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February 1, 2018

Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Satellite Data

When the Group on Earth Observations was formed in 2005, promotion of full and open data sharing was one of its primary goals. By that time, some agencies – including NASA and NOAA in the United States and INPE in Brazil – had already made most or all of their satellite data openly and freely available. A number of other large agencies – including the U.S. Geological Survey and the European Space Agency – adopted open data policies a few years later. In many cases, space and meteorological agencies were leaders in open data, developing and implementing these policies well before national open data initiatives were announced. Despite these and other important data sharing success stories, however, there is a significant amount of data that is still restricted. As of the beginning of 2016, data from less than half of the 458 unclassified, government-owned Earth observing satellites launched since 1957 has been made openly available.

My new book “Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data” examines the factors that caused some nations to embrace open data sharing, while others continue to restrict access to their environmental satellite data.

The book includes case studies of both WMO and GEO, providing the historical and international context in which data sharing decisions have been made. It then presents agency-level historical case studies looking at data sharing policy development in the space and meteorological agencies in the United States, Europe, and Japan (i.e. NASA, NOAA, USGS, DoD, ESA, EUMETSAT, JAXA, and JMA) as well as summaries of data sharing policy developments in the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). There is an appendix that discusses the data sharing policies of every nation that has ever owned an Earth observation satellite.

The book provides insights into the challenges of open data sharing. In nearly every agency examined, data was restricted to some extent with commercial sales in mind. These agencies used different models: government data sales, licensing private entities to sell data, or fully privatizing whole satellite systems – but the experiences were the same: satellite data sales did not result in significant revenues, but they did reduce data use for science, public policy, value-added products, and other applications.

The book shows that the satellite agency’s mission and the economic attributes of the data are particularly important for data sharing. Historically, nations have been interested in recovering costs through data sales or promoting the growth of a commercial market by partnering with the commercial sector. Despite evidence of limited opportunities for revenue generation, some nations continue to develop data policies focused on enabling these efforts. For many other nations, however, particularly those with relatively new or small space programs, remote sensing satellite programs are undertaken with a focus on capacity development or technology demonstration. In these cases, data utilization and sharing are secondary and typically do not receive significant attention or resources, resulting in a lack of open data sharing and its benefits.

Based on these findings, I offer practical suggestions for those working to increase open data sharing - including GEO and its members. First, stakeholders can continue to raise awareness of the economic benefits of open data sharing and data use so that decision-makers understand the costs and benefits of these policy choices. For nations considering partnerships with commercial remote sensing firms, efforts to identify innovative designs for engagement with the private sector - including the purchase of open data licenses or licenses that allow agencies to make data openly available after a given period of time, for example, will ensure that the benefit to society is maximized.

For nations that are focused on capacity building and technology demonstration, rather than data utilization, technical and logistical assistance can help to ensure that the resulting data is made available. Assistance in setting up data portals, or even offers to host foreign data, for example, can guarantee the data from a broader set of nations is made available.

The trend towards open data sharing began early among nations that operate satellites, but there is still significant room for improvement.


Mariel Borowitz

About the author:

Mariel Borowitz is an Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. Her research deals with international space policy issues, primarily international cooperation in Earth observing satellites, and satellite data sharing policies. She also looks at international trends in commercial remote sensing and civil-military interactions in remote sensing technology and data. Her research interests extend to human space exploration strategy and developments in space security and space situational awareness. Dr. Borowitz earned a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Masters degree in International Science and Technology Policy from the George Washington University. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also earned a minor in Applied International Studies. Dr. Borowitz is currently on detail at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC through Fall 2018.