Nature and Biodiversity

How our vast pool of Earth data can be put to good use

Earth data is being collected all the time, we mustn't waste it.

Earth data is being collected all the time, we mustn't waste it. Image: Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Minoo Rathnasabapathy
Research Engineer, MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Helen Burdett
Head, Technology for Earth, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

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  • Satellite Earth observation data and services have the potential to revolutionise the way we approach sustainable development, but its full potential remains largely unexplored outside of the scientific community.
  • Combined with geo-referenced data, Earth data has the potential to offer a powerful solution to unlock unparalleled insights to address environmental and socio-economic challenges.
  • The theme for this Earth Day, April 22 2023, was 'Invest in our Planet' and Earth data should play a key role in this.

Satellite Earth observation (EO) data and services have the potential to revolutionise the way we approach sustainable development, but its full potential remains largely unexplored outside of the scientific community. According to the 2022 projections by the European Union Agency for the Space Programme, EO revenues for data and services are forecast to double from ~2.8 billion to over 5.5 billion Euros over the next decade.

Today, with more than 100 Terabytes of satellite imagery data collected daily, a new frontier beckons. When combined with geo-referenced data that’s accessible to experts and non-experts alike, Earth data has the potential to offer a powerful solution to unlock unparalleled insights to address environmental and socio-economic challenges.

In a world where climate change poses a global threat to Earth’s biodiversity, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report, released in late March 2023, echoes the theme for Earth Day 2023: ‘Invest in our Planet.’ The report emphasises that adaptation and mitigation financing for technology and human resources must increase many-fold and it highlights the urgency of scaling regulatory and economic instruments to catalyse climate action.

Earth data has the potential to offer a powerful solution to unlock unparalleled insights to address environmental and socio-economic challenges.
Earth data has the potential to offer a powerful solution to unlock unparalleled insights to address environmental and socio-economic challenges. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Moving past use cases to identify change levers

User case studies that demonstrate unique insights offered by EO data are widespread and varied. An exploratory series conducted by the World Economic Forum of 20 consultations with stakeholders from industry, government agencies and civil society organizations revealed a common theme: use cases that solely focus on data utilisation miss a crucial point - the value extracted from the insights gained by EO data. As we navigate in an era of big data, it’s important to consider an end-to-end approach that provides visibility into how data insights are being used to create meaningful change.

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Understanding challenges and opportunities

Many of the biggest challenges faced in the utilisation of Earth data are not new, but these challenges persist, particularly for stakeholders from developing nations where lack of capacity building, budgetary constraints and the digital divide are amplified. Through extensive stakeholder consultations, four key thematic areas were identified that offer a vision to accelerate the adoption and integration of EO data on a large scale.

Awareness

To drive forward the adoption and implementation of EO data, there is a need for heightened awareness. Barriers still exist, however, that prevent EO data from reaching its full potential across different sectors and regions, a sentiment that particularly resonated with stakeholders working in and with developing nations. This requires breaking down silos and improving communication to ensure that the benefits and potential applications of EO data are clear and compelling.

The lack of understanding of EO data and its value, coupled with a significant gap in understanding the return on investment for insights gained, resonated amongst the expert group. As such, it is crucial to focus on relevant opportunities that can help build awareness of EO data's value for stakeholders. These opportunities include expanding accessibility, usability, affordability, responsiveness and transparency. Enhancing the visibility of the full lifecycle narrative from data source to measurable impact is also crucial, as well as establishing a robust methodology for quantifying the economic value of the data.

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Technical strategies

With EO data being just one of many sources of data used in these applications, challenges with data collection, aggregation, processing and analysis can be significant obstacles for new and experienced users. Moreover, the technical focus is shifting towards utilising EO data for machine learning and data-driven decision-making. However, strategies to create reliable training data for machine learning and to increase the accessibility of EO-powered AI and machine-learning technology for end-users remain in the early stages.

The insights gathered from various stakeholders have identified several opportunities to develop technical strategies for the widespread adoption of EO data. These include assessing a unified platform for accessing and utilising EO data and services globally and locally, examining how EO data can enhance predictive modelling and decision-making in data-scarce situations and creating centralised platforms for standardised data management and access at national and international levels.

Governance and policy

Interoperability and standardisation emerged as key themes during the stakeholder consultations on EO data. There was a shared agreement that the current frameworks for EO data governance are insufficient and need to be strengthened. Civil society organizations are calling for the establishment of geospatial data quality standards based on principles such as Fair and Care data principles to promote interoperability, making data more accessible and usable across different sectors and organizations.

There was a consensus that these standards should consider the needs of public and private organizations, as well as user experience. Moreover, improving transparency, accountability and the dissemination of use cases could help secure funding for EO data initiatives.

Key opportunities to build governance and policy strategies that support the adoption of EO data include creating a community of experts to improve the enabling environment for EO data, exploring an improved governance framework for public access to high-resolution satellite data and incorporating EO data into national data or development strategies.

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Economic potential

To maximise the economic potential of EO data, it's crucial to expand the definition of EO data beyond remote sensing to include other sources, such as biological data and citizen-generated data. Developing effective business models, understanding the value of EO data and ensuring the long-term sustainability of data applications are essential to overcoming economic challenges.

The expert group suggested that citizen engagement can be improved by using gamification, incentives and online communities to ensure high-quality and accurate data collection. Additionally, cooperation and coordination can help to reduce data collection and processing costs, promote technology sharing and advance methodologies for quantifying the value of EO data. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can also leverage expertise and resources to support EO data development and commercialisation.

Building a better future with EO Data

EO data is no longer a niche technology topic. Thinking of EO more as Earth Intelligence may be a first quick step to broaden the conversation. As data and related technologies evolve, stakeholders must keep pace with the rapidly changing challenges. Experts unite in a call for increased international, public and private sector collaboration to shed light on the value of EO data.

The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in collaboration with the Centre for Nature and Climate, is undertaking work to advance governance, industry transformation and application of Earth observation technologies.

Nikolai Khlystov, Helen Burdett, Jayant Narayan, Tim van den Bergh, Danni Yu, Priya Vithani and Karla Yee Amezaga also contributed to this article.

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