Navigating through Big Data challenges for the sustainable management of the Danube

Beginning October, the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) hosted the 4th conference dedicated to Eastern European Copernicus data users. We invited users, businesses and policy-makers from outside the space sector to give insights into their work.

One example is the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR). The Commission helps Danube countries implement the Danube River Protection Convention, notably by collecting datasets submitted by national authorities and integrating them in a transnational information system. The shared information is used for emergency warning, water quality services, dam and structures and so on.

Is it worth (re)stating that satellite services could help managers tackle environment problems along the Danube – our area of interest during the round table?

We take that for granted: cross-border problem, cross-border solution.

The EU Danube Region Strategy agrees. So do the EU Water and Flood Directives. So does the Danube River Protection Convention. These prescriptive regulations already catalysed Big Data user networks.

Surprisingly, none of the data currently submitted by the countries is satellite-derived (though admittedly there is only empirical evidence to this effect). Is it a missed opportunity? We’ll let you be the judge of that. But read on, there’s hope!

In the private sector too there’s much room for improvement. Take Teamnet, a small Romanian GIS company. Teamnet, like many similar companies in Romania and elsewhere, make a successful business of geo-information products. They have an established client base, whose needs they know well. Teamnet already used (commercial) satellite images for the Danube Authority for the Protection of the Danube River (have a look what they did). All the same, Iurie Maxim, TeamNet GIS Manager argues, that it is easier for them to access data from international sources, than from their own country. Also Landsat was mentioned, of course. But also non-satellite data sources.

It is true, in our experience, the most realistic scenario of operational satellite services is that where the satellite component (data and/or satnav) is only a small part in the “black-box” tool. And so it should be. Satellite data is only one bit (pun intended) of Big Data.

And Big Data is about to become ever more abundant. The way we look at access to data is changing, under the influence of interest groups, European Directives, and not least, governments themselves.

Real-time flows of raw or processed open data are estimated to bring a 1.1 % GDP growth/per year to G20 countries alone by enabling new business opportunities. Governments are joining the bandwagon. In Romania too, “opening up the map” is the latest debate on everybody’s lips. Radu Puchiu, State Secretary for the Romanian Prime Minister’s Cabinet talked about the government’s initiative to set up an open data portal, following in the example of most countries around the globe (the Open Government Partnership’s membership grew from 8 to 65 countries in just 4 years).

The advantages of government open data portals are numerous and range from reinforcing civil society to giving businesses a gateway to new services to improving the government’s own services. Barriers to the opening up of public data persist though, as shows the project coordinated by Codrina Maria-Ilie, VP of (do have a look at their surveys, they make for a fascinating read).

The obstacles and opportunities to the opening up of government data could make for a separate blog entry, so instead of going into that, let us get to the point: satellite data, or satellite data references, should be included in open data portals. They should be presented alongside other sources. Despite free access to Copernicus Sentinel data this is not happening sufficiently at the moment, i.e. the awareness raising exercise consisting of putting data at the users’ fingertips on those platforms they are familiar with.

Counterexamples exist, for instance JRC’s Danube Information and Service Infrastructure catalogues over 4000 sets of metadata, including on satellite sources. The JRC’s work with the ICPDR is also a good counter-example to the complaint that users and prescribers are not sufficiently accompanied. But more of this should be happening, and faster.