— As the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) enters its fifth year, this international environmental monitoring campaign boasts a roster of 76 countries in addition to the European Commission and a portfolio of projects demonstrating how data is helping communities anticipate floods, plan crops and detect algae blooms.

The Geneva-based Group on Earth Observations was formed in 2005 with 58 members and an ambitious goal – a comprehensive, coordinated effort to collect and share data derived from a wide array of instruments on satellites, aircraft, ocean buoys and ground stations and to make that information available to agencies trying to tackle problems around the world.

GEO members adopted a 10- year plan to create this comprehensive Earth monitoring and information dissemination capability, known as the Group on Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), by 2015.

“There is a tremendous amount of activity that is going on because GEO is allowing people to work toward common goals and objectives while still maintaining independence and autonomy in doing so,” said Ron Birk, former U.S. GEO co-chair and director of civil systems mission integration for Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector, Redondo Beach,

One such activity, dubbed Servir for the Spanish verb meaning “to serve,” began as a joint effort of the U.S. Agency for International Development and NASA to combine data derived from satellites and ground-based instruments with computer modeling systems to help government officials and resource managers anticipate floods, storms and other hazards in the Mesoamerican region. That project, based in Panama City, has expanded to include additional agencies and additional missions. Government officials rely on Servir in to identify algae blooms, in the Dominican Republic to track tropical storms and throughout the region to monitor air quality, said Helen Wood, U.S. GEO co-chair and manager of GEOSS integration for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In November, Servir-Africa was created in , to give East African leaders access to information on natural disasters, disease outbreaks, biodiversity and climate change.

While Servir began in Central America before GEO was formally launched in 2005, it was GEO meetings and discussions that inspired the creation of Servir– Africa. “GEO spreads the word and that helps us build capacity in places in the world where they really need it,” said Teresa Fryberger, Applied Sciences director in NASA’s Earth Science Division.

Servir ties into another GEO initiative, GEONETcast, a program initiated by the United States, to make Earth observation data available to agencies and individuals through digital video broadcasts from communications satellites. GEONETcast Americas also transmits Servir data. GEONETcast partners include NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization, the Chinese Meteorological Agency and ‘s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat. The capability to transmit GEONETcast was already available in ‘s weather service operations. However, weather satellite services did not offer similar capabilities. NOAA is leasing transponder time to offer direct satellite broadcasts of GEONETcast in the

One benefit of GEONETcast is that people can gain access to environmental data with an inexpensive satellite antenna and a desktop computer. This type of readily available, easily accessible data distribution service acts as a catalyst for increased cooperation, Wood said.

GEO also is demonstrating how Earth observation data can be offered through the Internet with three Web-based portals. One example, GEOportal, created by the European Space Agency and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, offers interactive maps that allow users to search for environmental data for individual countries, regions or by subject area. The subject areas included in the GEOportal as well as in the portals designed by ESRI Inc. of , of Newfoundland, , are the societal benefit areas that GEOSS seeks to address: disaster, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture and biodiversity.

The goal of the GEO program is to benefit communities through Earth observation, Fryberger said. “You actually have to find people who are going to use the data and understand quite intimately the form they need data in,” Fryberger added.

As GEO moves forward, member nations are beginning to coordinate in their own regions before attending meetings for all 76 countries. “Those groups, such as GEOSS in the , can serve to improve the effectiveness of GEO, but perhaps more importantly, they serve as a catalyst for improved cooperation among countries within the region,” Fryberger said.

Future GEO efforts also are likely to focus on data policies. “GEO is struggling with the same issue other international organizations struggle with: full and open data exchange,” Greg Withee, former U.S. GEO co-chair and a director of international programs for the U.S. Geological Survey, said Jan. 15 at an American Meteorological Society meeting in Phoenix. “It’s absolutely essential if one is going to do global work to have some kind of full and open data policy.”

As GEO members prepare for a plenary session in in November and a summit meeting in 2010, this issue will be under discussion. “GEO is presently considering a [data sharing] policy and hopefully by 2010, we will have all GEO countries, some 77 of them, signed up to it,” Withee said.