How Big Data from Space helps Life on Earth
As an oceanographer and former NASA astronaut, I am particularly well placed to appreciate the perspectives space can give us on life on earth. My first glimpse of our blue planet stole my breath and has never let it go.
I have been working to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for this planet since. Key to that understanding are the observational data – much of it from satellites – that feed our knowledge of this planet. Among other things, observations from satellites help us to understand our changing climate, predict hazardous weather and provide early warning of potential crop failures or freshwater shortages.
The big data revolution could lead to currently unimagined uses for the data we receive from satellites. Entrepreneurs could come up with new applications and ideas for mashing up data. But the data itself should, I believe, be regarded as a public good. How to guarantee this, in a world where public budgets are squeezed and space exploration is becoming increasingly affordable for private players, is a question that deserves serious thought and active engagement.
From fish in Peru to drought in Australia
It is worth reflecting on the sobering fact that we are the first generation of humans that could even have this conversation. Just over four decades ago, nobody would even have thought to connect variations in the catch of Peruvian fisheries, say, with unseasonably dry spells in central Australia. It was only with the availability of snapshots from satellites in the 1970s that we could identify and begin to understand the phenomenon that linked them: El Nino.
Since then our uses of data from space have become increasingly sophisticated. It is bordering on miraculous, for example, that we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in long-range weather forecasts. Weather patterns are so complex, chaos ought to overwhelm predictability once we look just a day or two ahead. But by analyzing patterns from thousands of different kinds of daily observations over the years, we have become better able to tease out the likeliest patterns.
No single satellite can make all the observations necessary to compile a reliable weather forecast. Indeed, no single country’s satellites can do so. There has developed, therefore, a convention of data sharing among government-run space programmes to enable each country’s meteorological offices to access all the information they need to predict the weather.
Data as a public good
This is what I mean by regarding data as a public good. The ability to forecast hurricanes, typhoons, droughts and heatwaves is clearly of benefit to humanity as a whole, and the data on which it relies is deservedly regarded as part of the global commons.
I believe we should take the same approach to all kinds of “environmental intelligence” represented by satellite data, in combination with sensors on the ground, whenever it has implications that transcend national borders – where population’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. By analyzing the reflections of microwaves beamed at forests, for example, we can tell when their ecosystems are under stress; measurements of ocean temperatures help us to predict where fish will be; observations from space can warn about problems with soil conditions that could help the world to prepare for poor harvests.
As technology advances, so does the capacity to generate actionable intelligence. In recent years, for instance, satellites have allowed us to map differences in gravity on the Earth’s surface so precisely that we can calculate how much groundwater is stored in aquifers – something never before possible. Given the potential of freshwater shortages to impact everything from food security to energy supplies and geopolitical tensions, it is clearly beneficial for this knowledge to be in the public domain.
“The price could be paid in human lives”
The question of how to ensure space-based knowledge is used for the common good has become pressing with the dawning of a new space age, in which satellites have become affordable for private interests. At the same time, public finances in countries which have traditionally funded major space programmes have come under stress. Increasingly, there is pressure on governments to buy in data from private providers rather than fund satellite programmes themselves.
At first glance, this makes sense. But some changes in the private sector’s role in space raise troubling hypotheticals. Imagine that a commodity trader, for example, monopolized data that enabled harvests to be predicted. A killing could be made on the futures markets – but the price could be paid in human lives, if exclusion from that data hindered public agencies from preparing for famine.
As private satellites proliferate and the big data revolution advances, we need to debate public and private roles in space. One model to consider is the Monsanto-owned Climate Corporation. It takes publicly available data and adds value by analyzing it in ways that generate guidance individuals will pay for: when a farmer should irrigate a field, for example. The underlying public data remain freely available – even viewable on a the free level of the company’s web service – and so continue to serve the general public via advanced warning of severe drought or accurate forecasts of seasonal flooding.
In the coming decades, new technologies and business models will radically expand the data available from satellites and the uses to which it can be put. Our challenge is to ensure that observations about our planet benefit everyone who lives on it.