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Our eyes in the sky

Amar Sitabi

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

Good policy is built around geospatial data sharing. On a global scale, the availability of geospatial data is still actively in development, but we can already see the many benefits of open spatial data. As we see an increase in global environmental issues, it is of great importance to have this data consistently available for policymaking purposes and hazard management, assessment, and mitigation.

This opinion piece (the first in a series on geospatial data sharing) introduces the topic of geospatial data sharing and the use of this data in policymaking and environmental issues, with a specific focus on the INSPIRE Directive and the Sentinel satellites from the Copernicus programme. Based on the research that was conducted for this article, I am confident that the method and level of spatial data sharing in the EU is relatively good in a global context (seen as Copernicus is the largest space data provider globally) and setting an example for the rest of the world.


  1. Geospatial data is everywhere

Geospatial data is an umbrella term for a wide range of data types, such as earth observation (EO) data (satellites), GNSS (GPS, navigation satellites), GIS data (i.e. historical or actual maps, administrative borders, vectors), and more. Around 80% of all the environmental data used by governments has such a spatial component. 1 This data is broadly used in the public sector (i.e. urban planning, military, policy), by businesses (i.e. telecom, mobility) and daily on an individual level (i.e. weather, navigation). Geospatial data and documentation (metadata) are frequently missing or incomplete due to scattered or unprocessed raw data from the (multiple) source(s), and additionally often have problems with compatibility or legal barriers. Because of the wide variety in the type, quantity, quality and source of spatial data, a framework is necessary to keep this data accessible. A Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) is a data infrastructure that implements such a framework with technologies, policies, and institutional arrangements.2 The geospatial (geographic) data, metadata, users, and tools are connected in an efficient and accessible manner on different regional scales in order to create and exchange data.3 A user can download the standardised spatial data from a geoportal 4 and work with it in their software (i.e. ArcGIS, QGIS, Google Earth, SNAP).


Although geospatial data is one of the most important data types for the EU 5 6, I find that it is often not highlighted enough or described sufficiently.7 On the news, we often hear about things that went wrong and that could have been prevented. However, we do not hear about all the work behind the scenes that use geospatial data to prevent and manage disasters and enable policy.


  1. Spatial Data Infrastructures in practice

Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDIs) are necessary for proper geospatial data sharing. Therefore, the European Parliament established the Directive 2007/2/EC for the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) in 2007 as part of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), thus basically obliging authorities of each Member State 8 to share information by interoperability and harmonisation of their SDIs. 9. The purpose of the INSPIRE Directive is to support European Union’s policies in 34 different environmental themes 10 with the collection of geospatial data in the INSPIRE Geoportal. Similarly, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has their own concept that is aligned with the European Commission in the form of the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS). With Eionet as their geoportal, they actively collaborate and contribute to the INSPIRE Directive and the European Data Portal. Likewise, INSPIRE contributes to the implementation of SEIS, 11 together with the  Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme (nowadays called Copernicus)  by the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA); the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), organised by the international Group on Earth Observations (GEO); and their own respective GEOSS Geoportal. Attempts have been made to integrate these initiatives with each other, such as the “GEOSS, INSPIRE and GMES an Action in Support (GIGAS)” 12 initiative, which aims to build a Single Information Space in Europe for the Environment. Similar developments are seen outside of the EU on a national and international scale, such as for the United Nations in the form of the United Nations Spatial Data Infrastructure (UNSDI) or the UN Geoportal.


  1. Data Sharing from Outer Space

The ESA Copernicus programme, as part of FP7, EuroGEO 13 and being EU’s main EO space programme, is the EU’s contribution to GEOSS, delivering high resolution geospatial data globally. Copernicus is currently the largest space data provider in the world with seven missions and multiple Sentinel Satellites (currently 7 in orbit) 14 and over 12 terabytes data per day. 15 The aim of the programme is to monitor the environment in order to support research for natural disasters, climate change and policy, in addition to providing knowledge and awareness for the general public. It offers data in the areas of land, atmosphere, marine, emergency management, security, climate change, and Sentinel EO data. An important use of the Sentinel data is for the purpose of emergency monitoring, to identify hazards such as floods, in order to support policymaking with hazard assessment. Interpreting the multidimensional geospatial data can provide information on for example elevation changes, (long-term) land displacement and changes in land use, and this respectively can help identify for example landslides, volcanic activity and risk areas, and urban planning or agriculture. 16 17

The Copernicus Space infrastructure and services are a very good example of (the benefit of) geospatial data sharing and implementation of SDIs, because the data is freely available and easily accessible to any citizen or organisation around the world, it is standardised, and has dedicated and publicly available software (i.e. SNAP) for processing the data. It is also an illustration of the value of INSPIRE: Copernicus only works when the Sentinel EO data (satellite) is paired and referenced with externally (publicly) sourced in situ (land-based) geospatial data (i.e. weather balloons, river sensors, ships) throughout Europe, and this would be incredibly difficult without a dedicated SDI.

The big drawback, however, is that high resolution spatial data from the private sector is unavailable (i.e. telecom), and Copernicus is currently relying public data that is available. The economic value of high-quality (and high-value) geospatial data is enormous, but the availability and efficiency of platforms that provide this data still needs to be developed further. A good example of an initiatives that attempts to provide these high value datasets is the Google Cloud Public Datasets Program 18 19 and BigQuery (planet scale geospatial data analysis 20). The INSPIRE Directive has achieved widespread availability of good quality geospatial data within Europe, but the roadmap will end in 2020. High-resolution data (i.e. mobile phones) are necessary and can be gained from the private sector or from crowdsourcing, but a dedicated framework or standard still needs to be developed. Concepts such as a smart city and smart policy are dependent on this data. A new European Commission initiative, the European Location Interoperability Solutions for e-Government (ELISE), aims to provide this framework for (e-)governments and to be the successor of INSPIRE and to determine the roadmap after 2020. 21

Excited about geospatial data sharing? Another article will follow highlighting specific use cases of geospatial data sharing and relate this important type of data to the current Covid-19 situation. In the meanwhile, please share your opinion or expertise in this topic on our forum.


Geospatial data
Image credit:
(C), 2016 ESA/ATG medialab