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Exploiting satellite data for public services



Interview: Sara Huntingdon, manager of the Space for Smarter Government Programme, talks about cultivating ‘the art of the possible’ in using an unfamiliar source of data to support business change

“At the moment space data can be quite complicated to use, understanding what other datasets they want to integrate it with, what sort of systems there are, how they access the datasets and how they interact.”

Sara Huntingdon does not pretend it is easy for many public authorities to exploit data from satellites, but she is a convincing advocate for the cause who places a strong emphasis on the practical solutions to make it possible.

As manager of the UK Space Agency’s Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) she has a leading role in opening people’s eyes to its potential and enabling them to use the data successfully. And she points out that different approaches work for different organisations.

“The aim of the programme is to make government aware and increase the uptake of data, applications and services that use satellites,” she says.

“We do three things: raising awareness; enabling access to a resource that can be people, data, competition funding; and demonstrating capability, which is where we can help with things like demonstrator programmes and competitions.

“I would describe it as a business change approach. The technology can do what it does, but it’s also about encouraging people to adopt different ways of working and making people aware of the art of the possible.

Insights and strategy

The advantages are in the nature of the data, which can go beyond that available from aerial photography and sensors to include radar and spectral bands – an indication of molecular states in an environment. This provides scope to tap into new insights and add an extra dimension to strategic planning.

A group of possibilities emerged in the latest round of grants to support projects at local and national level: among them assessments of air pollution, understanding patterns of life in congested marine environments, and assessing the structural condition of critical national infrastructure. SSGP pointed to Bournemouth Borough Council’s earlier work in using satellite imagery with other data to roll out charging points for electric vehicles.

The programme has also been working with authorities such as the Forestry Commission on monitoring plant health, the Rural Payments Agency for compliance monitoring, and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat on when it might activate the International Disasters Charter for accessing space data.

But that “art of the possible” is crucial, as the data can be very complex and come in large file sizes. This becomes even more of an issue with the move towards using mobile devices, many of which do not have the capacity to handle heavy volumes easily.

SSGP responds to it by working with authorities to identify the barriers and what can be done to remove them. Huntingdon says that work is going on to make the data more ingestible and interoperable with traditional geographic information systems (GIS), and to look at how to move it into the cloud and optimise workflows.

Competitions and courses

The programme’s competitions also contribute to exploring what is possible and provides catalogues of available space data and training courses. The latter includes a free one-day overview course with case studies, focused on dealing with public sector challenges rather than the intricacies of the data.

It also works with the Satellite Applications Catapult – the company created by Innovate UK to explore the economic potential in space activities – on some of the technical issues around harnessing and integrating data.

She says there is some variety in what organisations are looking for: “There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’. Some local authorities will have in-house GIS specialists and data scientists who are familiar with geospatial data.

“It’s a question of educating them on what’s available and how to ingest it into their existing systems to complement what they are doing.

“Other authorities may never touch the data but want a service provision. They don’t want to work with the data but want a product such as a map, decision support tool or a ‘red and green’ status dashboard. They may have satellite data within the dashboard but they don’t always need to know all the detail.

“It needs a conversation with the end user about where they are at, what applications they have and their main problems. It’s very much a requirement gathering and definition perspective, and can be from basis of ‘This is a satellite and this is what it does’ to people who are already familiar with it and want to push the boundaries of what it can do.”

Opening up possibilities

She adds that some authorities approach the agency with a particular solution in mind, but when they get into the conversation it opens up a range of other possibilities.

“If it confirms satellites will be helpful we point them towards what is available that they could just buy it as a service; or they might want to download data and we point them towards where they can access it.

“If it’s about high resolution imagery it’s about pointing them to where they can buy it. It’s about understanding the problem and the best solution.”

SSGP has been in place since 2014 – Huntingdon joined the following year – in which time it has supported as range of projects and is able to provide almost 40 case studies on its website. She regards the move by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make extensive use of Earth observation data, and set up a centre of excellence, as one of the big achievements; and highlights a project with the University of Leicester.

“We’ve done an air quality hotspot mapper with Leicester University. They spun an SME off the back of it.

“Part of the work identified issues around health and diabetes that led to them looking at healthy living in urban environments and what they do with air quality information on a map. They are now working up a health application to inform people where to exercise and what routes to take. 

“Seeing ideas like that develop and mature has been really enjoyable, and it’s great to see the start-up mature, employ people and get national recognition.”

Hackathon plan

The next steps include plans for a hackathon on potential new applications and making the public sector aware of them. Huntingdon says the programme has not used the approach before and wants to see if it will stimulate the market in government and attract buy-in from end users early in the development process.

“This is a change programme,” she says. “If we can get the end users in to see the more creative ways of using data and what it can do for them, outside of a formal procurement process, that’s got to be valuable to see how it works.”

There is also scope for mobile app development. Huntingdon says that, despite the difficulties in using the data with mobile devices, there is an emergency evacuation app for smartphones and others used on iPads.

Infrastructure theme

On a broader scale the programme is looking at infrastructure as a major new theme. It reflects the fact that its underlying purpose is to help the public sector save money, innovate and make better policy decisions.

“I think there’s real potential there,” Huntingdon says. “We started to work on areas where we know there is value and some work is already going on. Infrastructure is one of the areas that we’ve gone after pro-actively; there’s real opportunities coming, and wouldn’t it be great to get space data into new build programmes.

“We’re looking at something with the nuclear industry on new builds and geological disposal facilities. Programmes that will have big public engagement and trying to get satellite data in there from the start, so it won’t be an add-on.

“It’s really exciting, a real growth area and leading to interesting discussions.”

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