Remarks on Eye on Earth Summit

Daniel A. Reifsnyder
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
Washington, DC
December 15, 2011

 Good afternoon friends and colleagues. I am grateful to make this presentation late in the program – grateful for the opportunity it affords to reflect on the meaning of this magnificent four-day conference, on where it fits in the panoply of global efforts at Earth observation, and on the way forward from Abu Dhabi.

First let me say that the United States strongly supports this Summit and commends the Government of the United Arab Emirates for its initiative and determination in hosting it. We have been here in force this week – with U.S. contributors on the Executive Advisory Board, the Framework Committee and all five working groups. In addition to a multi-agency U.S. government delegation there are numerous U.S. participants here from civil society, including academe, environmental organizations, research organizations and the private sector.

My remarks today will address three questions: (1) Why the United States is a leader globally in environmental information and Earth observations; (2) how we contribute to continuing and expanding global partnership efforts in this area; and (3) what we hope will follow from this summit.

U.S. Experience

The United States is widely known for its technological prowess, in the field of environmental information and Earth observations as in other areas. But it is important to understand that the problems we faced are the problems everyone faces and we developed solutions over a tumultuous period of trial and error.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of the first Landsat satellite on July 23, 1972. It is not an exaggeration to say that Landsat is the trailblazer of all civilian Earth observing programs, providing a continuous data record of the Earth’s land surface. This is a wonderful achievement and it offers a rich legacy – but the Landsat program has made an even greater achievement in the free and open access policy that evolved with it– a policy that views Earth observations data as a global resource that should be made available as freely and openly as possible. Rooted in this policy is the belief that all people – ourselves included – are better off if all have access to this data.

Evolving recognition of the importance of transparency led us to propose what became Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration of 1992, endorsed by 178 nations at that time. Principle 10 holds that:

“Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”

Most recently, in October 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) opened the Landsat archive free of charge to anyone with an internet connection. In the words of former USGS Director Mike Myers, we did this to “promote…a common global understanding of land conditions – historical and contemporary – for users worldwide, and that single decision has ushered in a new era in our understanding of environmental conditions here on Earth.”

As of August this year there had been over six million downloads of Landsat satellite data. Free Landsat data, paired with today’s powerful computer processing capabilities, have enabled large-scale, global change studies that in the past were too costly for all but a handful of institutions to conduct. This policy has heralded what some call a “democratization” of satellite mapping.

The United States continues to advocate for open data policy because we see tremendous value in the greater transparency and new applications and uses for imagery that a free and open approach promotes.

In this regard, I wish to acknowledge an important new development – launch of the “Open Data Strategy for Europe.” This strategy represents yet another key regional and global step toward free and open access.

Ongoing Contributions

Globally, people have been seeking for decades to build the various environmental information networks and observing systems that will give us an accurate a picture of the changes taking place on Earth. Only when basic data and information are available, in understandable and useable formats, are policy makers and the public able to make the evidence-based decisions necessary to meet our challenges and take advantage of the possibilities to build a more sustainable world.

The United States contributes to this global effort in two key ways -- by developing and maintaining our own systems and by supporting the efforts of others to develop and link key components.

In 2005, the United States launched an effort that led to setting up the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) that today has 88 member countries, 58 participating organizations and 7 observer organizations. A primary GEO objective is developing the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

To date, agencies across the U.S. government have contributed over 8,000 unique data sets to the GEOSS Data-Core. These data sets represent geophysical parameters and related data and products in a broad range of Earth observation fields. Through tagging in NASA’s Global Change Master Directory, all data sets are now registered and discoverable through the GEOSS Common Infrastructure Portal.

I am pleased to announce here today that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to make available a host of important U.S. environmental data sets through the Eye on Earth global public information service. This information includes data from AirNow; EPA Watersheds; EP Enviro-Mapper (Application); Water Quality; EPA Ecoregions; and several others. These holdings will continue to be deployed on the new U.S. geospatial platform – -- but we believe that it is important to get the information out – and by making these data sets available through the Eye on Earth site, we hope to foster greater awareness of U.S. information and of our commitment to share it – and thereby encourage others to do the same.

The Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) is an important example of how we have worked together with countries and regions to create information networks and knowledge for humanitarian purposes. This network forecasts the effects on family livelihoods from factors including drought and floods in order to protect food security in areas around the world. FEWSNET has proven to be such a powerful decision support tool that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has funded it continuously since 1985.

As part of our efforts under the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) Environmental Cooperation Program, USAID and NASA are working with Central American countries to improve environmental decision-making and monitoring through the use of SERVIR. SERVIR is a visualization system that uses satellite imagery to monitor the environment helping local scientists, government leaders, and communities address concerns related to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, biodiversity and climate change. Its data can be used to monitor and forecast ecological changes as well as to respond to events like forest fires, red tides and tropical storms. Recently, SERVIR nodes have expanded from Central America and the Caribbean to East Africa and the Himalayas.

The Eye on Earth special initiative on community sustainability and resiliency exemplifies particular areas of interest for the United States. Clearly, urbanization is a major trend that will affect overall economic and environmental sustainability in the years ahead. To contend with it, we are collaborating with African scientists through the Mapping Africa for Africa Initiative to empower African scientists to develop, share and use fundamental baseline data. The pilot phase in the Lake Victoria region demonstrates the type of cross-border collaboration on shared resources and challenges that typifies the aims of Eye on Earth. It has the support of NGOs, academic and governmental organizations, and UN organizations such as UNEP, UN-Habitat and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Similarly, U.S. investment of more than $130 million over the past decade in the Congo Basin Forest Partnership have put GIS and geospatial technologies to work accelerating land use planning across the region, providing practical tools for decision makers and making information broadly accessible. Innovations developed with U.S. support include country-wide interactive mapping tools for each of the major forested countries and a biennial State of the Forest Report, all of which capture the best of today’s geospatial data and research to improve the lives of the people of Central Africa and to promote the conservation and sustainable management of its forest ecosystems.

At the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the United States launched a number of efforts in Africa – including for example the Geographic Information for Sustainable Development in Africa program -- in parallel with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) initiative – the Abu Dhabi Global Environment Data and Information (AGEDI) program. U.S. efforts focused on Africa, while AGEDI emphasized the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

But both programs share a common goal – to apply the power of geospatial science and technology as tools for decision-support to enhance the management of resources, and facilitate evidence-based approaches to address a wide spectrum of sustainable development challenges. Both the United States and the United Arab Emirates emphasize the importance of partnerships, and capacity building among stakeholders. And we both continue to focus on sharing experiences, data and approaches to maximize benefits for multiple stakeholders. By hosting this summit, the UAE continues to demonstrate its commitment to this effort, which began now decade ago.

Outlook Moving Forward

Finally let me turn to the future. The declaration Eye on Earth participants agreed a few minutes ago states an intention to develop further the Eye on Earth Community, supported and facilitated by UNEP and AGEDI, to progress the special initiatives and other such projects and programs, both existing and in the future. I also understand that plans are afoot to hold another such summit meeting two years from now.

In our view, this Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi demonstrates leadership in a region that has enormous potential – a region that is currently under-recorded and under-represented in the effort to build global networks that work together for sustainability and the protection of environmental and human health. To us, the Eye on Earth Summit is a beacon to others throughout this region – in this neighborhood, if you will – offering to help all in this neighborhood claim their rightful place in the global effort.

And what is this region – this neighborhood? Comfortably, it is of course all of Southwest Asia and North Africa. Less comfortably, perhaps, but equally important it also embraces East Africa, whose needs for capacity building and representation at the global table are even greater. Fortunately, this broad region has a particularly strong partner in the United Nations Environment Programme, located in Nairobi, which is already at work in many areas.

What matters is that people in this region come together to share ideas and perspectives, to establish strong networks among themselves and to link with other partners around the world who stand ready to help. The light must come from within – it cannot be imported. And the priorities must be set by people here – whether they are water security, communities and resilience, disaster reduction, agriculture, protection of biodiversity, oceans or some of these, all of these or others.

If this baseline is established, and we believe it is well underway, there are many others throughout the global community who are already helping and stand ready to do even more. Capacity building, in particular, seems to be an area where the forward march of the Eye on Earth can make a real difference. We need to find myriad ways to integrate the wealth of information that already exists into decision-making efforts at the national and sub-national level for the benefit of people from all walks of life and for nations as a whole.

We look forward to returning here two years from now when we will have an opportunity to reflect on all that has been accomplished and when we will take stock once again of where we need next to go.

Thank you for your attention.