How Democratized Earth Observation Data Can Radically Change Environmental Debates

“UrtheCast is going to take environmental discussions from ‘tell me’ to ‘show me’ with accessible science.” — Dr. Keith Beckett, UrtheCast Chief Scientist and Resource Works Advisor

Walking the talk, with scientific rigor

When it comes to environmental regulation, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has been extremely clear: Social license or ‘community buy-in’ will be absolutely necessary.

“Public input will be sought and considered. Decisions will be informed by scientific evidence. Indigenous peoples will be more fully engaged in reviewing and monitoring major resource development projects. The process will have greater transparency,” stated Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) on Jan. 27, 2016.

The need for public acceptance has been hotly debated in the public domain, both here in Canada and abroad, but its efficacy has been proven. When the public is onboard with a project, that spells a great deal of good for all stakeholders — businesses, communities, regulators, governments, and economies alike.

This is where democratized Earth Observation (EO) data can lend significant support to public conversations within and between communities, the media, organizations, and levels of government.

“The Government will demonstrate to Canadians and to the world that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand in hand. Protecting the environment and growing the economy are not incompatible goals; in fact, our future success demands that we do both.” — NRCan

Calling for a ‘social license’ upgrade

Because the term is a sticky one, the phrase alone can lead to regulatory confusion. And when public opinion rails against scientific research economic realities, it becomes even harder to determine the best course of action to benefit all stakeholders.

But when every stakeholder has access to the same accurate, timely information — democratized EO data — this can help us raise our level of our public discourse and help communities make better-informed decisions. Greater responsibility, then, falls on the community, thus raising the likelihood of widespread buy-in.

“In the 20 years to 2014, resource capital investment in B.C. amounted to $100 billion — second only to housing. Much of this was in natural gas and it translated directly into innovation and foundational job roles in the energy value chain.” — Stewart Muir, Vancouver Sun, Resource Works Executive Director.
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Raising the level of public discourse

Democratizing Earth’s data from space with multiple sensors — especially with daily regular revisits over the same area, cloud free, from our proposed UrtheDaily™ constellation — has already allowed for unprecedented access to information that was previously in the hands of large companies and governments.

Beyond the need for accessibility, the UrthePlatform allows for the efficient extraction of science-backed information from that imagery. As Dr. Keith Beckett, UrtheCast’s Chief Scientist explains, this data can provide more merit to social license and help the public make more informed decisions:

“To date, virtually all of the scientific data that forms the basis of the resource industry’s and regulator’s decision making process is largely hidden or requires an expert to interpret it, thus shutting off any possibility for meaningful dialogue between the various stakeholders. We are going to turn this around by exposing the data for all to see and by presenting the data in an easy-to-understand way that leads directly to a high-level of social engagement. UrtheCast is providing an API access to this rich EO data archive, allowing everyone to develop their own image interpretation algorithms.”

“Google shows the world with old JPEG quality imagery. Using a similar, easy-to-use interface, UrtheCast shows the world with the most recent and scientific quality imagery that applying algorithms to that imagery to extract specific types of information not traditionally derivable from just RGB imagery.” — Dr. Keith Beckett

Scientific data is simply inaccessible

As things stand, scientific data has an accessibility problem. Add to that an inability to crunch and communicate that data in an understandable way and efforts toward transparency are impeded.

“In virtually every resource industry, be it surface, subsurface or aquaculture development, organizations suffer the same limiting factor of inaccessible or difficult-to-understand scientific data. This situation is the direct result of industries being overly protective of their information and governments being unable to deliver meaningful information,” Keith notes. “We have to go beyond opening up EO, toward making that information digestible and interactive. In that way, this science-backed information via the UrthePlatform will substantially raise the level of comprehension.”

“UrtheCast will be instrumental by making available science-backed information through an interactive platform to all stakeholders in the resource development industry.” — Dr. Keith Beckett

Why industries are wary…

While transparency is key, talking about those wins and losses — showing those wins and losses — isn’t always comfortable. Some industries in particular are reluctant to pull back the curtain.

“The oil production industry prefers that the public not be able to observe its operations because of perceptions that the industry is ‘dirty’. On the flip side, the oil industry is taking steps to clean up its dirty perception and there is a real need to show the positive strides that are being achieved,” Keith explains. “Having access to current information allows a faster response and mitigation when unexpected changes or events occur, or the change is gradual and nuanced because the environmental response is slower.”

Take for example, oil leak detection: “There is potential here to detect slow leaks from pipelines, although we would be unable to detect every leak due to ‘confusers’ in the imagery. Mainly, the normal phenological (growth cycle) variations. That said, there is some data science behind the possibility of detecting leaks, and we would need to quantify how reliable that detection capability may be. We don’t have good data to support this level of reliability just yet, but we have an ‘it’s possible’ assessment. That’s where further R&D will come in.”

This concern over transparency can also be observed in mining, herd farming, fish farming, agriculture, water management, land and water transportation, land use — the list of applications and industries is in some ways limitless.

“Once the shovels are put away, how is the environment recovering? We can help provide a benchmark against which we can then continue monitoring over the lifetime of the project, for instance a pipeline, and the surrounding areas.” — Dr. Keith Beckett

What industries stand to gain

In British Columbia, industries like hydroelectricity, mining, and forestry are key economic drivers. With jobs on the line, the management of those industries, both business-wise and under the community lens, becomes all the more important.

“The hydroelectricity industry, for instance, prefers that the public not be able to observe the scale of the Site-C project. On the flip side, new opportunities for recreation are being created and there is a real need to show the positive benefits,” says Keith. “Firstly, it establishes the current environmental situation ‘before shovels go into the ground’. Reaching back into the archive can help tell us a story of what is happening in the long term as well. As shovels go into the ground, we can monitor the environmental impact, “both where the shovels are going as well as the surrounding areas — waterways in particular,” Dr. Beckett says.

This concern over transparency can also be observed in mining, herd farming, fish farming, agriculture, water management, land and water transportation, land use — the list of applications and industries is in some ways limitless.

“The future of British Columbia is going to be more linked to the prosperity of the high-tech sector in the long run. A large part of this is because technology is driving improvements in how resources are used and in how our tight land base can be managed responsibly … From this emerges a virtuous circle of resource discovery, environmental protection, development, social growth, all of it mediated by technological innovation. This is the dominant characteristic of British Columbia’s modern economy.” — Stewart Muir, Vancouver Sun

We’re only beginning to realize the potential of open EO data

While UrtheCast’s fleet of current and planned sensors is one of the most diverse in the business, and while we are including external sensors on the UrthePlatform, we’re still only on the precipice of a shakeup, which will give rise to greater social, environmental, and economic responsibility.

“Gaining public confidence can go awry when the public isn’t informed as much as possible — we can help make this required information more accessible. We’re ahead of that curve, our data sources keep growing, and the use of this data for social proof has already begun. For now, UrtheCast is already able to deliver these services using Deimos-1 and other space-based sources of imagery. As UrtheDaily, and later OptiSAR, comes on line, the improved spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions will greatly improve the type, accuracy and currency of the information. In the future, we’ll be using data from all UrtheCast sensors, but especially the UrtheCast constellation, and UrtheDaily* and Deimos-1 in particular.”

“Climate Change is real. Putting aside the debate over the causes, this is a scientific fact. The accelerating impacts of Climate Change on the environment, on resource development, on human activity and so on, demands more and better information, available at a higher frequency of observation in order to understand, mitigate and respond to these impacts. The public and industry absolutely needs a place where they can go to easily obtain this information.” — Dr. Keith Beckett

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