Transforming Remote Sensing Data into Information and Applications
Over the past decade renewed interest in practical applications of Earth observations from space has coincided with and been fueled by significant improvements in the availability of remote sensing data and in their spectral and spatial resolution. In addition, advances in complementary spatial data technologies such as geographic information systems and the Global Positioning System have permitted more varied uses of the data. During the same period, the institutions that produce remote sensing data have also become more diversified. In the United States, satellite remote sensing was until recently dominated largely by federal agencies and their private sector contractors. However, private firms are increasingly playing a more prominent role, even a leadership role, in providing satellite remote sensing data, through either public-private partnerships or the establishment of commercial entities that serve both government and private sector Earth observation needs. In addition, a large number of private sector value-adding firms have been established to work with end users of the data.
These changes, some technological, some institutional, and some financial, have implications for new and continuing uses of remote sensing data. To gather data for exploring the importance of these changes and their significance for a variety of issues related to the use of remote sensing data, the Space Studies Board initiated a series of three workshops. The first, “Moving Remote
NOTE: The executive summary reprinted in this appendix is excerpted from Space Studies Board and Ocean Studies Board, National Research Council, Transforming Remote Sensing Data into Information and Applications, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2001.
Sensing from Research to Applications: Case Studies of the Knowledge Transfer Process,” was held in May 2000. This report draws on data and information obtained in the workshop planning meeting with agency sponsors, information presented by workshop speakers and in splinter group discussions, and the expertise and viewpoints of the authoring Steering Committee on Space Applications and Commercialization. The recommendations are the consensus of the steering committee and not necessarily of the workshop participants.
Rather than trying to cover the full spectrum of remote sensing applications, the steering committee focused on civilian remote sensing applications in the coastal environment.1 The workshop featured three case studies in coastal management involving (1) the application of Sea-viewing Wide-Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) data in monitoring harmful algal blooms, (2) the use of airborne lidar bathymetry for monitoring navigation channels, and (3) the use of both satellite and aerial remote sensing to identify sewage outflows. All three provided detailed information on the applications as well as problems encountered in developing them, allowing the steering committee to learn from the real-world experiences of particular users.
In addition, participants in five workshop splinter sessions—on education and training, institutional, technical, and policy issues in technology transfer, and user awareness and needs—identified and discussed more general barriers and bottlenecks that interfere with the development of remote sensing applications and also explored ways to overcome such problems. Plenary presentations focused on research on technology transfer; science and policy issues in the coastal zone; a comparison of remote sensing technology transfer with respect to geographic information systems and the Global Positioning System; and new directions in the use of remote sensing data. This material provided a basis for much of the steering committee’s analysis and figured significantly in its development of the report’s findings and recommendations.
To encourage finding more effective ways to develop new and useful applications of remote sensing data, the steering committee considered barriers to as well as opportunities for developing successful applications through the transfer of knowledge and technology.2 Its examination of the remote sensing technology transfer process led to the identification of a number of gaps that must be bridged in order to develop effective civilian applications:
The gap between the raw remote sensing data collected and the information needed by applications users. Users need information, and the process of transforming data into information is a critical step in the development of successful remote sensing applications.
The gap in communication and understanding between those with technical experience and training and the potential new end users of the technology. Producers and technical processors of remote sensing data must be able to understand the needs, cultural context, and organizational environments of end users. Education and training can also help to ensure that new end users have a better understanding of the potential utility of the technology.
The financial gap between the acquisition of remote sensing data and the development of a usable application. The purchase of data is only the first of a large number of steps affecting the cost of a successful application. An organization, commercial firm, or government agency that wants to incorporate remote sensing applications into its operations must be prepared for a long-term financial investment in staff, ongoing training (both technical and user training), hardware, and software, at a minimum. Alternatively, the potential user organization should be prepared to purchase these services from a value-adding provider.
Another recurring theme in workshop discussions was the need for data continuity. In light of the heavy, up-front investment required to develop and use remote sensing applications, organizations as well as individual users have to be assured of a reliable and continuous source of both data and information.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Finding. The full, life-cycle cost of developing and using remote sensing data products goes beyond obtaining the data and includes, among others, staff for data processing, interpretation, and integration; education and training; hardware and software upgrades; and sustained interactions between technical personnel and end users (see Chapter 3). Although many of these costs are incurred at the time a technology is first employed, the life-cycle costs and benefits of remote sensing applications are not well understood.
Recommendation 1. NASA’s Office of Earth Science, Applications Division, in consultation with other stakeholders (e.g., agencies that use remote sensing data, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Transportation, Envi
ronmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture; private companies; state and local government users; and not-for-profit institutions), should mount a study to identify and analyze the full range of short- and long-term costs and benefits of developing remote sensing applications and the full costs of their implementation by public, nongovernmental, and other noncommercial users. In addition, NASA should support economic analyses to reduce the start-up costs of developing new remote sensing applications.
Education and Training
Finding. Training is an integral component of efforts to bridge the gap between remote sensing professionals and end users (see Chapters 3 and 4). Remote sensing involves sophisticated technology, and specialized training is required to process the data, convert it into information, and interpret the results. Many agencies and organizations either lack the financial resources to provide such training or do not understand the importance of periodic retraining for technical staff.
Recommendation 2. Federal agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and others should provide the seed funding for developing remote sensing training and educational materials. Agencies should consider, as an initial step, using the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to solicit proposals for developing training materials and courses, to foster the uses of remote sensing data in applications, and to encourage commercial enterprises to provide these services.
Finding. Reducing the social distance between application developers and end users is a means of encouraging successful technology transfer (see Chapters 2 and 3). Unless those who create applications (e.g., scientists, engineers, and technicians) and those who use them (e.g., government, not-for-profit, and private sector applied users, policy makers, and natural resource managers) understand the roles of others involved in the process, they will not be able to communicate effectively and the development of applications will suffer.
Recommendation 3. Federal agencies, including those that produce remote sensing images and those that use them, should consider creating “extern” programs with the purpose of fostering the exchange of staff among user and producer agencies for training purposes.
For example, NASA, NOAA, and USGS could create an extern program in collaboration with potential user agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation, and others and in so doing could produce trained staff to serve as brokers for information and further training.
Similar exchanges could be organized between universities and state and local governments and between commercial companies and government.
Recommendation 4. The Land Grant, Sea Grant, and Agricultural Extension programs should be expanded to include graduate fellowships and associateships to permit students to work at agencies that use remote sensing data. Such programs could help to improve communication and understanding among the scientists and engineers who develop applications for remote sensing data and the agencies that use them.
NASA’s Space Grant program could be extended to include these training activities, much as the Land Grant program has fostered the development of agricultural extension agents.
Finding. Although many remote sensing applications emerge from basic research, the development of applications is not accorded the recognition associated with publication in scientific journals. Researchers have few professional incentives to produce applications. The research-to-applications model developed in other fields, such as pharmaceutical research and many fields of engineering, could be emulated by the Earth sciences. Yet even if this model were to be adopted in areas related to remote sensing, there are at present few funding opportunities for work that spans the divide between research and applications.
Recommendation 5. Resources, separate from funding for basic research, should be made available to federal agencies such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Transportation, the National Science Foundation, and others for support of research on remote sensing applications and remote sensing applications derived from basic research. In addition, these agencies should establish joint research announcements aimed at fostering the development of applications for remote sensing data through basic research.
Requirements of Applications Users
Finding. Many remote sensing applications have specific requirements, including continuity in data collection, consistency in format, frequency of observations, and access to comparable data over time. It is important that the requirements of those who use applications are communicated to both public and private sector data producers throughout the process of designing new technologies and producing and disseminating remote sensing data.
Recommendation 6. Both public and private sector data providers should develop mechanisms to obtain regular advice and feedback on applications requirements for use in their planning processes. Advisory bodies that are consulted for input to these decisions should routinely include applications users.
Recommendation 7. Data preservation should be addressed by all data providers as a routine part of the data production process to ensure continuity of the data record and to avoid inadvertent loss of usable data.
Standards and Protocols
Finding. The lack of standard data formats, open and available protocols, and standard validation and verification information inhibits the spread of remote sensing applications (see Chapter 3).
Recommendation 8. The use of internationally recognized formats, standards, and protocols should be encouraged for remote sensing data and information. The work of the OpenGIS Consortium and the Federal Geographic Data Committee serves as an important international and national coordinating mechanism for efforts in standards development that should be continued.
These and other entities pursuing common remote sensing data formats and standards should consult with the sensor and software vendors to ensure that data acquired from the use of new technologies for data acquisition, analysis, and storage and distribution are consistent with other data sets.
Utility of Workshop Format
Finding. In general, the workshop as a mechanism for gathering data provided the steering committee with the information and insight it needed to understand issues related to technology transfer and remote sensing applications and to make recommendations about more effective ways to foster the development of applications.
In retrospect, as outlined in Chapter 4, the steering committee recognizes several strengths, and some areas for improvement, in the use of a workshop format.