From Push to Pull: GEO Director Barbara Ryan on the Future of Earth Observations

GEO Director, Barbara Ryan. Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson.

Group on Earth Observations Director, Barbara Ryan. “The whole system is starting to fit together.” Image credit: Osha Gray Davidson.


OGD: Director Ryan, when we last spoke in Geneva, the Group on Earth Observations had just completed its 10-year mandate and was looking toward the future. One year in, how’s that future looking?

Director Ryan: At the last plenary, the ministers came together and said this has been a grand experiment. A lot has been accomplished in the first decade of GEO. We’ve been providing advocacy for broad open data sharing, we’ve made headway in building out the infrastructure. But more needs to be done. We were directed to put together a strategic plan for what we’re going to do in the next 10 years. So, a team of 25 people from around the world has spent a lot of time this last year drafting the strategic plan.

While we’ve been working on that, five new members joined GEO. We still have some holes in Latin America, Africa, the Gulf States, and the Pacific Island states. But we’re now at 100 members. That’s pretty remarkable. That says to me that the message is getting out about the importance of integrated Earth observations. And our vision is still to make sure decisions are informed by those observations.

We’ve also had success in getting scientific partners in the first decade. A lot of time this last year has been spent talking with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others. Now, we’re starting to fill out the value chain, from supply to use. It’s tremendously important to bring the foundations and development banks in, because they’re making investments out on the landscape. So all of a sudden the whole system is starting to fit together.

OGD: What are the primary challenges in this next decade?

Director Ryan: We’ve talked a lot about the importance of environmental governance. I think so many of our existing structures are just…failing. We used to talk about some institutions moving glacially. But now the glaciers are moving faster than the institutions! So, I think organizations like GEO are producing a useful forcing function on the whole system. One big challenge is to make our infrastructure more user friendly, and not just for scientists. That’s a problem, but we’re moving in the right direction.

OGD: Can you point to any examples where that’s happening?

Director Ryan: Sure. Look at GEOGLAM. Instead of just the data suppliers coming to the table – as important as they are – we’re now getting the departments of agriculture in GEO member states coming in and saying what they need. The G7 Science Ministers met in Germany a month ago, and we were able to get language inserted into their communique encouraging their members to use GEO as a useful framework. All of these externalities are now starting to come together. And that’s because of  efforts like what Earthzine is doing to help us get our message out.

OGD: This may be a bit tangential, but I think it helps our readers understand where GEO is heading to look at the origins of the free and open data movement. When Landsat data was made free and open, was that a beginning point?

Director Ryan: First, that’s not tangential at all. It is core central. Landsat was huge, but I wouldn’t say it was the beginning. There was a joint Chinese-Brazilian satellite that opened its data before Landsat. Their data was from China and Brazil. The United States decision for Landsat was revolutionary, however, because its data was global.

OGD: And how did that decision come about?

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and USGS Director Mark Meyers were the highest political appointees involved. I was associate director for mapping at USGS at the time, so I was the highest career person in line. But there was a whole team of people from several agencies who were involved. I’m sure there were people who were working on this issue since the first Landsat was launched in 1972.

People had been talking about this for 40 years. Some people at the University of Maryland played a big forcing function. There were many in the community who were very frustrated by USGS selling data. The U.S. generally had broad open data policies. But when I first got into the job at USGS I realized what a wonderful idea it was because I had grown up in the water division needing Landsat data. And even other parts of the organization had to pay to use Landsat data. The price was $450-$500 per scene. At the peak of data sales, Landsat images brought in $4.5 million. That’s not chump change. But if you looked at who was buying the data, first, it was other federal agencies. Next, it was universities funded by the National Science Foundation. And third, it was contractors funded by the Department of Defense. So, we were just recycling federal money — and incurring transition costs every time money was taken from one federal pocket and put into another one.

Free, open data leads to exponential growth in its use.

Free, open data leads to exponential growth in its use.

The Internet played a large role because that gave us the tool to unleash the power of those Earth observations. The fact that you were going to start distributing data over the Web meant you could no longer justify a scene-by-scene cost of $450 dollars. Once you put the processes in place, there is no incremental cost to get the next scene out the door. So we proposed to the White House, let’s just give this data away. Just give it away and you will see more uptake of the data. And that’s what happened. We went from selling 53 scenes a day to having 5,600 scenes downloaded every day.

A recent economic analysis found that the decision to make the data available returns $1.7 billion of economic benefits back to the U.S. annually. Then there’s another $400 million in economic benefits globally, for a total of $2.1 billion. That economic message has to delivered to governments, because we still have many of them around the world that think by selling weather data for $17,000 a year is helping them. Does the agency have $17,000 in costs? Maybe they do. But the government will be miles ahead if it gives the agency the $17,000 and tells them to give the data away. Because then you would really unleash the power. Otherwise, all you’re really doing is creating a barrier for other federal agencies, and for citizens, and for the private sector, who you want to come in and build value-added products and services.

OGD: How would you describe this moment in GEO’s history?

Director Ryan: This really is a moment of transition for GEO. We’ve always been very good about pushing the data out. We have to keep that up, but we have a new task before us: creating an environment in which users will be pulling data. So, from push to pull. That’s a critical difference, and one that I think is very exciting with the potential to have real impacts in a way we haven’t seen yet.

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