Written by 7:06 am European Union

Earth Observation & Data Cooperation: The EU-Pacific Partnership

Due to their low-lying coastal nature, small landmasses, and fragile natural ecosystems, the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The free and open data and services of the European Union’s Copernicus program can provide significant value-added services in combating some of the challenges faced by PICs.

The Pacific region covers a very large area with a low-density population scattered over many islands. The Pacific comprises 13 Pacific Island Countries (PICs), as well as Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, and is home to around 12 million people, including over 500,000 European citizens. Common challenges across the PICs highlight the benefits of satellite-based Earth Observation (EO) applications, especially for monitoring and measuring climate change such as sea level monitoring, coastal erosion monitoring, biodiversity loss, forestry and natural resources monitoring, and more. Due to their low-lying coastal nature, small landmasses, and fragile natural ecosystems, PICs are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and many of them appear in the top 15 most vulnerable countries in the World Risk Index 2021. The free and open data and services of the EU’s Copernicus program can provide significant value-added services in combating some of the challenges faced by PICs.

The full potential of EO is not yet reached in the Pacific, in part due to the current digital divide, lack of technical skills and lack of awareness about existing supply of fully free and open Copernicus data by certain PIC governments and stakeholders. While commercial satellite supply is evolving quickly, many local governments lack the funds to purchase and fully utilize commercial imagery.

Satellites offer more opportunities than other remote sensing methods such as aerial imagery and drones, such as scaling up the process over larger areas, enabling responsiveness when a disaster occurs, and new applications using Near-Real-Time analysis. Satellites also provide change detection analysis through large library archives of artificial intelligence (AI)-based automated processing chains and regular revisit capabilities over the same area. Finally, satellite-based observations represent a cost-effective solution for covering medium to large-sized areas (more than 1,000 sq km) or hot spots scattered across a wide Area of Interest.

Satellite imagery can, in these conditions, be significantly more efficient compared to other imagery acquisition means.

Overall context and opportunities

Despite differences in geography, size, history, culture, economic and political systems, the Pacific Island Countries face similar challenges that could be turned into opportunities for EO usage when it comes to natural resources management and biodiversity, climate change and natural disasters.

The recent Tonga volcanic eruption of January 2022 showcased how rapidly the island became isolated from the rest of the world, facing a communication blackout for weeks after the submarine cable was severed by a tsunami. Satellite imagery offered the only picture of the situation. This disaster emphasized the isolation of the PICs and showed that in certain cases, satellite imagery can represent a key tool to rapidly provide intelligence in remote, disconnected islands.

The Exclusive Economic Zones of PICs (areas of the ocean within which the coastal nations have jurisdiction over both living and non-living resources) gather multiple use cases for maritime applications, including security concerns, illegal fishery monitoring and illegal trafficking and migrations, as well as monitoring fishery resources. Free Copernicus data with large scene size can be used to maintain an overview of the vast region, for example to regularly monitor and detect oil spills, or fishery boats, or for maritime security. Once detected, ‘tip and cue’ can be used for the coordinated utilization of complementary sensor systems (either commercial satellite imagery or other) to enhance and optimize persistent monitoring over large areas.

Other satellite data opportunities are related to sustainable economic development, such as 3D mining and extraction monitoring, cadaster plots and land use planning, agriculture and food security, as well as uses in rural development, deforestation, or plantation monitoring. While current Copernicus resolution and revisit cannot address all needs, Pacific stakeholders can utilize its fully open and free data as a baseline system, complemented as necessary by other means such as field surveys, commercial imagery, aerial or drone imagery, etc. However, investments in capacity development must be made in order to fully exploit the value of Copernicus data, in particular more technically challenging radar datasets produced by Sentinel 1.

Copernicus limitations

Copernicus data access and services must be enhanced to solve specific problems. Agriculture in many micro-islands is characterized by small traditional farming parcels, where Sentinel’s spatial resolution is ill-adapted to provide solutions. Certain applications such as mining monitoring require daily revisit, but Copernicus’ pre-programmed acquisition plans are not optimized for over these areas, privileging average revisits over Europe. Finally, despite significant investments by international, regional and local players in training and capacity-development, multiple stakeholders report lacking the skills to fully utilize all datasets and extract actionable insights provided by Copernicus, in particular due to the complexity of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data processing.

Integration of local communities and customary practices

Value-Added Services (VAS) are often required to be layered on top of raw imagery in order to deliver services answering a specific need and solving a specific problem. For instance, effective VAS in the Pacific region requires a know-how of local farming practices as well as vegetative cycles that might differ from where foreign-based service companies are used to working.

Engaging local communities is the key to success. Local practices and customs differ from island to island, so understanding practices improves product output quality and ultimately Copernicus adoption rates. Engaging local communities is also a key to ensure mission sustainability through improved training and knowledge transfer. When surveyed, Pacific stakeholders all expressed the desire to stay engaged, own their geospatial products, and master and control outputs and right of use.

Disclaimer: This map is indicative only of agreed and potential maritime jurisdictional limits within the Pacific region. It does not imply the expression of an opinion by SPREP on the legality of any boundary shown. Source: Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP)

Digital divide, data ownership issues, and bespoke products

To increase the utilization of Copernicus in the Pacific Islands, EO access might be proposed with two complementary approaches that have to be engaged in parallel, utilizing both bottom-up and top-down approaches:

  • The top-down approach offers generic preprocessed data or services that are produced and centralized elsewhere and accessed through a web-portal interface or an Application Program Interface (API). These are various data cubes initiated such as SPC’s ‘DigitalEarth’ or Cloud-based SAR processing solutions, jointly developed via a public-private partnership between the New Caledonian company BlueCham and public research center, National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), already being deployed in countries in the Pacific with similar thematic issues as New Caledonia. The analysis-ready data should ease the use by the non-expert community and support experts in building VAS from a bottom-up approach.
  • The bottom-up approach leverages the analysis-ready data production from the top-down approach to solve specific problems, engaging local communities with the help of local academia, institutional and private sector stakeholders. The approach is much more service-centric, deepening the analytics and going downstream in the processing chain. This approach also contributes to skill transfers and local community integration and ownership. New skills will facilitate the process for creating ownership and co-design of solutions based on EO technology, and accompany the ‘last mile’ between data resources management and end-users.

This conjunction of approaches proposes to reduce at once:

  • The information ownership issue, as communities involved in services processing chains can handle their production;
  • The digital divide, as computer processing power and maintenance is shifted to the Cloud;
  • A decentralized approach that maintains, sustains, and fosters local expertise, with products built by local centers of expertise that are less dependent on internet low bandwidth connectivity and electricity shutdown issues; and
  • Skill transfer, as communities are engaged to produce bespoke studies and are willing to participate in the local economy development beyond project lifecycles.

Governance, long-term training and skill development

The current governance architecture must be strengthened. Local experts, research institutes and regional institutions are very effective at their work, have cultivated large networks at both local and international levels, and are keenly aware of local limitations and needs. Creating new organizations risks fragmenting the landscape.

Creating additional interlinkages between institutional actors, academia and private companies is a key to success. Public research centers can drive use cases, train experts, broadcast guidelines, and inculcate good practices, while private companies scale, replicate the business, train and recruit local experts, which enables long-term development beyond a project lifespan. Today, many projects are funded by foreign agencies but when projects finish and funding is gone, the project outputs are not leveraged and are often lost. Skills and knowledge arduously developed are often lost as well.

Communication and capacity development

Under-usage of Copernicus is explained first by a lack of awareness by PICs’ stakeholders, and second by a lack of communication and training. Accessing physical training seminars or meetings by traveling from one island to another is costly. In addition, the dramatic time difference between the Pacific Region and Europe limits virtual meeting initiatives such as live webinars during working hours. Mapping and leveraging the region’s existing universities and training centers and providing support to develop curricula and capacity development is an effective way to both increase local stakeholders’ capacity to utilize Copernicus datasets, as well as increase awareness of the benefits of Space to resolve local challenges.

Increasing awareness-raising efforts targeting local European Union delegations, which already have privileged contacts and dialog channels with key stakeholders and decision-makers, can also increase their effectiveness as strong advocates for the increased usage of Copernicus to help contribute to tackling some of the challenges faced by PICs.

Disclaimer:

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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