EO uptake: the Holy Grail?

We’ve interviewed Dr Ian Thomas for some tips to advance EO Uptake based on his three-decade plus career as an Earth Observation (EO) specialist and supporter to end-users. This has been within various local, central and pan-government programmes in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, SE Asia, USA, Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand. (More on his current work at www.eoci.info )

Eurisy (EY): Routine user involvement in the use of satellite data has been the “Holy Grail” for bringing the benefits of space to society since the mid-60s. That the interest hasn’t died down is obvious by the number of surveys, investments, workshops, and user-involvement campaigns. Why have these “user uptake” activities not always met with more success?

Ian Thomas (IT): To me the key to advancing user involvement is to really seek to understand what the users actually and routinely need and to then work in partnership with them to explore its delivery.

I’m still surprised at how often users are treated as a junior partner by organisations who solicit contracts from funding agencies for a service or product the organisation has decided they want to provide to the user. Also, once the organisation receives the contract, they do seem sometimes to almost abandon the user or look to change them from partner to purchaser.

In my experience these factors can often build up a negative wariness in the user’s mind, especially if:

  • The user has heard it all before, with EO being previously over-sold as “the answer”, and then proved to be inadequate for a number of (valid) reasons. Some of these reasons could be: the results cannot be routinely delivered, on the required schedule, cannot detect what is needed at the required scale or discrimination, not accurate enough, not affordable enough… and the list goes on. However, the root cause is more likely to be the initial lack of understanding of what the user really needs from EO to help them add capability to their delivery: in timeliness, in repeatability, in resolution and in accuracy.
  • The user must often again go to their management and convince them yet-again to participate. Frequent specifics are: does the user have to put such a case for inclusion of EO into their work load, find reasons for their time involvement, have themselves to try and understand a new (to them) technology, have themselves to take all the risk of EO not “working”, and then possibly trying to explain to their managers why it has not delivered the expected results, while the supplying contractor walks away? If any of this has been the case, then the user will need some convincing and encouraging arguments for starting down these paths again.

EY: What if the user hasn’t been let down before, in the way you describe?

IT: Even then, I feel that the supply sector often doesn’t sufficiently consider some key elements in the user’s position – in terms of: delivery schedules, target/species resolution, accuracy, complementing and competing technologies, organisational pressures and so on. Let me try and explain:

  • The user must choose risk over the “tried-and-tested”. The user often has only a limited amount of time and resources to re-direct to exploratory projects and away from delivering their routine tasks using the techniques that are already proven, accepted and established into delivery processes. Again, to step outside their established and proven “comfort zone” takes a convinced and encouraged user.
  • The user must also think much further than merely the technical solution. If the EO approach succeeds, what then will be needed in terms of equipment, staff and training; can they include these soon into (time, staff, capital, expendables, training) budgets and how realistic will such investment be into the longer term, when they have to “go it alone”? And how will the user explain, be supported and encouraged; if EO then does not “deliver” even if the initial trial with the provider does look hopeful?

  • Alongside these concerns, the user still has the “day job”, of delivering results from already running routine operational processes. So, user time and availability are always in short supply. Is there scope for contractors and funding agencies to be more patient than usual?

Hence, may I suggest that downstream providers should really try to understand and work with the above concerns, rather than not thinking them through from the user’s viewpoint, or (worse) ignoring them.

EY: So what are your tips on working with those user uncertainties and on encouraging the users to take the first step?

IT: Well, while some seem obvious, it is surprising to me how rarely they are actually really included into practice by downstream sector providers. I believe a “starter” list of questions to consider when framing an EO-involvement approach could include:

  • What are the actual needs of the user for routine delivery? In the case of government agencies, it is easy to find out what requirements they have from their guiding policies and regulations. Then, one needs to silently really listen to the user talking (in their own words and terminology) about the detail of the requirements they have.
  • Concentration on what is needed for the routine delivery of the user’s needs. The user will find these much easier to integrate into their already approved delivery plans and there will usually be a budget line to support any eventual successful EO uptake.
  • How realistic and straightforward has the provider been with the user ? The relationship needs to be built on trust by making the distinction between what EO can deliver now, or what it may in the future, relative to those needs of the user (and do recognise that these too will evolve). If accuracies, or any other factors, are not met; then the user is far more likely to understand why, and to work on a mutual development path with the provider.
  • What is already in place that the provider can work with? It is vital to try and understand what the user is currently working with, in terms of: physical systems, trained staff and methods of analysis, other supporting/existent datasets, building from previous analyses with backwards traceability, scales (spatial and also target/species resolution), delivery schedule and required accuracies, ….
  • Will EO generate any savings resulting from increases in: wider area coverage at the one instant, consistency of results to the required detail across a wider area, consistently over an extending time-scale, at the accuracies that are required?
  • Is the provider going to be there and available to the user for the longer term, and not just for the duration of the funding contract? Up to what point is the provider willing to share the user’s uncertainties, their concerns, and the risk? How far will the provider support the user as they move from sceptical partner to purchaser of EO services? Will the provider be there as a “help line” when queries arise? Will the provider monitor progress and offer advances as user understanding grows with possibly including these increased expectations into training the user’s staff? Does the provider have their own business case for doing all of the above?
  • And, above all, it is very important to start small and share the risk. By running a “pilot”, limited in area and in target discrimination, the risk to both the provider and the user is more acceptable, the inclusion into existent work programmes is easier, and confidence can build on both sides into a workable and tolerant partnership.

If the EO providers can deliver on these, user uptake can (and does) result.