Kathryn Sullivan, former administrator of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaking at the 2017 Esri Ocean GIS Forum in Redlands, California. Photo by: ESRI

SAN FRANCISCO —  Shortly after the launch of Google Earth, a band of oceanographers led by legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle stomped into Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

“Hey look, you can call it Google Dirt, but you can’t call it Google Earth if you ain’t got the oceans in there,” said Kathryn Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut who until recently was administrator of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), paraphrasing how that conversation went as part of a keynote talk last week.

Sullivan was speaking at the 2017 Esri Ocean GIS Forum in Redlands, California.

“It’s been a long time coming that GIS really could deal with the three-quarters of the planet that’s not dirt,” she said, before launching into a conversation on metocean science, the combined study of meteorology and oceanography.

At the conference, organized by Esri, a leader in mapping technology, professionals discussed how geographic information systems, or GIS — software that merges cartography, spatial analysis, and database technology to provide organizations with mapping capabilities — might be leveraged for the three-quarters of the earth that is blue. The focus was on oceans and other relevant topics for global development professionals, included disaster mitigation in the face of climate change.

In an interview with Devex ahead of her talk, Sullivan, currently a Lindbergh fellow in aerospace history at the National Air and Space Museum, explained that while GIS can help scientists uncover the causes and consequences of rising sea temperatures, there is a real need for data that are accessible and actionable so that people can prepare and adapt.

“At NOAA, one of the questions we were working on was this question of resilience,” Sullivan told Devex. “So we’ve got scientific data about the earth. How can we, from our side as data guys, make sure data can connect more readily to questions that communities are dealing with?”

One example is an effort by Project Concern International, a California-based international development organization, to connect nomadic pastoralists in the Afar region of Ethiopia with digital maps to find grazing areas for their cattle through a program called Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management. This represents just one way NGOs can leverage satellite data for their work, but so far the cases of use have been focused on land.

Sullivan talked about a public-private partnership between Esri and U.S. government agencies to create a new map of marine ecosystems as an example of the virtually integrated collaborative tools GIS can bring to global challenges like resilience to natural disasters and climate change.

At the Esri conference, she stood before a picture of Earth as she saw it in orbit. Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space, and part of the crew that deployed the Hubble Telescope in 1990.

“This is what most of the Earth looks like,” she said, before an image made up primarily of water and clouds. “All of that is water. Talk about a misnamed planet. This should be called Aqua not Terra,” she said.

Sullivan presented images to demonstrate the vast meteorological data now at our fingertips thanks to the capabilities satellites give us to measure data such as sea surface temperatures.

“This is new in our lifetimes,” she said. “We are still the first generation of human beings to have the ability to see and measure the planet essentially instantaneously.”

She talked about the impact of the Space Age, which is considered to have begun with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and to have reached its peak with America’s Apollo program, which took astronauts to the moon. It created “a scale of situational awareness about our planet that has never existed in the history of humankind,” she said. Now, as the so-called entrepreneurial space age takes off with companies like SpaceX at the helm, the key is to figure out how to take the vast amount of information we have access to and live with it, learn from it, and factor it into the way we live, said Sullivan.

“The power of a map to put time and place and phenomena together, to give it to our brains through the most potent input sensor human beings have — our eyes — is a remarkable accelerator for the comprehension and engagement and use of the data that tell us what’s on Earth, where are things happening on our planet, what is happening on our planet, how is that changing through time and space, and how is any and all of that intersecting my life, my business, my country, my community?” she said.

When she was young, Sullivan said, researchers would have to pick between rock, ocean, and forest. But as space exploration has helped people appreciate how the Earth really works, and as the challenges besting people and planet have intensified, the world has come to realize that what matters are the connections and interconnections between these systems through time, she said.  

In her interview with Devex, and onstage at Esri, Sullivan explained how problematic it is when people view the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals like the Periodic Table of Elements. “Pick by color or the societal issue that fires your passions,” she said. When you look at the grid of colors and numbers, it appears that four of these goals directly relate to the conservation of the planet: Climate Action (#13), Life Below Water (#14), Life on Land (#15), and arguably Clean Water and Sanitation (#6). But ultimately all of these goals have to do with the planet.

“The foundation of everything else we might aspire to … is the planet itself,” she said. “Those four goals are the basis and foundation of everything.”

GIS professionals have the ability to contribute to the SDGs in meaningful ways. But in order to take their work to the next level, they need to consider ways to put the data and insight and knowledge in the palm of people’s hands so that they come to life in more vivid ways, Sullivan said.

“I love the line that this is the ‘science of where,’” she said, referencing Esri’s new tagline. “But the science of where is almost always being pulled in by someone whose questions are also what and when and how.”

The GIS community and its partners need to make the information they gather and analyze more accessible to decision makers, not to mention everyday people, Sullivan said. The data professionals at the Esri Ocean GIS Forum might easily navigate with ArcGIS Pro, an Esri application that provides professional 2-D and 3-D mapping in what is advertised as an “intuitive” user interface, but it can still look like “an inscrutable mess” to most people.

Drawing on her own experience at NOAA, where Sullivan was charged with understanding how our knowledge of the planet can serve society, not just research journals, she explained that people need data that are accessible, localized, and timely, that is personalized to them here, now, and fast.

What’s the link between satellites and development? Devex takes a look in Satellites for Sustainability. We explore the role of space programs and satellite technology in facilitating mission-critical connectivity and ask if it can provide sustainable economic or societal benefits in developing countries. Join us by tagging #Sats4SDGs and @Devex as we make it our mission to discover the link between connectivity and solving global challenges.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.