Satellites orbiting our planet gather vast amounts of data that have the potential to be used for the greater good — to give residents in flood-prone areas early warning, predict where mosquito-borne disease outbreaks are likely or use soil science to grow healthier crops.

But unlocking that potential requires packaging NASA observations in a way that can help farmers in Tanzania or water managers in Pakistan or foresters in Belize make informed decisions, which doesn’t happen on its own. Scientists and researchers must make that data “serve” real-world needs and constraints.

The University of Washington’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will host a workshop in Tacoma on June 23 —June 25, 2015, with national experts in health, air quality, agriculture, water resources, ecological forecasting and disaster management. They aim to bridge the gap between observations collected in space and the on-the-ground needs of people here on Earth.

“NASA’s space missions collect information that tell us what’s happening with our rivers, how wet or dry soil is, how clouds are moving, what’s happening with ice sheets,” said UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Faisal Hossain. “But that information isn’t being applied as widely as it could to benefit and empower agencies here on the ground that really need it.”

Hossain and his team of UW researchers are one of the exceptions. They have used NASA remote-sensing data to develop an early warning system that helps people in flood-prone regions of Bangladesh know when water is rising in upstream countries. That has extended the lead time from three days to eight days during which flood managers can prepare or residents can evacuate.

The system developed by the UW Sustainability, Satellites, Water and Environment Research Group is accessible and durable enough that local managers can use it without requiring ongoing assistance or additional resources. Figuring out how to globalize independently-owned systems that take advantage of NASA’s Earth observing system is a key focus of the workshop. 

“That kind of sustainability is the Holy Grail you’re looking for – you need that kind of sustainability if you want to engineer solutions the right way,” said Hossain, whose research focuses on hydrology and hydrodynamics. “It’s like preparing for the day your kid graduates from college and gets a job, and you’re really happy they can function on their own without needing outside help.”

The June workshop, entitled “Globalizing Societal Application of Scientific Research and Observations from Remote Sensing: The Path Forward,” will identify a set of questions and solutions for thematic areas such as disaster management or public health applications, as well as different regions of the globe with unique needs. Those recommendations will inform NASA’s upcoming decadal survey that prioritizes leading scientific questions and the observations required to answer them. 

So far, realizing the potential benefits to society from space observations has been hampered by persistent challenges. Some data need to be collected over a long period of time, and in the developing world where ground-based measurements are largely absent, satellite-based observations have struggled for longevity and continuity.

Yet there have been success stories that workshop participants hope to replicate more often. After the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, for instance, programmers used NASA data to create images zeroing in on small grids that could be more easily transmitted to emergency responders in the field.

“They created a tool that could produce high resolution information from space for a 5-foot by 5-foot area and literally tell if a tree had fallen over or what happened on that particular block, and they made it simple enough so that disaster management folks in Nepal could use it in a very tangible way,” said Hossain. “That’s the kind of impact on society space observations can have, and we need to make that happen more often.”

For more information, contact Hossain at