I attended the Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP) Showcase in November 2017 in the BEIS Conference Centre in London. The slides from last year’s event can be found on the SSPG website (here). We can expect similar publication of this event in due course.
The stated purpose of SSGP is “Enabling the public sector to save money, innovate and make more effective policy decisions by using space technology and data”. The premise being that the capabilities offered by space science including Earth Observation and Communications offers the ability to deliver some current programmes of work more efficiently and to deliver capabilities that were previously unavailable. The progress made is hampered by the lack of understanding by the potential customers of the abilities available and the lack of understanding of the needs of the customers on the part of those developing the technology. This showcase is one of the attempts to get the two sides to communicate more effectively and drive forward better and more cost effective government services. The term used was “willing partnership”.
A number of projects were showcased. These included
- improving the management of peat lands and thereby improving water quality and lowering costs in Scotland;
- improving the monitoring of the health of forests;
- Improving the monitoring of land usage, in particular which crops are being grown;
- Improving the monitoring of flood water and areas at risk.
These projects relied on the ability of data analysis to look at how the signals from earth observation vary in relationship to what is on the ground and to calibrate it against relatively small scale land-based surveys. Once the system is calibrated it can cover very large areas quickly and provide a lot of information and/or help focus ground resources. This has resulted in significant savings in the costs of inspections while improving their coverage.
Earth observation can also highlight changes from period to period, allowing unexpected changes to be investigated on the ground.
The real prizes are gained when different datasets such as ground surveys or instruments, drones, helicopters and satellites are combined. Each adds different levels of resolution and area covered to give a big picture.
In the area of air quality there are significant improvements in the data sets available. This includes improvements in the resolution and repeat period (numbers quoted were moving from a resolution of 20 km squares to 7 km squares and a repeat frequency from once a day to hourly). The speed at which data can be released for analysis is also improving – down to three hours in one example quoted.
We also heard of studies
- looking at the reusability of applications in an effort to improve uptake. A project which proactively looks (looked?) at applications in use or development and considered other uses of the output within government departments.
- The development of a “digital twin” for infrastructure aiming to optimise maintenance and replacement programmes by improving the knowledge of the state of infrastructure and the loads on it.
- The use of satellite data and communications to help monitor the conditions of the NDA’s estate which is widely distributed and in some relatively inaccessible locations.
- A team dedicated to forming a bridge between the developers and potential users by being aware of developments and capabilities and trawling government departments seeking potential uses. Experience from this is that end users generally don’t always want to see complex maps or charts but want an answer to a question. The knack is to enable the providers to provide a service while insulating the end user from the technology and jargon.
It is worth noting that the software being developed is developed with the future in mind. The developers know that there will be more data and more varied data in the future. Some of this they can predict. Some of it, particularly further out in time, they can only guess at.
There was a session on the use of satellite data in an emergency and in the recovery stages. Data can show the near-current situation over a wide area and can show how it has changed since before the emergency. It can also enable secure digital communications with minimal and resilient ground equipment – although questions were asked about band width which can be an issued with multiple units in a small area.
There is a nice summary of the state of play of Environmental Earth Observation in the Houses of Parliament PostNote 566.
It seems clear that the use of satellite data has the potential to transform many services but is currently being hampered by a development and adoption barrier. The great strength of satellites is their wide area coverage and repeat rate. The weakness is that the information has to be extracted from vast amounts of digital data and, at least in the development phase, compared to ground truth surveys. The strength will go on growing as more satellites and more modern satellites provide ever more data. The weakness will diminish as experience increases; more applications will be developed and computers will become more capable of sifting the data and illuminating the interesting bits. Importantly, once an application works in, say, Hampshire it can be applied, with virtually no additional cost, in the Highlands of Scotland or, indeed, anywhere in the world. There is a great deal to be gained from getting over the development and adoption barrier, both for the functions of UK government and for future exports or foreign aid in kind. The Space for Smarter Government Programme is of great value and well worth support.
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