• Satellite images can support industrial growth, environment protection, healthcare and education.
  • Better access to climate data could help emerging economies recapture billions in lost revenues.

Data is a currency of its own in the modern world, so if only a few people can extract, refine and store it, then it will end up widening existing inequality gaps. This is why “data democratisation” has become essential, especially in emerging economies.

While the space sector has always leveraged open data, its value has not been tapped by most economies or societies. In this context, the role of satellite imagery could become increasingly important to find innovative solutions to current problems such as pandemics, famines, or climate change. Digital Earth Africa, a unique program launched in February 2019 uses the Open Data Cube and Amazon Web Services to make global satellite imagery more accessible and proves how data can bridge key social and economic inequalities in the twenty-first century.

The problem:

Images of Africa’s geographies and coastlines have been recorded by satellites for many years. This free data, which offers a range of insights regarding land and water resources, is openly available but impossible to access, analyse or compute given the massive size of the data sets as well as the great processing power and capabilities required.

However, this type of information could be key to tackling a range of challenges across the continent, including:

  • Unregulated mining and its knock-on effects. One fifth of global gold production takes place in Africa, and this precious material is often extracted illegally, reducing fiscal revenues. It also has enormous environmental impacts as illegal miners level forests and contaminate both water and soil, leading to an uptick in malaria and other diseases. Satellite data can help to identify these illegal mines by providing detailed Earth Observation images.
  • Untapped economic potential. Widespread data access could foster the growth of the Earth observation industry and of other data sectors in Africa, creating new opportunities and helping the continent more actively participate in the global economy.
  • Hunger. Clear and intelligible data can also help farmers who are often missing accurate information to make key decisions, such as reliable weather forecasts, water availability and crop development trends. Improved agricultural practice increases food security as the continent copes with feeding a fast-growing population.
Image: Digital Earth Africa

The potential solution:

Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) provides insights on how such problems could be tackled thanks to data. This operational platform, powered by Australian technology, allows satellite images to be translated into information and accessed by decision-makers in various fields, such as science, policy, agriculture and industry. DE Africa’s data infrastructure helps to make both current and historical satellite images relevant and usable by improving their availability, quality and frequency.

Thanks to the Open Data Cube, an open source technology allowing geospatial data access, management and analysis functions, raw data can be processed into decision-ready products. These include simple facts, numbers, or visualisations to inform policy and drive actions involving a broad range of stakeholders.

Water observation photos can reveal how the landscape changes over time, such as which areas always, sometimes and never have water (denoted by the color coding).
Water observation photos can reveal how the landscape changes over time, such as which areas always, sometimes and never have water (denoted by the color coding).
Image: Digital Earth Africa

According to a World Economic Forum-commissioned analysis of available sources, DE Africa could unlock economic benefits worth up to 2 billion USD for the African continent, by helping to:

  • Accelerate growth of the Earth observation (EO) industry, providing an extra $500 million in annual revenues for the sector and bridging data infrastructure gaps over the next four years. Building on Geobuiz data, we estimate that such a platform could halve the “data infrastructure” gap between the African continent and other countries by 2024.

    With this revenue growth could come further investment in the sector, including the creation of well-paid job opportunities for Africa’s youth (e.g. geospatial engineers, data scientists, technically-trained personnel), investment in advanced technology, and fiscal revenues for local tax authorities.
  • Prevent unregulated gold mining. Curbing illegal mining could provide savings of at least $900 million thanks to reduced environmental damage and fiscal evasion. Whilst health impacts are difficult to quantify, research conducted by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) allows us to estimate the fiscal and environmental costs of such practices for the region.

    For example, studies in 2016 found that uncollected taxes due to illegal mining are worth $550 million in Ghana and $2.2 billion in South Africa. To put things in perspective, this is over one fifth of the revenues of telco group MTN from that same year. It has also been estimated that illegal gold mines are responsible for the loss of 1.13% of primary forest in Ghana, and that the Western Region of this country spent $250 million in 2016 alone to recover lands and waterbodies destroyed by illegal gold mines.

    Our estimate is just that and the true number could be much higher, but our analysis assumes only a 10% use of EO data given the time and skills needed to truly maximize the opportunity in the near term.
  • Boost productivity in agriculture, including water savings and insurance benefits. These efforts are worth an approximate $900 million per year as EO technology offers new insights to farmers and better access to data. The Digital Earth Africa platform allows for the detailed tracking of water, land, construction and weather changes across countries, and the information provided can help to tackle a wide range of issues, such as floods, droughts, land use and water availability. This may generate wider benefits, such as helping to mitigate the risk of malnutrition as population growth calls for a more efficient use of resources.

    Access to water availability alone can improve farm irrigation and water supply management which has the potential to save 176 billion cubic meters of water per year, equivalent to a $880 million reduction in water abstraction costs, as estimated by our research. If every African farmer could rely on geospatial services powered by free-to-use DEA images, the continent would save over 175 trillion litres of water every year - enough to create another Turkana Lake – the world’s largest permanent desert lake - every 15 years.

Looking ahead

Much of this analysis was recently published in a new report with the World Economic Forum, Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges. Such estimates and early numbers offer the smallest preview of how satellite data access could impact territories, as projects like DEA could stimulate African countries to improve policy-related indicators.

Still more work is needed to truly capitalize on the benefits that Earth Observation images could bring to economies. With the technology well-established, what’s needed next is an evolution of the stakeholder dialogue to create enabling legislative frameworks. Policy-makers must increase their commitment to education programs aimed at training engineers, refining intellectual property laws, and fostering public-private partnerships.Such education and dialogue can encourage entrepreneurs and forward-looking international investors willing to bet on profit-making, sustainable business opportunities. In the meantime, platforms such as Digital Earth Africa show what’s possible when we move from data availability to information accessibility.