SEATTLE, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some of the
world's most influential billionaire philanthropists plan to
launch a powerful digital platform to harness the avalanche of
data sent from satellites each day - and make it freely
available for humanitarian and environmental causes.
Bill and Melinda Gates - who are also custodians of
legendary investor Warren Buffet's billions – have joined forces
with Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, to fund the 'Radiant
Earth' project, a repository and archive of the world's
satellite, aerial and drone imagery.
The project, expected to cost "multi millions" of dollars,
aims to find ways to combine and analyse Earth data and imagery
and offer it free of charge in formats that do not require
specific expertise to understand.
Anne Hale Miglarese, Radiant CEO, said the world is now
awash in data but for non specialists, finding it and creating
ways to use it practically can be both difficult and expensive.
"(Radiant) will help build the 'who, what, where when or
why' for the planning and management of issues such as land
tenure, global health, sustainable development, food security
and disaster response," she said.
The Gates Foundation invited more than 150 academics and
data analysis specialists to Seattle last week for what was
billed as a 'Thought Leaders Summit' on the project.
Experts discussed what humanitarian agencies, environmental
and land rights groups might want and need.
Amazon Web Services Global Open Data chief, Jed Sundwall,
said Radiant would try to "give humans back their time to focus
on research and analysis".
"Open data is happy data: we have so much data that can tell
us about our world but we can't know it because it is too
expensive to know it," he said.
Industry experts said over the past five years the number of
operational satellites has jumped 40 percent, and nearly 1,400
now orbit the Earth.
This number could more than double over the next five years
as satellites become smaller, lighter and more affordable.
Entrepreneurs have increasingly begun to view the sky as a
new market which can help feed the burgeoning global demand for
more communications, satellite TV and broadband services.
However satellites are also collecting data from space about
the Earth itself. Applications are far reaching - from tracking
plant health through chlorophyll to gauging the impact of
natural disasters and the surveillance of illegal logging.
Two weeks ago, India launched 104 satellites – 101 of them
for foreign companies and agencies - in a single mission as part
of its strategic bid for a bigger share of the $300 billion
global space industry.
Experts at the Seattle summit said the multiple launch,
described as a world record by its space agency, was also
significant because 88 were shoebox-sized Dove satellites
launched by Planet, a San Francisco-based private satellite
operator founded by former NASA scientists.
The constellation of small satellites will, once settled
into orbit in six months' time, will photograph the entire Earth
THE NEW EXPLORERS
"Satellite imagery might be one of the most powerful and
unbiased tools to tell people what is going on with the planet"
Albert Lin, Research Scientist at the University of California,
San Diego, told the summit.
The key, he said, lay in finding ways to translate enormous
amounts of information into something that can be understood by
This means finding ways of sorting and interlinking the
trillions of bits of data sent to Earth and re-construct them
into readable, digital and sometimes 3D models.
In some cases, data can be analysed with the help of
communities of "citizen scientists sitting alone at their
computers all over the world".
"This is a wake-up call that satellite imagery is not just
about questions and insights but also about engaging the entire
planet in observing the planet, together," he said.
Some of these techniques were used to map the New Zealand
city of Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake and in the search
for the Malaysian Airlines jet that went missing in 2014, he
Lin said his laboratory, the California Institute for
Telecommunications and Information Technology, can explore the
world without disturbing a sod of soil.
He led a team that tried to find Genghis Khan's tomb in one
of the most remote parts of Mongolia, a quest that has
fascinated historians and scientists for centuries.
Mongolians believe the tomb to be sacred and any disturbance
of its site a portent of disaster.
Data analysts from Australia to Norway scoured satellite and
geo-spatial data from the most remote parts of the Mongolian
mountains. They helped to spot ancient structures seen only from
space that helped to guide the team on the ground on horseback
to pinpoint the most likely sites.
Ultimately, said Radiant CEO Miglarese, the new platform
will foster more informed decision-making about the Earth's
The team also hopes Radiant will encourage the creation of
more open source technologies and innovation that can help
"solve societies' most pressing issues."
"Radiant is about using Earth imagery for positive global
impact," she said.
Omidyar Network, founded by Pierre Omidyar, partners with
the Thomson Reuters Foundation on its property rights coverage.
(Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Ros Russell; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
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