Use of earth observation data in UK government to be “mainstream” within a decade

By on 06/02/2019
Earth observation data captured by satellites is already widely in use in UK government.

The use of “earth observation” technology is already common in government and will become mainstream within ten years, according to a UK government chief scientist.

Earth observation data is gathered by satellites capturing images from space. Planet, a UK company specialising in the technology, operates satellites that together take photos of every part of the globe once a day.

Ian Boyd, who heads up science at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told the audience at an event in London held by think tank the Green Alliance that the department was already a heavy user, possibly even more so than the Ministry of Defence, the other UK department that relied on earth observation data.

As an example of how it could be used, he cited the government’s flagship 25-Year Environment Plan, which contains wide-ranging targets to improve air quality and biodiversity while reducing pollution and climate change. Legislation to enact the plan is currently going through Parliament.

“The law will hold government to account for delivering certain environmental outcomes, which will be measured against metrics. Most of these will be delivered through earth observation – it will be right at the centre of allowing us to decide whether we’re achieving better environmental outcomes through the policy and regulation process,” Boyd explained.

Use of satellites for navigation and communication had rapidly become mainstream, and Boyd predicted a similar future for earth observation applications.

“Over the next decade or so we’re going to see a mainstreaming of earth observation into society in the way that navigation and communications already are, and that will happen within government as well,” he said.

Once algorithms had been developed by the UK, the technology could be exported to support other countries, he added. The UK published an earth observation strategy at the end of 2017, which outlines its intention to export satellites, data, applications and instruments. It has also established a Geospatial Commission, which is tasked with creating and delivering a cross-government strategy covering all public data with a geographic component.

Agility needed

Boyd acknowledged that the government was challenged by the rate of change in technology, and was not always sufficiently agile to keep pace with it. One reason for this is the need for new technology to be proven as completely reliable before it could be used in regulation, he said.

“Sometimes new technologies are ahead of the game, but not 100% reliable. When you’re looking at regulation, it’s a legal process, so the data must meet a certain standard.

Another issue is finance, he said. “I can tell you now that there are people in Defra who would love to get hold of this technology and implement it tomorrow, and they have the skills to do that.

“But they don’t have the support mechanisms because the policy customer needs to be convinced that this is actually going to work. Government is big and complex and doesn’t always have the agility that we’d always like it to have,” he said.

Another issue for government was to develop ways of getting the data from earth observation to decision makers quickly in emergency situations. For example, policy makers should have an app on their computers that enables them to download the relevant data and take it straight to a minister, he said.

Boyd had already instructed data scientists at Defra to investigate how to do this. “There’s quite a few steps to make that happen, but I’d say we’re 60-70% there,” he said.

About Catherine Early

Catherine Early is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has worked for the Environmentalist, the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue.

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