and we would love to see the same kind of agreement with the research funding agencies of China, Japan, the United States, and many others.

S&S: I was excited to see that the European Space Agency (ESA) selected the biomass mission as the next satellite to be developed to better understand the Earth. The peer review of Earth Explorer missions seems a novel approach to prioritize and define the next earth observation missions.

Ryan: We’ve started to hear from some of the other communities about missions that they would have liked to see funded… What I find interesting about the approach is that more users are becoming engaged in the process. In many instances, science, cadastral and space agencies, are about pushing information out to potential users. We are trying to create more of a pull for this information – i.e. transitioning from a supply-driven to a demand-driven approach. Actions like the ESA peer review process start to create a demand-driven process as compared to a supply-driven approach, ultimately resulting in a prioritization of user needs.

S&S: I like the fact that in a constrained economic time, it still values those that define missions, and doesn’t dismiss outright, but prioritizes funding. With Europe’s Copernicus program that used to be known as the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), that’s another exciting effort that fills in gaps and takes a world-leading Earth observation approach.

Ryan: When one looks at the Copernicus Sentinel series of satellites, there is a tremendous opportunity, in collaboration with the Landsat series of satellites to have more frequent global coverage of the Earth’s land masses. In other words, when you have two Landsat satellites, you get a recurrence interval every eight days, but with the Sentinel Series in the 2016 or 2018 timeframe, you could get a recurrence interval every three days. With that frequency, one could start routinely monitoring crops from space, and not just one or two collections during the growing season, but weekly observations of the agricultural areas, and forested areas as well.

S&S: The idea of NASA’s A-Train, with a persistent string of observations with different sensors, is that something that we’re likely to see more of?

Ryan: The interplay between and among the satellites is important. Even though we have these satellites collecting data in different frequencies over the same part of the Earth, we still need in-situ monitoring for verification of what is being observed from space. We need to tie-in the ground observations with what the satellites are sensing, and this gets us back to GEO. We’re interested in integrating Earth observations, whether they are collected from a satellite, from an airplane, from a train, a ship or from a person on the ground. We are interested in bringing whatever assets there are together to answer society’s problems.

S&S: Part of the challenge is in the catalog of all the observation platforms, identifying gaps, but also collaborating to fill those gaps.

Ryan: In this regard, during the first part of GEO, from 2004 to 2009, we looked at the GEO mission as a massive cataloging effort. Then, about two years ago, we changed strategies. We transitioned to a brokering approach whereby interoperability agreements were established with institutions that have data sets and/or databases, rather than us seeking out individual data sets.

An example of this approach is illustrated with our agreement with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). WMO Members have generally registered their data in the WMO Information System (WIS). So we worked on an interoperability arrangement between GEOSS and the WIS resulting in data from one system being discovered by the other system. We are now hearing, particularly from some Members in the developing world that they are getting access to information that they didn’t know existed. WMO Members are getting biodiversity and ecosystem information that wouldn’t normally be delivered through the WIS that focuses on weather, climate and water, and GEO Members are gaining increased visibility to information in the WIS. It’s a win-win story, and we’d like to have interoperability brokering agreements with any institution that wants its environmental information broadly viewed and accessible throughout the world.

S&S: Does that tie into your outreach into the private sector, to both private satellite companies and to practitioners that are interested in the spatial analysis of this data.

Ryan: Private companies generally still sell their data, though in some instances they share it more broadly in humanitarian and disaster arenas. We aren’t advocating that every private company has to subscribe to our data sharing practices,, but if they’re a value-added provider or have additional information and/or services, we’d like to create a marketplace on our website for increased visibility and access to their products and services.

We want to show data that can be obtained for free from different organizations, largely government or scientific organizations. But there may be additional data that is not in the public domain that pertains to your area of interest, and we would like to facilitate that link as well.

S&S: Are there other ways that you’re working on engaging the private sector?

Ryan: In November our Members approved a broader stakeholder engagement strategy that would include the private sector, as well as the entire value chain: the providers of data, the value-added providers (those who build and deliver services and information products), and even the downstream representatives of our nine societal benefit areas. For instance, in agriculture it could include John Deere or Cargill; in biodiversity it might be Conservation International. There are downstream private sector providers in biodiversity, agriculture, climate, disasters, ecosystems, energy, weather, and water. In a GEO context, the private sector would also include the development banks, foundations and non profit organizations.

It’s an ecosystem, and if we really want to bring geospatial information, whether it’s imagery or data, into this century, we’ve got to recognize that everybody has a role to play and those roles, while sometimes competing, can also be complementary.

S&S: Is security part of the language at GEO, relating to global change and perhaps food security?

Ryan: We have an ongoing effort called GEOGLAM — GEO’s Global Agricultural Monitoring initiative. The goal is to use the global environmental monitoring assets to create a more food secure world. In order to do that, one must reduce the volatility of food prices, and the ranges and fluctuations that we currently experience.

Production forecasts should improve from the beginning to the end of the growing season. If we are able to bring more stability to the production forecasts, we should see less volatility in prices. When production forecasts are high; prices are low, and when production forecasts are low, prices are high. If we can flatten out the curves, advances in creating a more food secure world can follow.

Many of the 25 countries that produce 80% of the world’s crops have global forecasting capabilities. GEO is advocating that information from these countries be shared more broadly and openly, and that algorithms be harmonized so that forecasts are improved around the world. Global transparency will help create more stability and a more food-secure world.

A related aspect of the security issue is that governments do not want another government having easy access to what is happening over their domain with the fear that this information will be used against them. While this concern is recognized, most of the information that GEO is interested in transcends national boundaries. Atmospheric, oceanic and many terrestrial processes do not respect national boundaries, and actions in one part of the world often have wide-spread consequences. The benefits of broader data sharing almost always outweigh the risks associated with not sharing data.


Interview by By Matt Ball for Sensors & Systems