Openness in Space – more bang for the buck

India can get more value out of its earth observation satellite programmes if ISRO embraces a culture of openness.

Praveen Bose in Business Standard reported yesterday that a second Indo-French climate observation satellite is being planned between ISRO and CNES (National Space Agency of France).

India and France jointly launched the satellite Megha-Tropiques in 2011 to study tropical weather and climate. Equipped to profile radiation, humidity, atmospheric water content and more, the satellite passes over a huge swathe of tropical atmosphere every day and uses four different sensors and sounders to collect data. With a planned life of five years, the two nations are now contemplating a second satellite that would serve as a replacement starting in about 2016. This replacement will be essential as a lot of value from climate data comes when it can be generated for longer periods that capture interannual and decadal climate variations.

Megha-Tropiques is neither the only nor the first such tropical climate monitoring satellite. NASA and JAXA’s (Japan’s space agency) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) has been running since 1997, and its replacement, the core Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) is set to be launched in February 2014. These are apart from a host of other Earth Observation satellites from around the world that tell us a lot about how complex earth systems work.

By all accounts, the sensory systems on Megha-Tropiques is of comparable quality and technology to NASA’s climate missions. But Megha-Tropiques takes a big hit in research impact because of the closed nature of the data it generates. While NASA has a high commitment to open access and open data, Indian satellite missions remain opaque and closed. For example, the TRMM website contains various rainfall-related datasets, products and visualisations that are open not just for principal investigators at NASA and partner organisations, but also open to any researcher in the world. Megha-Tropiques on the other hand has a website built by the French that provides a bunch of technical information and stops there.

Tropical climate science is a public good – where everyone is benefited by making the data and knowledge public. The good news is that the planned Indo-French satellite will contribute to the GPM network by complementing the data collected by NASA and JAXA’s core mission. Unlike the standalone Megha-Tropiques, the second climate mission is more integrated into a global effort. However, data sharing policies for the proposed satellite still looks opaque:

The data products are made available to the principle investigators of international announcement of opportunity for validation activities, according to ISRO. As the first of Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) constellation of eight satellites, Megha-Tropiques data would contribute to the global scientific community to study and understand the dynamics of climate system, ISRO added.
[Full Article – Business Standard, January 23, 2014]

While deigning to open up the data to select international researchers for validation, there is a lot of value lost because of the lack of a more public audience and use of the data. This is a standard feature of most national Indian research activities, from ISRO to the Indian Meteorological Department. Data access is restricted to a select few who have a monopoly or oligopoly over publishing research papers.

There are three broad reasons one can decipher for this lack of openness. First, government agencies have had a historical mandate of serving their parent department or ministry, and not the public. Some of this stems from colonial establishment of many government agencies, which were designed to serve a more extractive state under British rule.

Second, the lack of openness often stems from an insecurity of government-funded researchers. Many fear that they may not be able to complete globally if the information they had access to was made public. Government agencies do provide workarounds for other research institutions to access their data, but this if of a form and style that has huge search costs and transaction costs. Also, what ought to have been a public good ends up getting shared through a patronage network.

Third, there is a fear of commercial use and resale of the data. This is extremely shortsighted and is misguided about the idea of private profit. What matters with climate and other information is how it can be used to derive maximum societal benefit. This benefit can arise from both government use of that data (like with say the IMD) and with private use of the same, say in the form of weather channels using publicly generated data to send out public alerts. Private agencies should also be allowed to legitimately sell publicly produced data where they add sufficient value. While there may always be unscrupulous companies that repackage public data and try to con people into paying for it, the solution to this is more openness and not less.

ISRO has a chance at being a leader in overturning decades of government policy of keeping taxpayer-funded data open to only a select few. It has already made a beginning with projects like Bhuvan. The proposed new climate satellite can lead the way in a new approach to research and data sharing. It can even begin with simple things like making the byzantine MOSDAC data sharing website more user-friendly.

2013 was the year that ISRO realised the value of proactively engaging the Indian public, including using social media. With luck, 2014 can be the year that ISRO embraces openness and open access to data.

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