Opening day of GEO Week 2019 in Canberra. Photo by: GEO

CANBERRA — Among the outcomes of GEO Week 2019 was the Canberra Declaration, calling for governments with official development assistance programs to consider increased support for Earth observations. The declaration highlighted the value of open EO data to support low- and middle-income countries, but despite agreeing to the declaration member countries with an economic stake in EO are proving a barrier to progressing an open agenda.

The link between EO data and its ability to support the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals was an important focus for the week, with the declaration identifying this value and the need for the Group on Earth Observations members to support inclusive use of EO data and platforms through collaboration with LMICs — including with GEO’s first member countries in the Pacific.

GEO, as a voluntary and non-legally binding intergovernmental partnership, saw its work program for 2020-2022 endorsed which highlights the increasing efforts it aims to make in the climate monitoring, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development to support global frameworks including the Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda. And new announcements saw increased availability of EO data for wide use in supporting these global initiatives.

The Canberra Declaration

The Canberra Declaration, endorsed by ministers and ministerial representatives of GEO members on Nov. 8, set a high-level direction for GEO member countries between 2020 and the next ministerial summit, which will take place in four years.

In addition to the call for greater use of ODA to support LMICs to increase their use of EO data and technology, the declaration identifies the importance of the “unique global role” GEO can play in driving cooperative action, including expanding the use of EO to address sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and climate change.

The focus on the value of EO data and technology to the digital economy was a key point for ministers with the declaration recognizing the role it plays “in driving productivity and sustainable economic growth, and that investments made in the acquisition and use of Earth observations deliver a substantial return on that investment to our economies and communities.” And the importance of opening data and platforms to contribute to economic development, including for  LMICs, was highlighted.

Collaboration, including with the private sector, and increasing the use of EO data with environmental and statistical data was identified by the declaration in as being important to drive wider use and value in delivering on insights needed for the SDGs.

Outcomes for GEO

For GEO itself, the endorsed work plan focused on increasing collaboration between regions and members, building awareness of EO as well as GEO, and improving the use and usefulness of EO data to support policy development.

New GEO initiatives announced included the development of a data integration and analysis system, and greater use of EO for health. New GEO community activities included the use of EO in support of Sendai monitoring, using remote sensing to support food security in Africa, building a global land cover dataset and night-time remote sensing for the SDGs.

To support awareness of the role of EO and the GEO community in supporting monitoring and management of climate, growing recognition of GEO with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Global Commission on Adaptation and the Space Climate Observatory was identified, as well as ensuring the GEO community is represented at COP25 in December.

For disaster response and disaster risk reduction, using language meaningful to governments and communities was identified as important to increase the usability of the science — such as discussing streets and communities predicted to be impacted by floods rather than simply inundation levels.

Expanding availability of data

In addition to discussing political and program objectives for GEO members, the week provided opportunities for new partnerships and announcements to be made — including announcements for new data that was being opened to the world to support a range of initiatives, including delivery of the SDGs.

Sayaka Sasaki, vice-minister of education, culture, sports, science, and technology in Japan, announced that the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will be providing open access to data collected from a number of their satellites. And Wenbo Zhao, deputy director of the Earth Observation System and Data Centre with the China National Space Administration, announced that her country was also sharing global data with 16-meter resolution from their satellites for the first time.

Expanding on the work of the African Data Cube, which released its first products during GEO Week, the deputy director-general for Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics announced that his country will be developing their own data cube “to support monitoring work on disaster risks, environmental impacts, and climate change for SDGs implementation.” To support greater access to and use of EO data in the Pacific, work in a Pacific Data Cube is also expected to begin in collaboration with Australia.

Playing politics

Despite the declaration and outcomes of the week focusing on greater collaboration and openness of EO data and systems, discussions on data privacy — including protecting commercial interests — and costs of open platforms and knowledge created a dent in these objectives.

In promoting a proof of concept for a GEO Knowledge Hub, which aims to be a single entry point to trusted EO knowledge, packages and solutions produced by GEO activities, the representative for France interjected asking questions on how it will be financed and governed, and how the system will protect some data for security reasons.

“What we saw today with France coming up with security, this was plain nonsense,” Dr. Gilberto Camara, secretariat director of GEO, told Devex. “It was a game. What they don’t like is the empowerment that comes into it.”

Behind the scenes, Camara said, France wants to sell EO services to LMICs rather than enabling them to develop its own capabilities.

“On one hand you have Macron saying we must save the world, on the other hand, they will look at their own interests and try to block things which encourage openness,” he said. “But this is not news to me. I’ve been playing this game for 20 years.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.