Q&A: Scaling up satellite tech for development — the trip we’re yet to take

Terence Jagger, former chief executive of Crown Agents and adviser to Inmarsat, learning about electronic disease surveillance in Lagos state, Nigeria. Photo by: Tolga Ors

Leaving no one behind is a commitment ingrained in the Sustainable Development Goals, and space and satellite technology could be the gateway to making that happen. Enabling Wi-Fi services, mapping landscapes, and sharing aerial data is bridging the connectivity divide and allowing development projects to reach those in remote and rural areas in sectors of health, crop management, and fisheries, to name just a few.

Terence Jagger, former chief executive of Crown Agents and adviser to commercial satellite operator Inmarsat on monitoring and evaluation, development, and governance, said “satellite imagery and connectivity has the capacity to really open up a whole new strand of knowledge and engagement” but emphasized that the sector has to get better at working out what works and how to scale it up. “I think that’s a trip we’re yet to take,” he said.

Speaking to Devex, Jagger explains how space and satellite technology are making a difference and how such technology can be leveraged in global development projects — but warns it’s not the fix for everything.

“You have to be a bit careful. You can’t just throw a satellite at everything, because they’re expensive, and you need the right process for handling and — crucially — analyzing and quickly using all the data you get,” he said.

Below are more highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

From your experience working within the U.K. government and on the implementation side with Crown Agents, what can you tell us about how satellite communications and technology can be used to have a positive impact on global development?

Well that's a huge question, but clearly they enable us to access areas that really would be difficult to reach conventionally. I think they provide an impressive delivery mechanism — training, for example. They can also help with monitoring, and they give us a chance of including people that are really easy to leave out. It's easy to go to the cities of a developing country and forget people who are living remotely and excluded from networks. Those people may have solutions and things to say — on how we can get better crops, for example — and including them is actually worthwhile in itself.

Some of the programs I’m working on with Inmarsat are very exciting. I went only two months ago to one of the health sites in Nigeria where we were only about two hours’ drive from [Nigeria’s capital] Abuja and none of us had signal on our phones. Suddenly, in a really remote area down a horrible road, we’re all able to get Wi-Fi. The reason is [because] we’re at the clinic and it has satellite service. We walk in and there’s one of the local health center practitioners with his tablet open and he’s revising a training course on particular pregnancy problems. If they had that problem previously, the best way of getting expert advice was to get on a bike or walk for miles and miles down a really terrible road to the next village where there isn’t even a doctor, just a slightly bigger clinic. So you’re really thinking about a tremendous practical impact on somebody’s life.

“If we did it right and managed to generate coherent national programs, development should be more comprehensive, further reaching, and much more nimble in responding to events.”

— Terence Jagger, former chief executive of Crown Agents and adviser to Inmarsat

What do such advances mean for both development donors and implementers being able to do their work more effectively and efficiently?

First of all, it might mean the safety of the individuals. But probably even more importantly it means that you can do development projects right across a country if you support them with satellite. It means your project can cover a wider area, which means you’ll reach a whole new section of the population. And of course you can respond much quicker if there’s an epidemic. Satellites give you that capacity.

If we do it right and manage to generate coherent national programs, development should be more comprehensive, further reaching, and much more nimble in responding to events. For example, in Nigeria, where Inmarsat and InStrat are working in Federal Capital Territory, Ondo, and Kano, we’ll be collecting a lot of information from remote clinics and that will come in very regularly, compared to the weeks it would take without satellite connectivity. Imagine the difference that makes if local clinics each see a few problems which, taken together across the region, point to an emerging problem like an epidemic or a compromised water supply. Or you might spot that pregnant women had less good outcomes in one area, or weren’t coming into clinics often enough, so you could respond with extra training or publicity.

Thinking specifically of satellite data, has it reached its potential in terms of assisting the global development sector, or is there more to come?

I'm convinced it hasn’t reached its potential. I travel a fair amount in Africa and parts of Asia, and the most obvious thing is that the need is just still enormous. We’ve been doing these development programs for decades but the scale, geographically and in terms of number of people affected, is also still enormous. As technology improves — and you don't have to wait five years for technology to improve now, you just go to bed and you wake up in the morning and technology’s moved on, people find new uses, and it gets cheaper — we’ll get better at working with the data and developing more protocols so that your data and my data can be put together.

There’s a whole emerging sector to develop here. Health, education, agriculture — there’s a whole range of services that can be enabled beyond the telephone networks.

And what can be done to ensure that the realm of satellite and space technology continues to expand and assist the global development sector? Is it about increased investment?

I don't actually think it’s just a question of investment because there are a lot of people — nongovernmental organizations, donor governments, and recipient governments — who are up for spending the money if they can be confident that the programs will deliver really good regional and national aims that are also scalable. As a development community we can’t just sit in one company or one NGO and decide that; we need to do that globally, and hopefully we’ll get better and better at it. Everyone working in this field needs to share their experiences through prompt publication and conferences and so on, but on a day-to-day basis it would be good if we could coordinate while projects are going on, so we can learn from each other through local networks and open communication.

Another big issue is being confident that we know what works and what doesn’t, and that we know what we found works is actually the best way of doing things. I think the challenge is learning quickly on issues about implementing satellite-based projects, sharing that knowledge, and quickly deciding when to pass on a project and to do another one.

For example, satellites have the potential to deliver a lot of data. We need to be ready to handle that as it arrives and to analyze it. We need to develop ways of making sure that all data on, for example, maternal health or fishing boat catches is collected on the same basis and can be amalgamated. We need to make sure we can maintain the ground equipment in remote areas. And we need to see the potential for using the connectivity we created for one purpose for another. Let’s not just do a health project or a fishing project or an agriculture project. Let’s deliver improved services to remote areas across all of these areas and more.

What’s the link between satellites and development? Devex, Inmarsat and the U.K. Space Agency take 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

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.