Yesterday afternoon and evening we held an open house at our new The Green Land offices in a late 19th century former technical school building in the heart of Utrecht. It was a pleasant event with some 30 people attending, some good conversations with people I hadn’t met before, and an informal dinner party afterwards.

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My colleague Frank saying a few words, with Utrecht’s 13th century cathedral tower in the background. Word is, you’re only truly in Utrecht, if you can see the tower from your windows

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)