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December 4, 2017

Earth Observations: Global Perspectives from the UK

Last month I had the great pleasure of leading the UK delegation for the annual Plenary meeting of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Earth observation (EO) is the gathering of information about the Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems, usually via remote sensing technologies. GEO is a partnership of 105 national governments and 118 Participating Organizations (mostly non-governmental organisations: NGOs) that aims to bring together environmental Earth observations, policy and decision makers to solve global and local challenges. With over 500 people attending the GEO Plenary, an additional 250 people at side events and tweets reaching almost 11,500,000 impressions with the #GEOWeek17 hashtag, this was a truly global gathering.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) group of organisations has a very substantial interest in EO – it is increasingly using EO technologies, including using EO tools to validate rural payments schemes, managing flood emergencies, supporting management planning for protected sites and we are investigating other uses particularly in the marine environment. As satellite data availability and quality increases (improved resolution and a wider range of measurements such as air quality) the trend of using EO data for our delivery and policy will increase across the UK Government. This was why leading this delegation was such a pleasure – a delegation of 12 people each from different departments, agencies (including the Environment Agency [EA], Ordnance Survey [OS], Office of National Statistics [ONS] and the UK Meteorological Office [Met Office]) and academia – all learning from the best across the world and also demonstrating UK leadership in the application of this technology.

It was obvious during the meeting that there is rapid growth in capability in the use of freely available satellite data from European (Copernicus) and US (Landsat) programmes across the world for a wide range of public and private applications, and much excitement about novel applications.

The UK delegation was able to demonstrate our substantial leadership in this field – I spoke on a panel on national EO strategies, talking about lessons learnt in establishing the Defra EO Centre of Excellence on a panel with those just starting out this journey – Vietnam – and those with fully developed cross government structures – the US. EA colleagues presented at a ’Best Practices in Data Sharing’ event outlining the benefits and challenges in publishing open data – a great opportunity to share our open data story on a global stage, which received widespread interest and support and it was noted that the UK is ranked first in the Open Data Barometer (a global measure of how governments publish and use open data).

I was also able to announce, with thanks to support from Ordnance Survey, a remote UK secondment into the GEO Secretariat that will increase the use of EO data in disaster risk reduction and strengthen the UK’s contribution to GEO. Colleagues also took the opportunity to visit US counterparts and learn how they have developed cross-government EO services through the United States Geological Survey (USGS) – which will feed into our thinking as we support cross UK government work in developing the wider use of EO technologies. We also had a stand in the very well visited exhibition, showing off various UK government EO approaches, including Defra’s own EO Centre of Excellence.

There were some excellent success stories from others in the use of EO for economic and policy benefit – Australia estimated that utilisation of EO, along with the associated spatial industry, will have created 15,000 new jobs and contribute $8bn to its economy by 2025. A study by Google estimated that the private sector industry in EO services generated revenue of US$400bn in 2016. But there was also the view that more could be done to promote the use of EO both in the public and private sectors. There was an excellent Commercial sector panel highly relevant to Defra, including a farmer from Australia using EO data to manage his farm, representatives from the insurance industry and EO services companies that advise the food supply chain to keep food fresh. Further discussions with industry continued in the Executive Committee meeting (the body that provides strategic direction to GEO), with strong UK input and acknowledging that the commercial sector will be where major innovations in EO are likely to come from in the future. Another panel session focussed on using EO data to support International Development.

So what does this mean for the UK and other countries? Three lessons:

  • The use of EO is expanding globally, the UK is at the forefront of the technology and its use, but as with any new technology or approach – the pace of change is fast and we need to keep abreast of latest developments
  • The event was a diverse meeting of different communities much more than the traditional ’EO from satellites’ meeting – demonstrating the increasingly pervasive nature of EO across the public sector globally
  • Open data is very much still on the agenda (and the UK is an exemplar in this) and the vast array of new technologies and data science being brought to bear to utilise open data is very impressive, but at the same time, probably just beginning.

Finally GEO’s vision for the future is something we would strongly support, to move from a data centric approach to a user centric approach – closing the gap between data providers and users might, I hope, go some way to countering a quote from one of the speakers ’we are drowning in data and starved of wisdom’.


Iain Williams

About the author:

Iain Williams is the Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Since August 2016, Iain leads Defra’s governance of science and research including scientific capabilities, leading partnerships with other research funders domestically and internationally, independent scientific advice, science strategy and quality, and the use of emerging and disruptive technologies and methods – including the use of, and policy for, Earth observation.

Iain’s research background is in entomology, epidemiology and population dynamics, having held research posts at Imperial College, London and the University of East Anglia.