Today a colleague at the Netherlands Space Office showed me a new Copernicus service, the ground motion service (EGMS). Quite an amazing data service to explore. Earlier I wrote about the European forest fire information service (EFFIS), and its use as a proxy for the fighting going on due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. EGMS is another service based on satellite remote sensing, here radar telemetry tracking the subsidence or rising of the ground. As far as I understand it can’t ‘see’ soft materials (peat land subsiding e.g.), only sees hard materials (solid ground, or buildings on softer grounds).
The images are quite amazing, and the data is provided right alongside it.

First an overview of northern Europe. Blue is rising ground, red is sinking ground. Sweden and Finland show rising ground, this is still the bounce back of the earth since the last ice age ended when the tremendous weight of glaciers was removed. At the tip of the arrow you see subsiding ground, this is the result of gas extraction in Groningen province.

Zooming in on Groningen province, here’s the data for a single house, subsiding 4 centimeters in the past 6 years. No wonder many homes are getting damaged in that area, both from subsidence as well as from the earthquakes that accompany it.

For comparison, here’s the data from the street I live on. It shows a subsidence of 6 millimeters in the past 6 years.

And here’s the same data as in the graph in the image above, but exported from the Copernicus services as an SVG, and pasted here as text.

-14-12-10-8-6-4-202468101214Displacement mm2016011120160428201608142016113020170318201707042017102020180211201805302018091520190101201904192019080520191121202003082020062420201010Measurement dateORTHO Vertical: 20dXRnBSzzDataset: Point ID: Position: Mean velocity: RMSE: ORTHO Vertical20dXRnBSzz3242050.00 N 4007550.00 E -0.60 m-1.10 mm/year0.40 mm

The US government is looking at whether to start asking money again for providing satellite imagery and data from Landsat satellites, according to an article in Nature.

Officials at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, have asked a federal advisory committee to explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect scientists and other users; the panel’s analysis is due later this year. And the USDA is contemplating a plan to institute fees for its data as early as 2019.

To “explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect” the users of the data, will result in predictable answers, I feel.

  • Public digital government held data, such as Landsat imagery, is both non-rivalrous and non-exclusionary.
  • The initial production costs of such data may be very high, and surely is in the case of satellite data as it involves space launches. Yet these costs are made in the execution of a public and mandated task, and as such are sunk costs. These costs are not made so others can re-use the data, but made anyway for an internal task (such as national security in this case).
  • The copying costs and distribution costs of additional copies of such digital data is marginal, tending to zero
  • Government held data usually, and certainly in the case of satellite data, constitute a (near) monopoly, with no easily available alternatives. As a consequence price elasticity is above 1: when the price of such data is reduced, the demand for it will rise non-lineary. The inverse is also true: setting a price for government data that currently is free will not mean all current users will pay, it will mean a disproportionate part of current usage will simply evaporate, and the usage will be much less both in terms of numbers of users as well as of volume of usage per user.
  • Data sales from one public entity to another publicly funded one, such as in this case academic institutions, are always a net loss to the public sector, due to administration costs, transaction costs and enforcement costs. It moves money from one pocket to another of the same outfit, but that transfer costs money itself.
  • The (socio-economic) value of re-use of such data is always higher than the possible revenue of selling that data. That value will also accrue to the public sector in the form of additional tax revenue. Loss of revenue from data sales will always over time become smaller than that. Free provision or at most at marginal costs (the true incremental cost of providing the data to one single additional user) is economically the only logical path.
  • Additionally the value of data re-use is not limited to the first order of re-use (in this case e.g. academic research it enables), but knows “downstream” higher order and network effects. E.g. the value that such academic research results create in society, in this case for instance in agriculture, public health and climatic impact mitigation. Also “upstream” value is derived from re-use, e.g. in the form of data quality improvement.

This precisely was why the data was made free in 2008 in the first place:

Since the USGS made the data freely available, the rate at which users download it has jumped 100-fold. The images have enabled groundbreaking studies of changes in forests, surface water, and cities, among other topics. Searching Google Scholar for “Landsat” turns up nearly 100,000 papers published since 2008.

That 100-fold jump in usage? That’s the price elasticity being higher than 1, I mentioned. It is a regularly occurring pattern where fees for data are dropped, whether it concerns statistics, meteo, hydrological, cadastral, business register or indeed satellite data.

The economic benefit of the free Landsat data was estimated by the USGS in 2013 at $2 billion per year, while the programme costs about $80 million per year. That’s an ROI factor for US Government of 25. If the total combined tax burden (payroll, sales/VAT, income, profit, dividend etc) on that economic benefit would only be as low as 4% it still means it’s no loss to the US government.

It’s not surprising then, when previously in 2012 a committee was asked to look into reinstating fees for Landsat data, it concluded

“Landsat benefits far outweigh the cost”. Charging money for the satellite data would waste money, stifle science and innovation, and hamper the government’s ability to monitor national security, the panel added. “It is in the U.S. national interest to fund and distribute Landsat data to the public without cost now and in the future,”

European satellite data open by design

In contrast the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program which is a multiyear effort to launch a range of Sentinel satellites for earth observation, is designed to provide free and open data. In fact my company, together with EARSC, in the past 2 years and in the coming 3 years will document over 25 cases establishing the socio-economic impact of the usage of this data, to show both primary and network effects, such as for instance for ice breakers in Finnish waters, Swedish forestry management, Danish precision farming and Dutch gas mains preventative maintenance and infrastructure subsidence.

(Nature article found via Tuula Packalen)