From Reality 2010 to Future Vision 2020

CRS Potential for Disaster Response

Google Earth is a tool that allows users or groups of users to add their own data. Shown here is an aerial image inset of the desert in Mali, Africa, from, which also embeds environmental data about the images.

Ray A. Williamson, Phd, is editor of Imaging Notes and Executive Director of the Secure World Foundation, an organization devoted to the promotion of cooperative approaches to space security (

Recently, I was asked to share my vision for the future of remote sensing and the response to natural disasters. Where could we be in 10 years? Where should we be? Are we even making effective use of what is available today? These questions are driven by the realization among the disaster response community that, despite all of the effort devoted to the use of remote sensing in response to the Chilean and Haiti earthquakes and European flooding, the effort still falls short of the potential.

A quick survey of today’s space-based remote sensing data sources reveals an amazing variety. Some two dozen countries and at least a half dozen private companies own and operate electro-optical multispectral systems that provide data on an operational basis — in other words, customers of these systems can expect that the satellites collecting data will be replaced when they eventually fail to operate. Smaller numbers of companies and countries collect data from operational synthetic aperture RADAR (SAR) satellite systems. The field has clearly come a very long way from the first tentative steps with the Landsat program of the 1970s.

Today’s space systems provide data at varied resolutions, swath width and number and width of spectral bands. A few countries make data available free to all customers; others limit data distribution to select users. The private companies, of course, charge for data at competitive rates. In addition, a number of countries operate research satellites that are being used around the world in a quasi-operational basis to collect both surface and atmospheric data.

As space-based systems were being developed, airborne sensors and systems also followed right along. Now aircraft routinely carry a range of high-resolution electro-optical, RADAR and, most recently, LIDAR systems that can provide data on a contract basis for tasks where space-based systems cannot meet the scale or flexibility needs of the customer.

In short, a nearly bewildering set of data sources at different scales and characteristics is already available for the information needs of potential customers. In the near future, there will be many more. Thanks to the small-satellite revolution, many countries, including developing countries, are either building or considering the development of their own satellite systems. In addition, the past decade has also seen the development of powerful analytic tools.

Few doubt the utility of remote sensing for responding to natural disasters. The data provide an unparalleled synoptic view of the disaster scene at many scales. Yet how well are these systems put to use in the response and recovery? What innovations are needed? In our Spring 2010 issue, we provided one example from ImageCat on how GEO-CAN responded to the Haiti earthquake. Most natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and volcano eruptions, occur on a broad scale. Yet as far as the victims are concerned, the effects are local.

This then leads to my vision for the future and the innovations that I believe can and should take place in the response to natural disasters. For part of this I am indebted to Bill Gail, who pointed out recently that there exists a remote sensing “‘scale gap’ – the emerging demand for human-scale observations not readily supplied by traditional spaceborne and airborne remote sensing.” (See Bill Gail’s editorial)

I envision a world a decade from now in which everyday citizens have broad access to high-resolution space-derived data and information about their communities and in which they, wishing to contribute to their own well being, input local data into regional weather and climate models. It is a world where local environmental groups concerned about degradation of local waterways are empowered by technology and their own ingenuity to collect in-situ data on water quality and changing shorelines and to incorporate them into regional information collected from space platforms.

It is also a world where accurate and detailed information on local conditions reaches first responders within 24 hours after a disaster strikes, and where the affected population has the needed geospatial tools to guide their own recovery and reconstruction. In this world, the people hit by the disaster can also collect data on local conditions and report to assisting agencies.

Little of this vision is an issue of lack of technology or data availability. Rather, it is much more a matter of developing access to the technologies that now exist and building the appropriate public and private institutions to provide accurate and timely analysis of conditions in the affected site. It is also about building the appropriate links among institutions to facilitate the use of the tools that exist.

Thanks initially to the efforts of Google Earth, the concept of citizen access to high-resolution data from space is no longer an exotic one, no longer a dream. Anyone with access to the Internet can now explore the view from space of their neighborhood. More important, they can add more detailed information to features that show up there. What these images provide is an awareness of surroundings and a sense of relationships that are not easy to envision from a view on the ground.

In that way, citizens are filling the scale gap with information that they and their neighbors on the Internet can use. They can, for example, provide information on local hazards to their neighbors. Now that smartphones and other Internet devices have proliferated widely, these remarkable devices can be used to provide that information to local authorities. This is what has been called Community Remote Sensing.

So, what do we need in order to achieve this vision for 2020? At a minimum, I think we need:

  • A simple means for potential new data and information sources to navigate the confusing plethora of data sources: analytic software. Secure World Foundation is working with CRECTEALC of Mexico to develop a unique database tool for this purpose;
  • User-friendly analytical tools to make it possible for non-experts to do their own basic analysis;
  • Development of a set of smartphone applications to allow citizen input to remotely sensed data, whether they are part of a governmental function or a less formal local structure;
  • Methods to ensure that damage and other information valuable for first responders reaches them within 24 hours of the natural disaster.

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