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Backstage support in times of crisis

Amar Sitabi

With geospatial data being more important and common than ever, best practices in data sharing should be utilized in order to keep up with the developments and needs of society. I feel that especially in crisis times, such as our current COVID-19 pandemic, geospatial data is actively supporting policy-making and crisis management.

This opinion piece will build further on topics discussed in the first article in this (two volume) geospatial data sharing series. In our last piece we touched upon spatial data infrastructures, Earth Observation (EO) data and specifically the Copernicus satellite program in relation to spatial data, the European Commission and the European Space Agency.  In this opinion piece, specific use cases of geospatial data and the importance of open data in crisis situations will be described. With the COVID-19 pandemic being an important and actual example, I am sure that geospatial data plays a key role in recovering from the large pressure crises put on our society (and will keep doing so).


  1. Geospatial aid during the COVID-19 pandemic

In times of crisis, people are often directly at risk and for exposed parties there is a significant financial loss. This requires rapid response, to minimize the impact of such a crisis, with readily available geospatial data to coordinate and visualize crisis-related datasets. Geospatial data in this case not only steers decision-making, but also makes it more transparent. It is, therefore, incredibly important to have good quality spatial data available in a centralized (open) data system at all times.

An example is the global COVID-19 pandemic, with a huge impact for all business and industry sectors and communities. The World Health Organization (WHO) is actively providing information and insights in this crisis[1], supported by geospatial data (i.e. the WHO COVID-19 Dashboard), and similarly governments are steering policy regionally using data with a spatial component, visualized in (interactive) maps and dashboards. During the pandemic, GIS and spatial big data helped with identifying and visualizing the spread of the virus and also contributed to spatial prevention and control of the pandemic in terms of resource allocation, social sentiment and mobility logistics.[2]

The first example of the role of geospatial data is in air pollution research in relation to the virus spread. The World Economic Forum (WEF) published an article proposing a potential link between fine particulate matter and COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands[3]. The evidence and correlation are not conclusive due to a lack of (higher resolution) spatial data.

A second example is the role of Copernicus in mitigating the impact from COVID-19 on the agricultural sector. The EU Space Data for Sustainable Farming initiative enables EU Member States to implement satellite-based checks of farms that results in accelerating farmer access to subsidies.

The final example concerns the use of the Copernicus Emergency Rapid Mapping Service used to support Italy in managing COVID-19. The satellite data has been used to monitor health facilities and public spaces.[4],[5]


  1. Data for society

The wide presence of satellite data enables opportunities for innovation and support during the pandemic and directly contributes to society. The ‘Rapid Action Coronavirus Earth observation’ (RACE) tool is an European Commission (EC) and European Space Agency (ESA) joint-effort[6] that illustrates this. The tool uses freely available EO data to measure the impact of the  post-lockdown recovery on various scales. The aim is to promote a more green and sustainable recovery. Additionally, there have been multiple initiatives to promote citizen involvement and the use of open data. This great opportunity for crowdsourcing of knowledge and innovation directly contributes to solving challenges in society (in the context of COVID-19). The COVID-19 Custom Script Contest organized by the EC, ESA and Euro Data Cube was built around using satellite data to help monitoring and mitigating COVID-19-related developments. The focus was on economic operators’ activity, human activity distribution and agriculture activity. Similarly, AZO, together with ESA and the EC, organized the Copernicus Masters competition with the aim to gather innovations using EO data to support the fight against the pandemic. NASA organized their own Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge (12 topics) with the use of EO and other open data.

I find that the use of challenges and competitions actively promotes the availability of open data and that they are a great way to utilize the knowledge of citizens to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.


  1. Current and future developments

When we talk about space, we think of exciting news such as launches to Mars. When we hear of natural hazards, we think of emergency aid and supplies. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear about the work of the frontline workers (i.e. healthcare) and government policy. We, however, do not often hear about geospatial data, satellite monitoring or emergency assessments that supports governments during crises or events, i.e. meteorological models, COVID-19 visualization and hazard monitoring. The current COVID-19 crisis underlines the importance of large scale (global) availability of spatial open data. Policy can directly be steered or supported with actionable intelligence, meaning that when more data is available, better actions can be taken.

Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI, see part 1) will be even more important in the future in the context of hazard assessment and crisis management. We already see that open data and open science initiatives are at the forefront to tackling some of the pandemic problems that we face. INSPIRE and Copernicus demonstrate the necessity of geospatial data sharing practices and use of open data. Future developments will most likely lean towards crowd-sourced or crowd-sensed geospatial data in combination with IoT solutions and more frequent usage of high-resolution data (such as mobile phones). The goal would be to develop data spaces or single information spaces to transition from SDI’s towards more user-centric design concepts. SDI’s will also play a more important role in enabling research on other planets (planetary SDI)[7].

Any thoughts on this topic? Feel free to share your own insights or questions on the forum.

Geospatial data
Image credit:
© samivv/Pixabay, 2020