Geographies in Depth

How satellites can solve Africa's eco-challenges, from deforestation to illegal mining

Digital Earth Africa will use satellite imagery to tell a new story of how Africa’s land has changed over the past 30 years. Image: NASA

Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen
Knowledge Lead, Science and Technology Studies, World Economic Forum Geneva
Nicholas Davis
Professor of Practice, Thunderbird School of Global Management and Visiting Professor in Cybersecurity, UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

Carl Sagan in Time, 9 January 1995, describing the Pale Blue Dot image of Earth taken by Voyager 1

Seeing things from a distance can help us gain new perspectives. For more than four decades, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Landsat and, since 2014, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel satellites have captured images of Earth and helped humanity gain perspective on our planet and ourselves.

Not long ago, to see and use these images, you had to fax NASA and wire them the payment before a staff member would search for the image you requested and fax it back to you. Today, these images are digitally stored and publicly and freely available.

When combined with technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence, satellite images do more than tell us a story of change—they give us reason to change. They help us understand the changing natural and social landscape and provide much-needed insights, knowledge and, eventually, analysis for more informed strategic and inclusive decision-making.

Why satellite images?

Harnessing the power of satellite data can help us address some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet: sustainably managing the environment, mitigating and adapting to climate change, managing our water resources, reducing disaster risks, and unleashing agricultural potential.

Countries across Africa in particular need to tackle a series of environmental and natural resource challenges—from deforestation and illegal mining to food scarcity.

With limited resources on the ground, the answer might be to look to the sky.

Satellite imagery essentially shows us in real-time how the natural environment around us is changing. And with new and better satellites, the level of detail and frequency is increasing rapidly. When analyzed appropriately, these images can give us information about land use, water quality, changes in the landscape, coastal erosion, urban development and much more. This information can help policy-makers, corporate leaders, land owners and communities make better decisions about how to steward and manage the land and water resources around them.

Free and publicly available data is, however, only the start. Unlocking the data revolution for better decision-making and more sustainable development outcomes requires not just the raw data, but adequate, timely and trusted access and analysis.

Digital Earth Africa

Even though Landsat and Sentinel satellite images are free and publicly available, satellite images are difficult to scale up or down and more importantly to compute, analyze and understand. In addition, while many will understand and appreciate looking at a picture taken by a satellite, a single image can only tell the story of a particular place at a particular moment in time, and not much about changes in the natural or built environment over time.

The Digital Earth Africa platform seeks to address this challenge by building the world's largest operational platform for accessing and analyzing decades of satellite imagery specific to Africa's land and seas. By harnessing the breakthrough Data Cube approach (see below), the new platform will tell a new story of how Africa’s land has changed over the past 30 years, supporting informed decisions by governments, businesses, civil society and individuals on resource-use, land-management and governance.

What is a data cube?

A data cube is a ground-breaking approach to organizing, analyzing and storing vast quantities of data. It is an open-source framework in which satellite imagery datasets are organized for a geographic area over a specified time period. Open-source algorithms are then applied, allowing for analysis of particular data—including on vegetation, land use, water coverage and quality, and urban expansion.

The data cube makes data analysis easier and reduces the overall cost for users—streamlining data distribution and lowering the technical barriers of managing huge amounts of data.

In 2014, the Australia Geoscience Data Cube ingested over 30 years of NASA Landsat satellite imagery. This was the first time an entire continent’s geographical and geophysical attributes have been made available and analysis-ready to researchers and policy advisors.

Data cube technology is also being implemented in many other countries including Colombia, Switzerland, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. The Open Data Cube (ODC) initiative is working to increase the value and impact of global Earth observation satellite data by supporting the development and use of data cube technology globally.

Digital Earth Africa is an example of how the big data revolution is allowing new ways of thinking about regional public goods in a technology-driven era. The platform is completely free and openly available to everyone, democratizing capacity to process and analyze satellite data where routine data products and services will be made available analogous to how the weather service operates.

With only a single image in hand, individuals are not empowered to make better decisions or know more about the world around them. But when organized, managed and shared, these data-driven platforms can become as instrumental for social and economic development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution as physical infrastructure was in the past.

Understanding the data cube Image: Geospatial World
Solving SDGs from the sky

Deployed in this way, geospatial data and platforms can radically increase our ability to address environmental challenges and advance progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Analysis-ready geospatial data can help small-holder farmers increase their agricultural productivity by monitoring crops in remote locations for potential diseases, identify crop types and growth stages. When combined with machine-learning approaches, satellite images can also be used to monitor the changes in availability of fresh water resources, monitor development of urban settlements and provide insights on population density and even map poverty and accurately monitor biodiversity.

By detecting changes in devegetation and the creation of new water bodies using satellite data, we can identify illegal mines with a high probability, because mining activity typically starts with deforestation of the region followed by water-based extraction of the gold or minerals.

Moreover, this process can be automated. Processes that use advanced analytics and machine learning—such as the Australian Water Observations from Space algorithm—can scan large land areas and continuously give government agencies and community groups updated information about changes.

Identification of these illegal mining sites can then allow governments to investigate the extent of these activities and monitor recovery efforts, which helps prevent environmental damage, protect workers and avoid fiscal losses. Indeed, the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency is already using geospatial data to crack down on illegal mining, and Senegalese and Sierra Leonean officials are following suit.

Geospatial data can also help spur economic development across the continent. Recent studies suggest the geospatial services sector generates US$400 billion in revenue and creates around 4 million jobs per year, globally. Preliminary research by the World Economic Forum suggests the value for Africa is poised for rapid growth as businesses across the continent tap into the value of earth observations for a wide range of uses.

Analysis-ready satellite imagery can increase the profitability and productivity of businesses in sectors such as land planning, forestry, construction and urban development, agriculture and mineral exploration, providing start-ups and innovators with valuable use cases and opening up new business models with potential benefits for many other sectors of the economy.

We are long into the era of “pics or it didn’t happen.” When it comes to our natural environment, we have such an abundance of images that it is not only our prerogative but also our responsibility to look and act upon what they are showing us.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Geographies in DepthSustainable Development
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