GEO Chief Cites Google as a Global Model

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The organization created by 58 nations earlier this year to coordinate Earth observation and environmental data collection hopes to evolve into a Google-type service, collating data from ground-, sea- and space-based platforms into an easy-to-use Internet portal accessible worldwide, according to the group’s new director.

Jose Achache, who was named director of the Geneva-based Group on Earth Observations (GEO) earlier this year, said one of its first tasks will be to assure that environmental data-collection sites in isolated areas are maintained and fed into the global GEO database.

GEO was created following summit meetings of several dozen governments that took place in Washington in 2003, Japan in 2004 and Brussels in 2005. In addition to 58 national governments and the commission of the 25-nation European Union, GEO members include 47 participating organizations.

Every major government that has demonstrated an interest in Earth observation is a GEO member, although the Indian government has yet to play an active role in the organization, Achache said. India in the past has been reluctant to share some of its weather-satellite data with neighboring Pakistan and some Arab nations, but has indicated that policy may change.

GEO’s task is to harmonize Earth observation development planning worldwide, encourage development of sensors that fill gaps in coverage, and facilitate the distribution of the data. It is intended to be a kind of watchdog created to facilitate the creation, by 2015, of a Global Earth Observing System of Systems.

The GEO member nations are scheduled to meet Dec. 14-15 in Geneva to approve GEO’s first annual budget.

The nations that created GEO were adamant about not wanting to create another bureaucracy to add to the long list of organizations overseeing meteorological and environmental data.

These governments wanted the GEO organization kept small and its budget low.

Achache said he is complying with that request. At a meeting of the Coordinating Group for Meteorological Satellites held in Tokyo Nov. 1-4, GEO presented its proposed first-year budget and work plan.

Under the proposal, GEO’s annual operating budget — mainly its 35 full- and part-time employees — would be about $5.9 million, with a supplemental budget for 2006 of $5.35 million.

Achache said in a Nov. 3 interview that he has noticed a sharp difference in the way Earth observation has evolved in the United States and Europe.

“In Europe, you have the sector still dominated by space-industry companies,” Achache said. “In the United States, you have Google, Microsoft and ESRI [the Redlands, Calif.-based geographic information services provider], as well as the Alliance Group [for Earth observations, a consortium representing space-hardware and information technology companies]. It seems to me the U.S. has made the right turn, with the information suppliers being the most interested.”

The Asian tsunami in December 2004 illustrated some of the challenges facing GEO. The region lacked a fully operational system of ocean buoys, and communication of the approaching tidal wave was slow.

Promoting a global standard for monitoring gear and for software programs that permit users to upload data into a future GEO portal, and assuring that even the poorest nations are prompted to maintain their ground-based monitors are among GEO’s priorities.

“When I was interviewing for this job, the selection committee asked me what GEO should become,” Achache said. “I told them that GEO should mean Google for Earth Observation. This was before Google Earth became widely known. But the fact is that Google Earth is a good start for what we are supposed to build.”