Data From the Heavens: A New Push to Learn More From Satellites

There are more than 1,300 operational satellites orbiting the planet as I write this. India just launched 104 in one go. They’re getting cheaper, smaller, and the images they’re collecting are getting better. 

With all those eyes in the sky—satellites, but also drones and planes—big questions are arising regarding what can and should be done with the data they collect, and who has access to it. 

For one, what about the nonprofit sector working for the public good? Or what about the average innovative citizen who, after all, paid for much of that data collection? 

As with all forms of big data, efforts are emerging to make imaging data more accessible and useful by getting it in front of more people. One such initiative is being bankrolled by institutions founded by two of the country’s wealthiest tech donors, Pierre Omidyar and Bill Gates. 

The Omidyar Network and the Gates Foundation are funding Radiant, taglined “Earth Imagery for Impact,” which is intended as a repository of satellite, aerial and drone imagery that’s accessible and easily understood by anyone. Radiant launched in 2016, but Gates recently held a summit on the project, where more than 150 specialists discussed the way forward, as reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation

The program is run by Radiant CEO Anne Hale Miglarese, who has a background in both government and industry. The other two trustees are Omidyar Network venture partner Peter Rabley, and geospatial industry executive Sanjay Kumar. 

Those involved want to make it not just a storage receptacle, but something that will be useful to those without expertise in such data. That way, NGOs can use it for planning and research, but there may also be crowdsourcing or citizen science opportunities. Other potential users include governments, developers and entrepreneurs.

"Providing the global community with these tools and data can create powerful insights and accelerate greater catalytic, evidence-based support for change," Radiant's website states.

Nonprofits and funders, along with industry and government, have been working to leverage the heaps of data constantly being collected, and that includes imaging data. 

Google, for example, has taken some steps to use imaging data for social impact, including backing projects to crack down on illegal fishing and to monitor forest cover. The Gates Foundation also funded a study that just released its findings, using satellite imagery and anonymized mobile phone data to map poverty in Bangladesh. There are potential applications for smallholder farmers to use satellite data in their planning decisions. And there’s already an open source repository of mapping data and tools available for conservationists, meant to improve transparency in decision-making. 

    This project taps into multiple big priorities in philanthropy right now. For one, there’s the big push toward greater openness and sharing access to information. Omidyar and Gates have been two champions of that ethos, as have OSF and the Knight Foundation. But also, as we’ve written extensively, a lot of funders are working hard to be facilitators of big data applications. We have far more information than we know what to do with, and philanthropy is eager to unlock its potential.