Getting the geo-community to use satellite imagery in the cloud

August 28th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The Earth Observation Discoveries Day, which took place at The Innovation Hub in Pretoria on 31 July 2018, exposed the local earth observation and geospatial community to the possibilities of working with earth observation big data in a cloud computing environment. The South African Space Agency (SANSA) and earth observation data provider, DigitalGlobe, jointly hosted the day and launched the South African Earth Observation Open Innovation Challenge 2018.

SANSA announced on the day that it has decided on a multi-vendor, multi-sensor approach to obtain high-resolution national satellite imagery, with the contracts still to be finalised with vendors. The agency’s long-term contract with Airbus for national satellite imagery using the Spot 6 and 7 optical satellites expired in March 2018. The agency determined the need for high-resolution imagery (spatially, temporally and spectrally) after consultation with users at the Space for National Development Week in March this year. With SANSA re-evaluating its relevance and business models, including its distribution methods, cloud computing platforms are gaining greater relevance.

DigitalGlobe’s Alex Fortescue explaining automated processing in the cloud.

DigitalGlobe’s Alex Fortescue explaining automated processing in the cloud.

Cloud computing has several implications for traditional satellite imagery workflows and business models as it changes how data is consumed and processed. It removes the need for local storage and processing, and therefore the need for high-performance desktops, servers and in some cases even software licences. Centralised, scalable computing further allows for processing imagery at scale, enabling new big data and automated processing capabilities. As the imagery is centralised, it removes the need for distributed ground stations and speeds up the distribution process by making the imagery immediately accessible via internet browsers, plugins, APIs or streaming map services. Users, however, need quality and reliable internet access.

Cloud-based imagery is usually accessed by paying a subscription fee, with pricing tiers based on the size of the area of interest, access to archival imagery, number of sensors (one or multiple satellites), and pre-processing functions. Users can also “rent algorithms” by selecting them from a catalogue of already-developed tools. This ease of use gives such services wider appeal beyond expert users, but could influence the skills organisations need internally.

DigitalGlobe’s Jeremy Bercher gave a live demonstration of the company’s products and services, including its recently launched EarthWatch. He demonstrated abilities such as automated change detection, combining optical and radar imagery, and downloading images.

Speakers on the day, including SANSA staff and its innovation challenge partners from RIIS and TIA.

Speakers on the day, including SANSA staff and its innovation challenge partners from RIIS and TIA.

Two case studies also examined local applications. First, Pinky Dhlamini from Stats South Africa (Stats SA) showed how her organisation used the service as an input for developing its Dwelling Frame updates, which form the foundation of the organisation’s planning, operations, logistics and post-enumeration processes. Stats SA also used it for assigning addresses in collaboration with municipalities. She also said that since other government bodies rely on Stats SA’s data, improvements in its data quality have down-stream affects in the value chain. Dhlamini’s colleague, Sibusiso Langatshe also showed how the high-resolution imagery could be used to assess and monitor UN Sustainable Development Goals, notably by assisting the creation of poverty maps. Hadley Remas from the Housing Development Agency then showed how cloud-based high-resolution satellite imagery helped his agency with land identification, assessing its construction projects and monitoring the growth of informal settlements.

To encourage novel applications of cloud-based satellite imagery, DigitalGlobe has partnered with SANSA and others for this year’s South African Earth Observation Open Innovation Challenge, which was launched on the same day. The challenge seeks solutions for urban resilience, water sustainability and security, and food security. Participation from individuals and organisations outside the earth observation community is also encouraged. Prizes include entry into incubation programmes, business support and 90-day access to DigitalGlobe’s GDBX platform. More info is available at

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