Smartphone owners have come to appreciate the ubiquity of weather forecasting. Our phones come with pre-installed weather applications that allow us to access data captured from outer space, which are then analyzed and processed in real time. The potential uses of such readily available information for business, public services, and personal use are endless.
These same satellite technologies can support sustainable development by providing us with much-needed data on upcoming rainfalls and temperature variations, as well as land degradation, illegal resource extraction, epidemiology, or crop yields, among other areas. This knowledge also helps development actors and governments make informed decisions about policies and programming and use their resources more efficiently. Meanwhile, satellite-based telecommunications can assist emergency teams during disaster response, and help track access to health and education facilities.
“In the private sector, these technologies have been deeply embraced, and they changed the nature and structure of private sector organizations … similar changes are coming to the development sector.”
— Andrew Zolli, vice president for global impact at Planet
Recent catastrophes — including hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, heavy monsoon rains in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and a landslide in Sierra Leone — are poignant reminders that natural disasters and other extreme weather events are on the rise. Reaching the objectives outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction will be essential to mitigate the impact of those events. This, in turn, will require the global development and humanitarian aid communities to form efficient partnerships with space agencies and satellite operators, as well as advocating for more equitable data sharing practices between countries.
The potential impact of using satellite communications for development and aid purposes — and the role of development professionals in bringing the technology to those who need it the most — is great.
“This is going to change how NGOs and other development actors do their job, in the same way that the mobile phone changed the way [private sector] actors do their jobs,” Andrew Zolli, vice president for global impact at Planet, a commercial operator of Earth observation satellites, told Devex. “It gave them new capabilities … new ways of fulfilling their mission.”
Satellite technology and the SDGs
The information collected and transmitted by satellites can be used to reach and monitor progress toward every one of the SDGs.
“Earth observation and geospatial information will help measure and monitor a goal, but it’s really when you drill down to either the target or the indicator level [that] you can bring some specific products into view,” said Barbara J. Ryan, secretariat director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations.
Satellite technologies can help monitor the effects of climate change, improve natural resource management, and help prevent threats to biodiversity. The Forest 2020 project, funded in part by the U.K. Space Agency, uses Earth observation data to protect and restore up to 300 million hectares of tropical forests around the globe. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, through its Locust Control Unit, has been using data provided by Google Earth Engine to improve its forecasts of desert locust invasions. And the TIGER initiative, spearheaded by the European Space Agency and UNESCO, uses Earth observations to improve water resource management in Africa.
Geospatial data have multiple applications for emergency response and disaster preparedness, too. Images are updated regularly, making it possible to follow the evolution of natural disasters and their impact on affected populations in real time, thereby improving the predictability of these events, as well as supporting disaster response and recovery efforts.
In 2015, for example, the European Space Agency supported the development of B-LIFE, a mobile laboratory that was deployed at an Ebola treatment center in a remote part of Guinea. Satellite images were also used to generate maps with epidemiological data to monitor the spread of the virus.
Understanding Earth observation
Earth observation generally refers to the gathering of data on the Earth’s oceans, land surface, biosphere, and atmosphere through remote sensing technologies including in situ tools such as seismometers or ocean buoys, airborne observations such as aerial photography and radars, or satellites. In some cases, the term refers exclusively to satellite-based remote sensing.
The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, a consortium of space agencies, provides support to relief efforts during emergencies. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, more than 1,000 high-resolution images were made available to help with the assessment of damages to infrastructure and the planning of resource deployment after the international charter was activated.
Earth observation constitutes only a fraction of what satellite technology can bring to aid and development efforts. Satellite-based technology can dramatically improve communications and data-sharing capabilities in critical situations when phone and internet lines are cut off, or in places that are deprived of telecommunications infrastructure.
Commercial satellite operator Inmarsat is now working with the federal government of the Philippines, as well as regional governments, local communities, and research institutions to improve disaster response. As part of the U.K. Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, which co-funds U.K.-based operators tackling environmental and social challenges in developing countries, Inmarsat will deploy satellite communications equipment in pilot regions that will help maintain communication channels should an earthquake or another natural disaster strike.
“We take digital as a given, but that’s just simply not the case for many people in many parts of the world,” said James Cemmell, Inmarsat’s vice president of government engagement. “In the fourth industrial revolution — where we’re talking about big data, artificial intelligence, [and] machine learning — getting that data out is essential … and satellite communications has an essential role in several of those different domains.”
In some instances, satellite communications could bring basic services to underserved populations, for instance through eHealth and eLearning. In Nigeria, Inmarsat is leading another project funded in part by the UKSA’s IPP, working with research institutions and federal and state health ministries to strengthen health systems in remote areas. The new satellite-based system will enable video-based training for local staff, disease surveillance capabilities, and data collection.
And in Indonesia, the company is helping improve the management of the fishing industry, which has faced criticism for its role in the depletion of fish stock and for its unethical labor practices. By equipping fishing vessels with satellite-based communication tools, the government will be better able to collect the data necessary to reduce illegal and unsustainable fishing, while reducing the risks at sea for fishers, Cemell explained.
Satellite technologies are spurring new types of collaborations between stakeholders who may not be familiar with each other, including space agencies, satellite operators, government ministries, research institutions, and development organizations.
“They’re very distinct communities,” GEO’s Ryan explained. “The scientific and technology communities … don’t generally know about the SDG process, and many people involved in the SDG process don’t really know about Earth observation and geospatial data, so we have a key role to play in bridging those gaps.”
Some countries have historically focused on producing data for themselves, without seeing the value of collaborating on a global level, Ryan said. But that is changing.
“We’re seeing more data from China, India … [and] Japan. Parts of the world that haven’t historically shared data are now contributing, making their data more visible to us and then therefore to the world,” she added.
Other more targeted initiatives are taking root. UN-Water, which coordinates the U.N.’s work on water and sanitation issues, has launched the Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6 (universal access to water and sanitation), with the aim of linking data providers — including NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — with U.N. agencies working toward SDG 6-related targets.
In the humanitarian sector, leading private satellite operators, together with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, have signed the Crisis Connectivity Charter, which sets up protocols that enable humanitarian organizations to access satellite communications during emergencies.
Private sector organizations can provide key operational capabilities and expertise. The FAO has entered into a strategic partnership with Google, following work with Google Earth Engine and Google Earth Outreach — the company’s tool for public benefit organizations and nonprofits — for the analysis and dissemination of geospatial data related to forestry, land cover, and land use.
Bridging the data gap
With only a small number of countries having the capacity to launch their own satellites, access to data is unequal around the world. However, free and open data policies are becoming more widespread. While the data released by NASA’s Earth observation satellites are already being shared publicly, the European Commission’s Copernicus program has adopted an open data policy for its Earth observation Sentinel satellites.
A data gap also exists between countries when it comes to analyzing, processing, and using the data released by satellites as part of their own efforts to reach the SDGs.
“The amount of data and the quality of the data is so huge now that, to be able to analyze it, you need to have a capacity that not everyone has,” said Danilo Mollicone, land and climate officer at the FAO. Through the U.N. Platform for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs has been supporting capacity building activities with local governments and institutions. Next year’s UNISPACE+50 conference will be dedicated to building a Space2030 agenda in order to better coordinate activities around the use of space technologies for development purposes.
The future of development?
As the cost of manufacturing and launching satellites into space decreases, and as the quality of the imagery and data improves, the number of projects linking satellite technologies with development will grow dramatically, Zolli said. “There is a revolution underway right now to make these technologies as useful as absolutely possible,” he explained.
Decreased costs mean that private satellite operators now have more incentives to develop products for markets that were previously seen as not profitable enough. Planet, whose fleet of 144 miniature satellites produces high-resolution images of the entire surface of Earth every day, has initiated several projects that tackle development challenges, among them a collaboration with researchers at Stanford University to train an algorithm that will predict crop yields months in advance. Planet wants to make that information available to smallholder farmers in rural Kenya and Nigeria, which could in turn enable them to access a broader range of financial services, Zolli said.
He also expects satellite operators to make their data easier to search and analyze, therefore requiring less technical expertise on the part of users. NGOs could one day look up satellite data as easily as using the Google search bar, he explained.
Ultimately, satellite technologies will permeate development and humanitarian work in ways that, at this point in time, remain difficult to envision.
“In the private sector, these technologies have been deeply embraced, and they changed the nature and structure of private sector organizations … I think similar changes are coming to the development sector,” Zolli said. “We want to encourage [development organizations] to think and dream boldly. Very big things are coming.”