GWPrime

EO Data can Boost Digital Economy of Developing Countries

Earth Observation is now delivering information that allows better-informed decisions in development operations. Also, in these extraordinary times (of COVID-19), the entire development community, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), are looking at new sources of information to plan response efforts. EO in particular, can play a crucial role in this process, explains Stephen Coulson, Head of Sustainable Initiatives Office, Directorate of Earth Observation Programmes, European Space Agency (ESA)

By GW Prime

Can you tell us about the collaboration between ESA, World Bank, and ADB?

In 2010, we approached the World Bank with an idea that environmental information from satellites can help in implementing their projects in developing countries by delivering increased efficiencies and impact to development operations. Most of these projects are related to stimulating economic growth. Be it upgrading a port or building a new irrigation system, environmental information is needed for planning, monitoring, and implementation of all such projects. The development banks do this via consultants — they send people into the field, take pictures, and write reports. We informed them that there is a more efficient way to do this by using satellites, as they are globally consistent and provide up-to-date and accurate information about the environment.

Together with bank staff, we looked at some of their live projects to understand the kind of environmental information they were seeking and the problems they were facing. After that, we started about 65 small demonstrations on how satellites can help in their projects. All of this took about five years because we were dealing with a community that are not familiar with this type of information, and so there was an initial learning curve. Following this, we began focusing on some specific sectors and started large-scale regional demonstrations. We did this in the framework of flagship bank programs and projects. And that is what we are currently doing.

Which sectors are you working in?

At the moment, we are working in multiple sectors, such as urban development, water resource management, agriculture and rural development, marine resources and coastal environment, disaster risk reduction, climate resilience and forest management, and another exciting one — states subject to fragility conflict and violence. These are priority areas for both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Geographically speaking, we address three regions, which include Central/South America, Africa and Asia/Pacific.

"If we can increase the technical skills of people in developing countries in terms of dealing with Earth Observation satellite data, we would be boosting the digital economy of these countries. We will advance the capabilities in the whole digital economy with the transformation of information technologies that is happening now"

When you talk about geography, are you specifically referring to certain countries?

Yes, it depends on the thematic sectors. We are looking at different countries in different thematic sectors. For example, with agriculture, there is a whole range of information that we have been focusing on. This includes food security, agricultural risk management, irrigation, land degradation, agricultural production, rural infrastructure, and environmental and social safeguards. For this information, there are users in different countries; we are working with Uganda, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Paraguay, Syria, Morocco, and the Great Green Wall initiative in Sub Saharan Africa that goes from West Coast to East of Africa.

"We are also looking into how satellite information can support social protection measures through spatial monitoring of population densities, housing conditions, transport networks of mass human displacements, and mapping of environmental factors that might threaten the social stability"

How are ESA and the World Bank using satellite information in mitigating the COVID-19 crisis?

As said in the introduction, the primary goal of the collaboration is to help improve the development operations of the World Bank. However, in these extraordinary times of COVID-19, the entire development community, including the World Bank, is looking at new sources of information to plan response efforts. Earth Observation, in particular, is playing a significant role because remote management and monitoring of development activities are more important now than ever.

We are also looking into how satellite information can support social protection measures through spatial monitoring of population densities, housing conditions, transport networks of mass human displacements, and mapping of environmental factors that might threaten the social stability. These are factors such as droughts, floods, fires, and air pollution — all these help in formulating and monitoring social protection measures. In addition to the social side, we are looking at how we can monitor activity to help economic recovery. The kind of activity that I am referring to here includes industrial activity, changes around production plants, levels of atmospheric emissions, agriculture, and environment.

What are your thoughts on the need for a data collaborative?

Yes, that’s part of the initiative that we are starting right now in partnership with the World Bank and the ADB. It is called ‘Space for International Development Assistance’, and it is building on all the previous experiences. The aim is to fully integrate environmental information from satellites into the economic, social, and environmental developments that the banks are implementing in the developing countries This is what we call ‘mainstreaming’ of Earth Observation into development working practices and processes.

There are three components to that. One is that we need to increase awareness about satellite environmental information. We need to make sure that the development community understands what satellites can produce and deliver. That is what a space agency can take care of, and that’s what the ESA role in this partnership is about.

However, it is key not only to understand what EO can deliver, but also to be able to use it. Therefore, we need to build capacity to use this type of information in development. That  means capacity in the development banks and agencies but, more importantly, capacity in the developing countries government departments to use this information in their daily jobs.

Finally, taking a much longer-term view, EO will never be fully integrated until there are technical capabilities in developing countries to produce and deliver this type of information locally. To achieve this we need a program of skills transfer from Europe, where all of the technical skills exist today in the EO downstream sector. We need those skills transferred into developing countries and the skills base being built in those countries. Again, that’s typically what the development banks and agencies do; they build technical capability in the developing world.

So that’s the type of partnership that we are putting together now. This is at least a five-year program. We are getting started this year. We have financing from 13 member states on the ESA side to start this at the cost of €30 million (approx. $35 million).  On the side of World Bank and the ADB, they are currently putting together the financing with a target of $100 million in the World Bank and $35 million in the ADB. This will be from new sources of financing for space-based information, which is development aid money, or ‘official development assistance – ODA’. So, there is currently a fund-raising campaign in progress with the developed country donors (their aid ministries, and agencies) to put this financing into place. We hope to get it started by the end of this year and finalized by end of next year.

How can Earth Observation data help people rebuild their lives in developing countries?

If we can increase the technical skills of people in developing countries in terms of dealing with Earth Observation satellite data, we would be boosting the digital economy of these countries. We will advance the capabilities in the whole digital economy with the transformation of information technologies that is happening now. Big Data, Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, and many more technologies are advancing here in Europe, and we should make sure that these skills are transferred to developing countries. The Copernicus system is a global system, and Sentinel data is freely available to anybody in the world. So, the basic data is there. What is missing is the technical skills in the developing world to turn that data into the type of information that people need for their businesses. This will add a multiplier to business activities, and that’s where the growth opportunities are.

What are your plans for startups and small companies?

It will all be within the framework of development bank programs and projects. We will identify a whole range of specific activities that are taking place and work on growing the related capabilities in the developing countries. We will focus on existing centers of excellence, which may be universities, government technical centers, or even groups of small companies.

What will be your ask from different stakeholders such as government, private sector, and NGOs?

We are working within the framework of development programs and projects that are taking place in these countries, and we have to see the actors involved. Then we will widen the participation. We will be interested in the viewpoints of the private sector in these countries as to how we can work together and collaborate. We work with the European downstream EO sector, which has between 500-600 SMEs and about 10,000 employees. Many of these companies have contacts in the developing world.

We can also consult with the European sector about how they want to work with developing countries to put together collaboration and partnership to build skills. I don’t have a packaged answer for that now, as this is a long-term process. For example, fully integrating satellite information into meteorological forecasting/weather forecasting took about 25 years. At the start, meteorologists didn’t believe that measuring wave heights and surface winds over the ocean could be done from satellites. But now, numerical weather forecasting cannot be done without the use of satellite information. We are trying to do a similar thing with a new user community — the development aid community. I think we can move quicker than 25 years, but this isn’t going to happen overnight, which is why we need a consolidated program of work.

What are the gaps and challenges you are facing in getting things together?

I think the biggest challenge is mobilizing development aid financing for the use of this type of information because it is very innovative (from satellites) and is undoubtedly something that the development community is not used to funding. It can be misunderstood as selling technology. But it is not about the technology itself; it’s about delivering efficiencies and benefits to development programs and projects through using this new type of information.

So, we have long discussions with the development aid ministries and agencies in developed countries, mostly in Europe. But we are making good progress, and our partners of World Bank and Asian Development Bank are fully convinced that we need to move forward along this direction and get up-to-date satellite-based environmental information integrated in development and used in developing countries.

For further information, please see

Better decisions in Development Assistance with EO