The Cost of Free Earth Observation Data

A few weeks ago Space News ran an article entitled " ESA Data Access Policy Draws Mixed Reviews". The article details how the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission have decided that almost all data from their earth observation satellites will be offered free of charge. The article states in part:

"[i]n a presentation outlining the rationale for the open-access policy [Susan Mecklenburg, mission manager for ESA's Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite] said the agency is facing increased demand for data as part of a global scientific examination of climate change"

Not surprisingly, prospective users of the satellites' diverse data sets are reportedly pleased at the decision. And why not . . . after all, free is good, right? According to the report, NASA is also a big fan of this decision, as it is a strong proponent of "free and open" data for scientific research.

The report did note however, that owners of remote sensing satellites that were all or partly funded by the private sector, are concerned. Companies such as Deimos Imaging of Spain, Spot Image of France, Infoterra of Britain and Germany as well as e-Geos in Italy have business plans based upon the sale of similar Earth observation data sets. This new data policy almost certainly will impact the revenue that they will be able to generate from sales of their respective data sets in order to pay back their investors.

I was thinking about this article the other day as I read a recent report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) on Earth Observation and Climate Change. The reports' authors suggest that successive U.S. administrations have not allocated enough resources to NASA for remote sensing from space for climate change. Although NASA itself has received a great deal of money, much of it has been directed towards manned space flight - something much sexier and politically popular than remote sensing. The authors recommend the Obama Administration to specifically direct more NASA resources to collecting remote sensing data, particularly to monitor climate change. The report notes that what is needed is:

"investing in the Earth observation systems necessary for producing the right data over the right time and space horizons, coordinating data collection, interpreting and sharing to maximize the data's benefits, focusing on the human and social science effects of climate change, improving modeling capabilities, and making this information accessible and relevant for a wide range of users . . "

The report continues:

"[m]uch of our data comes from satellites put in orbit for other purposes, such as weather prediction and monitoring. The sensors on these weather satellites provide valuable data, but they are not optimized for monitoring climate change or for adequately assessing the effect of mitigation efforts. More precise and specialized data are needed to understand and predict climate change, and getting these data will require new orbital sensors."

According to the report, many missions and observations for collecting climate change are at a risk of interruption. Many satellites are well past their planned lifetimes and the sensors that are ill suited for the necessary tasks.

When I finished the CSIS report, I came to realize that perhaps there is a price for this "free" data: the lack of "precise and specialized data" needed for policymakers to make accurate decisions on such matters as climate change. The fact is, producing good quality and timely data is very expensive. Insisting on free government data increases the likelihood that the data will be of lesser quality and timeliness. The CSIS report suggests that was true at NASA even when there was a great deal of money generally available, because that money was spent on other projects that provided a greater return on investment, in either capital or public relations. During this likely extended period of budget constraints, it will be even harder for governments to allocate the necessary resources to support the collection and distribution of free data.

Private companies have increasingly shown the appetite to participate in projects to fill the data gaps. However, free data initiatives will make it much more difficult for them to develop sustainable business models.

Pricing the capture, processing and distribution of remote sensing data is hard, particularly when it is being used for a public good. However, undercutting industry by offering free data will likely prove to be counter-productive at best, and potentially harmful to the effort to monitor climate change. The remote sensing community (both industry and government) needs to continue to search for licensing model(s) that work for both the data providers and the data users to ensure both needs are met.


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