Case Study

Prioritizing Earth Observations for Societal Benefit

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As scientists seek to further understand Earth’s natural systems and its interaction with human systems, a plethora of monitoring data have been produced from national, regional, and international observation systems utilizing ground, airborne, and space-based instruments. Such data cover a wide range of topics such as atmospheric composition, ecosystem characteristics, solar radiation resources, water quality and quantity, agricultural measurements, human health outcomes, socioeconomic parameters, and many more. The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) promotes the coordination of such Earth observations across its member organizations and encourages the use of the observations for societal benefits. Established in 2005, GEO is a voluntary partnership of governments and organizations that envisions “a future wherein decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations and information.” GEO identifies the following Societal Benefit Areas for which data should be available to support better informed decision-making: 
  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Sustainability
  • Disaster Resilience
  • Energy and Mineral Resources Management
  • Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture
  • Infrastructure & Transportation Management
  • Public Health Surveillance
  • Sustainable Urban Development
  • Water Resources Management
GEO’s challenge is to help governments and partners prioritize the most critical Earth observations for supporting informed decision-making, recognizing that resources for conducting monitoring activities are limited. GEO formed a User Interface Committee to help ensure that users’ needs across Societal Benefit Areas are being met.  The User Interface Committee needed support in prioritizing Earth observations, with special attention to the needs of users in developing countries.  

The Solution

The GEO User Interface Committee approached Battelle to conduct a meta-analysis of existing documentation of users’ needs for Earth observations. Battelle first worked with GEO to define a robust analysis process anchored by an Analyst and an international Advisory Group for each Societal Benefit Area. Battelle engaged with experts from 40 countries, resulting in Advisory Groups totaling over 170 well-respected experts across scientific, academic, private, governmental, and non-governmental organizations. Collaborating with these Advisory Groups, Battelle and our team members collected and refined sets of critical observations linked to specific societal benefits. 

This multi-sectoral meta-analysis drew on the background of Battelle staff in ecosystems, energy, health, climate change, and agriculture. Battelle staff than facilitated a workshop of Analysts to reach consensus on the prioritization methodology, defined as an integration of established priorities in existing documents and expert input from the Advisory Groups. Battelle’s status as a 501(C)(3) charitable trust and private independent research organization was well-matched for the potentially controversial prioritization. In addition to identifying Earth observation priorities within a specific Societal Benefit Area, Battelle engaged our multi-disciplinary team of experts to define the linkages between sectors and identify synergies. We also conducted geo-spatial analysis to understand regional priorities and needs. 

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The Outcome

The result was a prioritized list of critical Earth observations with linkages to the anticipated societal benefits for each observation, accompanied by technical and summary reports on methodologies and detailed results. Many Earth observations supporting modelling and other analyses which produce additional critical outputs for decision-making; such complexities were addressed in the project reports. Battelle paid special attention to visualization of results, utilizing photographs, charts and graphs, geographic information system (GIS) maps, and layouts to draw attention to key points for a variety of audiences. As a companion piece, Battelle also conducted an assessment of the satellite availability of the 30 most critical Earth observation parameters, identifying potential gaps in satellite measurement.  

Among others, one of the critical outcomes was the identification of the types of data that are required by government and private decision-makers to understand climate changes and impacts on human health including disease transmission, shifts in aeroallergens, and fossil-fuel related air quality impacts.  

The results of this work were presented to the GEO Secretariat in Beijing in November 2010, and documented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal article.* GEO utilized the results of this task as input for determining priority investment opportunities. This project illustrates Battelle’s capabilities for supporting strategic planning and stakeholder engagement in a multi-disciplinary environment, with special expertise on satellite remote sensing and ground-based monitoring. 

*Zell, E., Huff, A.K., Carpenter, A.T., Friedl, L. “A user-driven approach to determining critical earth observation priorities for societal benefit,” IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing, Volume 5, Issue 6, pp. 1594 – 1602 (2012).
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