Op-ed | Satellite Data and Cheeseburgers

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This op-ed originally appeared in the July 30, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The U.S. government is evaluating how it can engage with a series of new commercial remote-sensing companies, but one of the biggest challenges in these partnerships is determining how widely the data can be shared after it is purchased from the government. The U.S. government has a long history of making satellite data freely available, but this type of open-data policy doesn’t mesh well with the typical private-sector business plan, which involves selling data to multiple customers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed this issue at a recent meeting of the National Space Council User Advisory Group, comparing the commercial satellite remote-sensing sector to the market for cheeseburgers.

“If cheeseburgers were declared a global public good because food is necessary for life, and therefore it’s a global public good and cheeseburgers therefore had to be given away to the world for free, how many cheeseburgers would have been available to me at nine o’clock at night on a Sunday when I landed in Washington, D.C.? The answer is zero. Why? Because nobody is going to start producing cheeseburgers for free.”

There are a couple technical issues with this analogy, discussed below, but it captures the key question well: how do we balance support for an exciting, new commercial market with the government’s responsibility to provide data that supports science, protects lives and property, and enables value-added companies in sectors ranging from agriculture to energy?

First, it’s important to note that the situation for data is somewhat different than that of cheeseburgers. While cheeseburgers are a textbook example of private goods, data is not. Cheeseburgers are what economists call a rival good —if I eat a cheeseburger, that cheeseburger can’t be eaten by anyone else. Cheeseburgers are also excludable — you don’t get the cheeseburger unless you pay for the cheeseburger.

Data may be an excludable good — kept in a private database or provided under a license that restricts allowable uses — but it is certainly not a rival good. When I use a dataset, there is no less data available for everyone else. In fact, the opposite is often true: when I use the dataset, I might combine it with another source of data to create a new data product, increasing the amount of data available.

The practical result of this is that the more widely we can make data available, the larger the benefits to society will be. The same dataset can be used for scientific research, operational products, like weather forecasts and wildfire tracking maps, and value-added applications, like agricultural consulting services. This logic is part of what drove the U.S. government to make satellite data openly available. Experience in recent years has shown that this theory works in practice – open data policies have been successful in greatly increasing data distribution and use.

“If cheeseburgers were declared a global public good…how many cheeseburgers would have been available to me at nine o’clock at night on a Sunday when I landed in Washington, D.C.? The answer is zero.” —NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, making a rhetorical point during a recent advisory meeting. Credit: NASA
“If cheeseburgers were declared a global public good…how many cheeseburgers would have been available to me at nine o’clock at night on a Sunday when I landed in Washington, D.C.? The answer is zero.” —NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, making a rhetorical point during a recent advisory meeting. Credit: NASA

Administrator Bridenstine’s analogy also brought up the ethical aspect of publicly providing goods; just as food is necessary for life, satellite data is critical to developing accurate severe-weather warnings and in enabling rapid responses to natural disasters. Data helps to save lives and property.

This aspect of the analogy actually points to some of the potential solutions. While government doesn’t require that all hamburgers be provided for free, it does have programs that make food available at a reduced price or free to ensure that members of the U.S. public, regardless of their economic circumstances, will not starve. The government does this by putting in place programs that take advantage of existing commercial markets for food collection and distribution.

This same basic logic can be applied in the case of government engagement with the commercial satellite remote-sensing sector. The government can use innovative licensing designs to engage with these companies – and benefit from commercial efficiencies — while still making data available for science, operations, and value-added companies. For example, the government could purchase data under a license that initially limits distribution to approved scientists, but then allows the data to be archived and made openly available after one year, when the commercial value is significantly lower.

In cases where the government believes ethical arguments, international commitments, or activity in the value-added sector warrants continued open provision of data, it may purchase the data under an “open license.” This option, while presumably more expensive, would allow the government to take advantage of commercial efficiencies in satellite development and operation while retaining traditional open-data policies. Satellite remote-sensing companies could focus on the provision of specialized or value-added services to augment revenues.

The U.S. government’s policy of making satellite data openly available has benefited science, improved the effectiveness of government services, and supported the growth of a vast value-added sector. Carefully designed licenses that take advantage of commercial satellite remote-sensing can allow the government to augment these activities with additional data without abandoning its commitment to open sharing.


Mariel Borowitz is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and author of “Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data.”