Earth observation community gathers for SA-GEO

September 30th, 2013, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Three days of lively interactions and debate on matters relating to “Using Earth Observations for informed decision making in South Africa” characterised the 2nd SA-GEO Symposium. Hosted by the University of Fort Hare from 10 to 12 September 2013, the event was organised by the National Earth Observations and Space Secretariat (NEOSS), an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and hosted by the CSIR. The event was attended by approximately 140 delegates.

The event has grown in attendance numbers, as well as in the range of topics and the quantity and quality of presentations, since the first SA-GEO Symposium in Cape Town last year. This year the event featured both scientific and technical papers by practising EO specialists and students. The latter included a significant number of postgraduate and undergraduate students from the Department of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems at the University of Fort Hare as well as students from other universities, supported by the South African National Space Agency (SANSA).

Globally linked, locally relevant

The event was opened by the vice chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Dr. Mvuyo Tom, who commented on the need for sustainable development, “Take care of the Earth and the Earth will take care of us.” He noted that geo-sensing activities (earth observations) were important as input to policy determination and viewed the three-day event as a valuable opportunity to share expertise.

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology who is also a current co-chair of the international Group on Earth Observations (GEO). He spoke of the need to gather data to understand the Earth system. He reminded delegates that the Global Earth Observation System of Systems – the implementation arm of GEO – was born out of the World Summit for Sustainable Development, which was held in 2002. South Africa continues to play a role in GEO by leading global initiatives such as the GEO Biodiversity Observation Network and participating in the GEO Global Agricultural Monitoring and other GEO initiatives.

Mjwara emphasised the need to integrate and share data – fully and openly, without losing time and incurring costs – to find societal solutions. Another significant challenge for practising and upcoming EO specialists with the requisite skills is the need to process and manage “big data” – data that requires significant infrastructure and systems.

GEOSS for Africa or AfriGEOSS is another strong theme that emerged during the opening session. Humbulani Mudau, Chief Director: Space Science and Technology at the DST explained that as a response to Africa’s unique challenges – a burgeoning population, relatively low life expectancy, declining water resources and agricultural production, and inadequate energy resources, AfriGEOSS has several objectives: coordination, providing a platform for knowledge sharing, identifying opportunities, leveraging capacity and assisting countries. It is based on three pillars: a space arm to coordinate space-derived data; open and timely access to data and political stability. Mudau sees South Africa’s EO community playing a leading role in this context. In its developmental stage at this point, it is envisaged that AfriGEOSS will concretise actions through projects within the next three to five years.

Additional topics covered during the plenary sessions focused on how user needs are addressed by available EO and, conversely, on data access and availability.

Communities of practice

SA-GEO has as its main objective to promote communities of practice (COPs) within South Africa and interactions during the planned COP parallel sessions proved that sound progress had been made in this regard. Participants in the sessions on agriculture, coastal and marine, data and infrastructure, land cover, natural resources and water, shared knowledge and debated issues. This is vital to facilitate and capitalise on shared knowledge and resources. A number of papers relating to South Africa’s new planned earth observation satellite, (EO Sat 1) were also presented at the event.

Contact Terence Newby, NEOSS, Tel 012 841-2266, tnewby@csir.co.za

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