Science Policy & Funding News

Group Pushes for Using Earth Observations in Decision Making

Earth observation "system of systems" could help with disaster resilience, sustainability, and other objectives beneficial to society, according to one organization.


The intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO), whose strategic plan for 2016-2025 was approved at a ministerial summit in Mexico City in November, enters its second decade at a time when rapidly expanding space- and ground-based observations are being called upon to help deal with a range of environmental and social challenges. GEO Secretariat Director Barbara Ryan discussed the potential and the challenges for GEO and its Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) during an 18 December talk at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco and in a subsequent interview with Eos.

Barbara Ryan, secretariat director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, spoke at the AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco earlier this month. Credit: Randy Showstack
Barbara Ryan, secretariat director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations, spoke at the AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco earlier this month. Credit: Randy Showstack

GEO, launched in 2005 as a voluntary partnership of governments and participating organizations, includes among its objectives improving and coordinating Earth observation systems, advancing broad open data policies and practices, and fostering the increased use of Earth observation data and information, Ryan said during her talk. The group’s vision looks toward a future “wherein decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive, and sustained Earth observations and information.”

To achieve its vision and objectives, GEO is currently working with 100 members (99 nations and the European Commission) and 93 scientific and technical participating organizations (including Future Earth, the World Bank, and the World Meteorological Organization) to build GEOSS. That project integrates an increasing number of resources from satellite- and ground-based Earth observation systems from around the world, and it facilitates sharing that information to help with better-informed decision making across a number of “societal benefit areas.” Those areas include biodiversity and ecosystem sustainability, disaster resilience, food security, sustainable urban development, and water resources management, with climate spanning all these areas.

Key Hurdles

In an interview with Eos, Ryan focused on some GEOSS successes and hurdles, including the need for open access and interoperability of data.

She said that “a tremendous amount” of money is being invested in Earth observation systems, either by individual institutions or individual “domains,” such as water or energy. “Yet, when you look at society’s problems, they really require information from across those domains. There are very few single-discipline problems,” Ryan said. She noted that food security, for instance, has linkages to climate, energy, and water. “What we are trying to do is make sure you can break down some of those silo walls and make the information more accessible to people outside the silos.”

She added, “We have got to create better mechanisms to talk to each other, to share data across [silos], because the Earth does behave as an integrated system, and our institutions should as well.”

“Broad open data policies are one of the greatest challenges globally. If we can make substantial progress in getting all of the governments of the world to share their data, then look at the potential that exists,” she said, if people, including the thousands of scientists attending Fall Meeting, “could get access to that data.”

Strides in Open Data Access

Ryan said that “tremendous strides” have been made over the past decade for broad and open data access. For instance, she called the U.S. government’s 2008 decision to provide unrestricted global access at no charge to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat archive “a tipping point” that has brought economic benefits and influenced the European allowance of broad open access to data from its Copernicus program.

She commended the U.S. government for “an increased awareness or alertness and actually moving to action on broad open data policies,” but she said that federal agencies must “continually advance” that issue. “As we go into tighter budgets, Congress may be looking for ways to increase revenue back to the federal government. And they may fall into the trap of thinking that selling data is good. You’ve got to resist that at every juncture because we’ve seen you are mostly just creating a barrier for other federal agencies to use the data, and you negate all the economic benefits of broad open data.”

In developed countries such as the United States that have an ethos of broadly and openly sharing data, Ryan said that many researchers who receive government funding opt not to release data until after they have published a report so they don’t “get scooped.” In less advantaged parts of the world, she said, some countries try to benefit by selling their data.

Urban Focus

Ryan commented that she is excited that the new strategic plan includes focuses on sustainable urban development and on infrastructure and transportation management among the societal benefit areas.

For the first 10 years, GEO was more focused on environmental issues, including natural processes such as weather and hazards, she said. “What we learned,” Ryan said, “is that the juxtaposition of that physical environment with humans is really important because we are having an impact on those physical systems.”

From Rhetoric to Results

Key to the success of GEO and GEOSS is using Earth observations in decision making, Ryan said. She noted that top government officials, including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, attended the November ministerial meeting, and that in October, the Group of 7 (G7) mentioned GEO in its science ministers communiqué. That statement called out the importance of Earth observations and noted the G7’s intent “to continue to work together through [GEO] to enable policy makers to better address these environmental, health, and socio-economic challenges.”

“All of these things bring greater awareness to the importance of Earth observations,” Ryan said. “We think we are in an ideal position to leverage the convening power of GEO to transition from rhetoric to results.”

Ryan said those results are becoming evident in some areas, but much work remains. For instance, “If you just think about our narrow vision about informing decisions, we have met our vision in agriculture,” she said. Ryan noted that Earth observation data are being used in agriculture, and that box conceivably could be checked off, even though millions of people still are “food insecure.” “But it seems a little short-sighted not to think this Earth observation information can, in fact, create a food-secure world. And, that’s what you want to do.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Group pushes for using Earth observations in decision making, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO042699. Published on 29 December 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0