Exploring space data for public services

Analysis: Data from satellites orbiting the Earth could add a new element to policy-making and services by 2030

Forgive the Star Trek reference, but space might just be the final frontier for public services.

It formed the subject of a panel discussion at last week’s techUKPS2020 conference, highlighting an issue that has been well under the radar for most organisations – the potential to use satellite data in informing policy and supporting services.

SatelliteThis is more than speculation. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is already investing some effort in exploring the potential, and the Space for Smarter Government programme has been running for two years, aimed at educating the public sector on how satellite data and applications can be used. The latter even includes a workstream focused on local authorities and devolved administrations.

There was a consensus on the panel – which included representatives from Defra, global satellite network Inmarsat, the UK Space Agency and Spanish technology firm Elecnor Deimos – that there could be widespread awakening to the potential in the next few years.

Some public servants are becoming aware that there is a lot more to satellites than beaming imagery down to Earth. It can be translated into a wide range of data on subjects such as environmental changes, water courses, farming and the change in urban environments, and this can provide solid evidence to underpin policy-making, especially when placed in the hands of data scientists.

Service projects

It could also be used in tools to support services. There was a reference to an early project in Indonesia, where satellite data is being used to identify emergencies and direct unmanned aerial vehicles as the first response. A potential example for closer to home could be to use satellite imagery on flooding to direct people in the area to the best escape route.

While these are currently nowhere near the agenda for most public servants, there are developments that promise to raise the profile.

One is the falling cost of transmitting and receiving satellite data. It has been a very expensive business in the past, but in the past decade some technological leaps have reduced the cost of space hardware.

There are now more than 2,000 satellites orbiting the Earth, which is increasing the data capacity and reducing its cost. It was said that Inmarsat is looking towards a time when the cost of data roaming through its satellite phones will be cheaper than that of conventional smartphones.

There is also some experimentation with building applications around the data, accompanied by the potential to make some of it open for re-use. This would lead towards the scenario in which relatively few people use the live data, but a much larger number make use of apps fed by the transmissions from satellites.

Hot spots

Space for Smarter Government has involved some trial projects.  One has been the development of a Hot Spot Mapper with the University of Leicester to relate air quality to issues such as local health levels and deprivation. It has also worked with Exeter City Council and software firm Bartec Auto ID on using satellite data to identify the number and location of trees in managing the city.

Of course, this is one for the medium to long term rather than the next couple of years, but the spread of app development using regular data streams suggests it is much more than dream. The tipping point is likely to come when at least one application is picked up by a sizeable community, and Defra’s strong interest could lead to developments pointed towards groups – farmers, environmentalists, emergency response teams – that take data seriously.

This could be within five years or 10, but it is notable – as stated during the discussion – that part of the vision for Space for Smarter Government is that it will not be needed by 2030. By that time, data space will be embedded in public services.

Image from NOAA, CC BY 2.0 through flickr