2. Background and Purpose of the Symposium: Historical Perspective

Farouk El-Baz Boston University, United States

To help people improve their lives, it is essential to contribute to the research processes and practices.

Many examples exist demonstrating how the sharing of scientific data has improved people’s lives and living standards. For example, these include better health and food safety data, but such improvements are not yet widely available in the developing world.

American and European researchers, and very recently researchers in the Middle East, have undertaken initiatives to promote data sharing with the developing world, for example, the sharing of remotely sensed environmental data. Also, there are similar examples from the United Nations organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These certainly have been very good developments, but they are insufficient.

I will give some examples from my country of origin, Egypt. In 1990 the Egyptian minister of agriculture asked, “We have heard about satellite images that can measure the area of land used for a specific purpose. Is this true?” He continued: “I have asked three agencies in Egypt a simple question: How much land in Egypt is under agriculture? When I received the results, however, these varied from 7.2 million acres to 5.5 million acres. How am I going to plan if I do not know whether it is 5.5 million or 7.2 million acres?” So, my team superimposed the satellite images of the same area in 1972 and in 1990, and showed the minister the amount of land that was used for agriculture on both dates. We also discovered something that was even more important: how much of that land has been transferred into urban areas in the 18 years since 1972 (i.e., the encroachment of urban areas over agriculture), which is even more dangerous. The Ministry of Agriculture began using that data. They trained their own people, and my team worked with them on proper procedures.

Then in 2009, this group of Egyptian researchers who knew how to use the data raised a warning to the Egyptian government. They said that in the past 20 years, the average loss of fertile land to urban growth in Egypt equaled 30,000 acres per year, which is obviously a very large number. If this were to continue unabated, then the agricultural land in Egypt would disappear in 183 years. The government then took very dedicated steps to change this situation. The researchers were able to raise the warning because of data and knowledge sharing. The images they used in this analysis were from the series of Landsat satellites that were started by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1972, and those satellites continue to produce images with even better resolutions to this day.

There is another critical point here, however: the data were shared freely and the Egyptian researchers were able to continue this work by themselves. This benefit was due to the fact that the scientific community worked with NASA (and more recently, the U.S. Geological Survey) for years. In 2008, NASA agreed that this satellite image data would be freely available, and from the time the use of the Landsat data has increased a hundred-fold.1

The barriers to sharing of data are many and, in my experience, can be stronger in developing countries. One barrier is a national attitude of protectionism. Many researchers in less-developed countries will say, “We have worked on this data. This is information about us. Why would we make it available to people everywhere?” A second barrier is the cost. Those same researchers would say, “We spent a lot of money on research and development on this system. After spending all of this money, why should we share it with others?” A third barrier is national security. There are many types of data behind a secure door,


1 For a presentation about the Landsat data use, see Chapter 17 by Curtis Woodcock.

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