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Solving Problems with Open Data Imagery: Q&A with DigitalGlobe and HOT

This week at SatSummit, DigitalGlobe, Inc. announced a push for open data imagery to solve challenging problems that involve location, mapping, and intelligence. We spoke with Kevin Bullock, Director of Business Development at DigitalGlobe and Cristiano Giovando, Director of Technology of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Check out the below Q&A to learn about what they are doing to make imagery open to the public and what impact this can have on the world.

Q: Can you tell us a little about DigitalGlobe and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap?

Kevin: DigitalGlobe focuses on earth imagery and information about our changing planet. We own and operate a constellation of satellites that collect new high-resolution imagery daily. And we have the technology to extract data from that imagery, which gives our customers powerful insights to make decisions with confidence. We work with organizations, companies and governments worldwide to solve challenging problems related to economic, social and environmental changes that occur across the Earth.

Cristiano: The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) applies the principles of open source and open data sharing to humanitarian response and economic development. HOT is a global organization known for its ability to rapidly coordinate volunteers to map places impacted by disasters. Without DigitalGlobe as a key partner providing satellite imagery, there would not be HOT as we know it.

Q: Can you explain to us the purpose of the Open Data Program at DigitalGlobe?

Kevin: After a disaster, our objective is to equip every organization and every person responding or helping with the best geospatial information for the impacted area. This means both the information before the disaster and after. By creating a specific website for the Open Data Program and providing the imagery license, it gives the disaster response community clarity and confidence that DigitalGlobe will be there to support them, no matter what. With all of the chaos and uncertainty after an event, this seems like a simple thing to do where we can remove some of the chaos.

Q: How do you decide what imagery to open up to the public?

Kevin: We actually wrote a protocol that considers many factors of the disaster, including how quickly it happened and its impact, the number of people affected, and the ability of the local authorities to handle and respond to the disaster. We also recognize that each disaster is unique, so we gather as much data and information as possible to make the decision.

Q: Can you give us examples where open access to DigitalGlobe imagery has made an impact?

Cristiano: For over seven years, DigitalGlobe has been enabling HOT to make an impact through crowdsourced humanitarian mapping. Following the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community rallied together for the first time to map a large disaster-affected area. Without commercial satellite imagery providers making high-resolution satellite imagery openly available for anyone to trace, it would not have been possible to map the entire affected area in such a short time. The output data provided critical navigation, damage assessment, and reference information to responders on the ground. Open imagery has also been a critical resource for humanitarian mapping responses after large disasters such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Nepal earthquakes in 2015, and recently Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in 2016. Open imagery has also made a significant impact in ongoing efforts to reduce malaria in places like Mozambique, Zambia, and Swaziland; HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Tanzania and Kenya; and improving health commodity supply management in Tanzania.

Kevin: The typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2013 was devastating. Given how remote these islands are and their fragile infrastructure, our imagery made a huge impact. We saw villages that had been wiped away from the storm surge, so we used archive imagery to quantify how many structures had been impacted. I’ll never forget seeing the words “HELP US” spelled out in stones in front of a church.

Q: How do you expect others to build on top of or otherwise use the data you’re making available?

Cristiano: Open imagery leads to more open data. The HOT and OSM communities use that imagery to create a map that is available under an open license. This derivative data is used primarily for disaster response efforts, but other typical applications include navigation, disaster risk modelling, recovery, resilience planning and economic development projects. HOT and its partners also started using DigitalGlobe’s satellite imagery in a mobile phone application called MapSwipe that allows volunteers to rapidly screen large areas and identify specific features of humanitarian interest. This method allows responders to assess an entire region for potential disaster damage and prioritize further detailed mapping.

Kevin: The beauty of open data is the fact that it is open. So we often see developers, tech companies and creative citizens coming up with innovations using open data in a disaster response and humanitarian situation; something that they normally would not have access to or even know about!

Q: These imagery files can be quite large, and there can be a lot of them. How has AWS helped you make these files available to anyone in the world?

Cristiano: Following the Nepal earthquake, DigitalGlobe made crisis response imagery available for download via Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). The scalability and high availability of AWS’s storage service provides an unparalleled advantage over traditional single-server download endpoints. HOT has been able to download and publish imagery for volunteers to start mapping within hours of it being posted on S3. In previous years, data transfer has often been the bottleneck in many humanitarian response mapping projects. On several occasions, physical hard drives had to be shipped or hand delivered to those who needed access to imagery. But now, through S3, it is replicated across regions within minutes and can be accessed by anyone.

Q: What is the best way for people who are looking for the imagery to access it?

Kevin: All the open imagery and associated vector data will be available on DigitalGlobe’s Open Data Program website. You can either download individual images or do one bulk download for an event, and all previous open data events are available as well. Also, if you want to sign up for email alerts for new activations or your organization is interested in becoming an official program partner, you can contact us through the site. We’re looking to get these data into the hands of people who need it during these crises, so any partner organizations that can help us further disseminate the data are welcome to join.

Thank you to Kevin and Cristiano for sharing their perspective on the importance of open data imagery. Learn more here.