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BalkanGEONet and OBSERVE promote coordination in the Balkans

BalkanGEONET logoRecognising that countries in the Balkans coordinate their Earth observation activities at the national level but not across borders, the European Commission decided in 2009 to fund a “Coordination Action” to review the status of Earth observation facilities and related research in the region.

The aim is to develop and strengthen collaboration between these facilities while highlighting the benefits of a more global and cooperative approach. Developing an integrated and efficient Earth observation network in the Balkans will provide substantial societal benefits to the region.

The Coordination Action selected two complementary project proposals. To mark the completion of the first year of work and plan for the future, the two projects held a joint meeting at the Technical University of Istanbul in November 2011.

Two projects

The project called OBSERVE is coordinated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece by Professor Petros Patias of the School of Rural and Surveying Engineering. The coordinator of the project called BalkanGEONet is Professor Vladimir Crnojevic at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.

The two projects aim to provide a mechanism for assessing the needs and potential contributions of the Balkans region in the domain of environmental monitoring that can address the GEO societal benefit areas. They address the issues of data collection, archiving, access and availability, and full and open access to Earth observation data and information. A key aim is to improve awareness within the government and amongst the public by providing training, strengthening data dissemination, and promoting movement towards free access to Earth observation data in the Balkan countries.

OBSERVE, which will run for two years, consists of 15 partners from 13 countries, including some from outside the Balkans. The project aims to assess the current level of Earth observation activities in the Balkans and to eventually create a permanent Earth observation community in the region. It will establish a new Balkan Earth observation community of multilevel stakeholders. This community will make use of state-of-the-art technological developments, products and know-how from the broader European Earth observation community.

The BalkanGEONet consortium has 16 members in 14 countries, including all of the Balkan countries as well as Austria, Belgium and Hungary. This project aims to identify existing data providers and users in the wider Balkan region, to determine their status, potentials and needs, and to coordinate amongst Earth observation players by establishing proper interfaces and networking. BalkanGEONet will run for three years.

Survey results

During their first year, the two projects have held joint meetings and organised common events in order to maximise their impact. A major milestone was a joint survey covering all of their respective member countries and organisations in the Balkans. The survey consisted of a comprehensive gap analysis designed to define the current status of Earth observation in the Balkans.

The survey identified 276 Earth observation stakeholders and 235 projects, initiatives and programmes. An extensive analysis of the data collected provides a preliminary insight into the region’s key challenges:

  • Earth observation communities are at different levels of development, but the differences seem to be larger between different fields than between countries.
  • Two major problems seem to be the fragmentation of communities and the lack of awareness of the larger Earth observation picture. Thus the approach to all Earth observation activities is bottom-up and targets mostly the scientific community and not the broader society. In most countries there is no clear coordination or governmental awareness of these activities. The exceptions are in Greece and Slovenia due to their response to major disasters such as floods and wildfires.
  • The production of data is fully regulated by law in 29% of the cases and partially in 24%.
  • Only 39% of data providers collect data continuously.
  • 67% of data providers are willing to register their data in GEOSS. Half would like to learn more about GEO and GEOSS,
  • 100% of data providers produce their data electronically, and 32% make it available over the Internet. 47% do not use any national or international standards.
  • 45% of potential data users identified the lack of funds or the unavailability of data as the major challenges in the past.
  • 73% of the existing data users declared that their business would become more efficient if they had easy and uniform access to Earth observation data. Half of them estimate the potential annual income growth between 10% and 25%.

The Istanbul workshop

The two projects concluded their first year by organizing a joint workshop entitled "Earth Observations for the Social Benefit of the Balkans." Hosted in Istanbul immediately after the GEO-VIII Plenary, the Workshop was also held in conjunction with the EC-funded project EGIDA. EGIDA has been supporting the GEO Science & Technology (S&T) roadmap and promoting the coordination of activities carried out by the GEO Science and Technology Committee, various national and European science and technology initiatives, and other S&T communities.

The 80-plus participants learned about current Earth observation activities, with a focus on GEO and on European institutions. They also exchanged views on how to further structure Earth observation activities in South-eastern Europe. One of the principal conclusions is that, while GEO requires a "top-down" approach at the national level, all Balkan countries exhibit "bottom-up" approaches when addressing Earth observation issues. Initiatives originate from within the scientific and research institutions rather than from government, and they rarely reach outside the scientific community (disaster management being a general exception). Further actions should be directed towards disseminating project results to governmental institutions in the Balkans and towards raising their awareness about GEO and GEOSS. This should result in a better inclusion of the Balkans in global Earth observation initiatives. 

Looking ahead

As a direct response to the workshop conclusions, plans for the 2012 period include extensive dissemination of information on the potential uses of Earth observations to governmental institutions, improved networking of players across the Balkans, and the further promotion of Earth observation, GEO and GEOSS.  The main events foreseen are:

  • A series of national promotional events, starting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in February 2012;
  • The Official launching of the Permanent Networking Facility in August 2012 in Split, Croatia;
  • A joint workshop of BalkanGEONet and OBSERVE projects in Split, Croatia, on 25-26 September.

The final outcomes of the projects will be the creation of a permanent web-based networking facility and the design of roadmaps and recommendations for an active, coordinated and sustained participation of all Balkan countries in global Earth observation initiatives.