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Jose Achache

Director, Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(18.000,0,” “,)> The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) was created in February 2005 to stitch together, within 10 years, a global environmental monitoring system that ideally would look something like this: A farmer with even a small operation in a remo te place like Indonesia — with access to the Internet or a satellite-TV-size satellite antenna — will be able to view the latest weather forecasts, crop assessments, sea-level changes and water-resource updates with the click of a mouse. And all of that information will be in a comprehensible format. Data critical to those involved in disaster-response would be available from the same source.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(18.000,0,” “,)> All this information would draw on a network of assets that included satellites, atmospheric balloons and ocean buoys owned and operated by individual nations or groups of nations, private companies and nongovernmental organizations.

The 66-nation GEO refers to this system as a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS.

To keep the focus on tying together assets already available, rather than creating new ones, GEO is being kept small. C urrently it is just 15 people, half of them on loan from their national host organizations. It is borrowing office space in Geneva from the International Meteorological Organization.

GEO’s annual budget will increase by 20 percent in 2007, but the total is just 6 million Swiss francs ($5.03 million).

It is Jose Achache’s job to use these limited resources to encourage GEO members to do what is needed to harmonize all their environment-related measurements to make GEOSS possible.

Achache, a former director for Earth observation at the European Space Agency, talked to Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding about GEO’s progress.

GEO was created more than a year ago. What progress has been made on your 10-year mission?

This first year has been taken up with making sure that GEO is what we call a cross-cutting organization. Our mission is to assure the coordination of data from nine Societal Benefit Areas. Getting those with data on disaster mitigation, climate research, ocean and agriculture monitoring, water resources and so on to work together to help create GEOSS is not always easy.

Who pays the GEO budget?

Our members do. The United States was the major contributor in 2005, and the European Union was the major contributor for 2006. For 2007 we will have a better balance, with the two of them contributing a combined total of one-third of the budget.

So we are not just relying on these two big guys. Each member government decides how much it wants to contribute. There are no obligations. Half our staff is on loan from their home governments of China, Japan, South Africa, the United States, Ireland, Finland and the European Space Agency.

You began with fewer
than 40 government members, and you have since expanded to 66 — plus the European Commission and 43 international organizations. Is there a threat of creeping bureaucracy?

Not with the size of our budget and staff. And as long as we keep our rules as they are — a minimum of reports and requests for guidance and a stress on streamlined activities — I don’t see a problem.

Is India an active member despite its refusal to deliver its weather satellites’ fully to the international community out of concerns that Pakistan will benefit?

India is an active [member], and I am confident that an organization like GEO, because it has the attention of governments at the political level, will make it easier for India to fully integrate its substantial capacities into the global system. As to our membership, two nations that I would like to see are Mozambique and Bangladesh, which is about to join.

You have a ministerial-level meeting of your governments set for November 2007 in South Africa. What measurable progress will GEO be able to point to by then?

The first involves information systems to collect and distribute the data. The World Meterological Organization has offered its system as a component, and Japan’s Sentinel Asia is another possible component. NASA’s Earth Observation System information might be a candidate as well. Our main goal is to assure interoperability of the entire information base.

We took a big step recently with the agreement of the United States, China and Europe to adopt a data-distribution system using commercial telecommunications satellites. It’s called Geonetcast and it’s based on Europe’s weather satellite data distribution.

Will the distribution have a Web-based component?

Absolutely. Within a year our GEO Web portal should be a one-stop source for getting access to all the systems operated by our members.

Who is providing the technical linkage to assure interoperability?

We call that our clearing house, which will require a contract to create the software to manage it. The Open Geographic Information Systems Consortium is taking the lead on that. The clearing house should be completed by late 2007 and is another milestone we should be able to point to by our November ministerial-level meeting.

Where are you on a data-access policy? Is that still sensitive?

Implementation of a set of data-sharing principles is still a hot potato. Some nations will need to create legal instruments permitting them to contribute to GEO.

After a year in office, is the job about what you expected it to be?

I expected it to be difficult and it has been as difficult as I expected. We are creating something new, an organization that has a mission that cuts across a lot of different areas. We are like a rugby team — in fact we’re about the size of a rugby team — where people have multiple assignments and need to range across different issues.

When I was head of the European Space Agency’s Earth observation directorate, it was a fairly straightforward process to secure a few hundred-thousand euros or dollars for a good idea. The budget was there. At GEO, we have to go out and hunt for these resources among our member states. It’s a lot tougher, but exciting.