France’s recent decision to open up — initially at its own expense — its library of Spot Earth observation satellite data to noncommercial researchers is a smart move that will help squeeze more value out of a substantial taxpayer investment without strangling the business plans of commercial satellite imagery providers.

Working in consultation with European aerospace conglomerate Airbus Defence and Space, the French space agency, CNES, came up with appropriate criteria for the public release of the archived data: It must be at least 5 years old and no sharper than 10 meters in resolution. Such images — Spot-series satellites have been flying since 1986 — are of limited commercial value but are an important part of the long-term record of global land-use patterns and climate change.

CNES hailed the move as the first major private-sector data contribution to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an international initiative that aims to coordinate and link together environmental monitoring programs around the world. Spot data have long been a commercial product even though the satellites until fairly recently were government funded. 

Airbus, the majority shareholder in the longtime distributor of Spot imagery, has assumed responsibility for funding the satellites, beginning with Spot 6, launched in late 2012, and Spot 7, which is slated to launch this year. As such the company is fairly well positioned to judge the effects of CNES’s new policy on the private sector.

Airbus of course does not speak for everyone, and there are some less-well established companies that might feel threatened by the CNES decision. One that immediately comes to mind is RapidEye, the Canadian-owned venture that owns a constellation of five medium-resolution imaging satellites. RapidEye is one of a number of relatively small companies that have said availability of data from government Earth observation systems, including the U.S. Landsat and the European Union’s Copernicus constellation, would inevitably cut into their sales. 

The European Commission in 2013 opted to make Copernicus data widely available in spite of these concerns, the logic being that easy access to this information will help spur the development of value-added services and applications, as has worked so well with the U.S. GPS system. The commission ultimately decided that the potential benefits of opening access to the relatively low-resolution Copernicus environmental data outweighed the cost to some commercial imagery providers. This decision, like the CNES decision that followed, was also taken in close consultation with industry.

Given that taxpayers have already invested heavily in the archived Spot data, most of which otherwise would probably never see the light of day, releasing the data for studies that advance scientific knowledge — knowledge with obvious public benefits — is the right thing to do. Commercial operators, rather than seeking to replicate existing government data sets, have their own strengths that can and should be emphasized. In RapidEye’s case, that strength is the currency of the data and frequency of collection given the size of its constellation.

Government research and development agencies must walk a fine line in trying to return value to the taxpayers without competing with a commercial industry that relies largely if not exclusively on private-sector risk capital. CNES in this case has pulled it off nicely — as did the European Union with its Copernicus decision — even if it’s not without some cost to commercial providers.