Report: Investigating UK Public Sector Demand for Earth Observation Technology (SAC 2022)

Source: Satellite Applications Catapult

Executive Summary

Earth observation (EO), particularly that collected from satellites, is a fundamental source of location data used by society todav. It provides information about our planet at a frequency and coverage that is simply not possible from any other source. Currently, EO data is used across the UK public sector for a range of operational purposes, from environmental monitoring to emergency incident response. On a global scale, EO is essential for climate monitoring. EO data has the potential to offer significant additional value for the UK public sector.

A 2018 London Economics Study estimated an average annualised benefit for the UK of £1bn from Satellite-derived Earth Observation across nine key civilian use areas. This estimate includes £64m per year of direct operational value to the government.

Driven by new emerging technologies and increased technological capability, the EO imagery and services markets are rapidly developing in terms of imaging and processing capabilities and service models. This is reducing the barriers to entry for use of EO data, creating new opportunities for the UK public sector to unlock additional value for the taxpayer with this technology.

Opportunities and Recommendations

The study is based on a multi-stage research process, using desk-based research and UK public sector stakeholder engagement, including workshops and interviews to identify public sector uses of EO data. All the use cases discussed are owned and delivered by UK public sector organisations. This study does not attempt to detail sponsorship activities (i.e., of academic research) or provide specific insight into the commercial market. These, however, remain key drivers of innovation and demand and should be considered as part of wider policymaking.

EO Maturity Across the UK Public Sector

The study identified 300 UK public sector organisations, of which 125 were current or potential users of EO data. Across these 125 organisations, 136 active use cases were captured, of which 62 were categorised as operational and 74 as exploratory. The 125 organisations identified have been classified according to their ‘maturity’ (experience or expertise) in EO data use.

The most mature users of EO data are those organisations with a longstanding requirement that can only be met through the frequency, and coverage offered by satellite data, e.g., Ministry of Defence, Rural Payments Agency, and the Met Office. These organisations have invested significantly in developing their in-house capabilities and are therefore well positioned to take advantage of the market developments to support their core requirements.

This explicit requirement has enabled them to develop and implement effective business cases for activities such as procuring commercial high-resolution EO data. Though impactful, mature users are currently a minority within the wider UK public sector.

Current and evolving demand for commercial high-resolution EO data underpins 30% of the use cases. This 30% does not include many of the emerging use cases, including future agricultural systems and land management schemes, achieving Net Zero, national climate reporting, and sustainable finance where commercial EO data and services are likely to be critical to their effective implementation.

The largest group identified were organisations with a moderate and growing EO maturity that can utilised to improve the efficiency of their operations. Within this group, maturity has accelerated fastest in organisations that have actively invested in embedding day-to-day use of these data across disparate policy areas. Notable examples include Defra’s EO Centre of Excellence and the Living Wales programme, both of which are utilising open EO data provided under the European Commission’s Copernicus Programmes. For example, Defra has invested in a data service that processes raw Copernicus data into Analysis Ready Data (ARD) to provide a common operating view across Defra group organisations/agencies, reducing the need for individual Defra agencies to use specialist tools and expertise to use the data. This ARD has the potential to underpin 88 of the use cases identified across 32 UK public sector organisations.

The lowest levels of maturitv were found within those organisations that have limited capacity to invest in considering the opportunities that EO offers within their organisation.

For example, there is a general belief that EO has a clear role to play in supporting emerging policy areas such as Net Zero, greenhouse gas inventorying, and sub-national levelling-up analysis, however, potential EO solutions have yet to be explored. Technical implementation with use case operations also acts as a barrier to several other lower EO maturity organisations.

Barriers to Developing EO Maturity

Several common challenges were identified through the interviews. Some of these were universal across all organisations, and some were common across organisations at similar levels of maturity.

The universal challenges are interlinked and progressive, including:

Investigating UK public sector demand for Earth Observation technology

  • Understanding of tool and platform capability – There is evidence that the capabilities of new data systems are either unknown or may be misinterpreted by end users.
  • Gauging technological possibilities – There is limited awareness of maturing technical developments in the wider EO sector that might enable improved integration of EO into the broader UK public sector geospatial landscape.
  • Establishing a case for investment – Exploring technological feasibility was consistently considered less challenging than establishing a robust case for investment in EO data and technology.
  • High data cost – In the majority of stakeholder interviews the primary blocker to the adoption of high-resolution commercial EO procurement was perceived high data cost. A range of high-resolution commercial EO data trials are being undertaken across the UK public sector with significant overlap in suppliers, use cases, technical approaches, and geographic coverage of operational scope.

For users with higher EO maturity, there are a range of established means for procuring EO data and services from the market. The interviews identified several specific challenges associated with UK public sector use of commercial EO data which were:

  • End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) considerations – A key blocker identified for wider use of data procured under existing contracts is the uncertainty of restrictions around licensing agreements and practicalities of data sharing.
  • Ensuring value for money procuring independently – Due to the nascency of the UK public sector requirements for EO, there is a concern about how public sector organisations can ensure that they are getting value for money through their procurements of commercial data in the absence of benchmarking as is often the case for more developed products and services.
  • Perception of the inability for appropriate data sharing – Whilst the study confirmed that ensuring the protection of security sensitivities is a clear requirement for any coordinated access mechanism, no evidence was found to indicate this being a blocker in practice. Rather the counterfactual was the case with the potential exposure of UK foreign policy interests from patterns of requirements being overseen by commercial operators being a greater risk and one that was manifesting itself today.

Within the group of organisations with moderate and growing EO maturity, the single biggest challenge in realising greater benefits from EO was the lack of efficient mechanisms for sharing experiences and lessons learnt from trial/proof of concept initiatives across organisational boundaries. This can make it difficult to make investment cases to secure funding.