We Have the Technology

On the Climate Emergency and the Role of Geospatial Technology

Photo by Lucy Chian on Unsplash

Time is Against Us

Up. And. To. The. Right. An interactive version of this chart is available here.

Competition vs. Collaboration at Species Scale

What a Solution Looks Like

  • Spatial (what shapes are visible?)
  • Spectral (what physical properties are parsable?)
  • Temporal (what frequency does the data update at?)
  • Dimensional (what depth do features on the surface have?)
Gettin’ there.
Typically compelling work from Dr. Asner. Borrowed from here: https://www.globalsafetynet.app/science/.
Screenshot from Impact Observatory’s site —the logo suggests this particular tool is part of the UN Biodiversity Lab effort.

A Call to (Collective) Action

  1. Design projects that encourage collaboration between potential bidders. I’m not suggesting that you should eliminate competition for the work. On the contrary — make vendors continue to earn their spot by regularly bidding new work to a shortlist of vetted firms on “Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity” (IDIQ) contracts. Refresh the list every few years. For truly massive, long-term projects the last thing you want is to grant a monopoly to a firm that will naturally drift toward building idiosyncratic and bloated software.
  2. Invest in open standards and open source tools. The Radiant Earth Foundation has consistently hired one fellow at a time to work on critical open standards like STAC and COGs. The OpenStreetMap Foundation is just now finally able to hire its first engineers to dedicate themselves full-time to OSM tooling. These are foundational technologies used by the largest multinational corporations in the world, but they’re being funded in drips and drabs by scrappy charitable groups and informal networks of volunteer software engineers. If you use open tools that are directly applicable to climate-related work, and you are weighing the choice between buying back billions in your own stock or making a few strategic acquisitions, maybe consider setting a little aside to start pulling your weight.
  3. Subsidize private data that has become a public good. The data that will underpin climate-focused geospatial applications will not be cheap to produce. While incredible initiatives from governmental groups like the European Space Agency and NASA have resulted in troves of valuable, global-scale data, commercial entities collecting similarly valuable data can’t afford to just give it all away for free. Choosing to partner with private sector data providers to create essential public goods is, in my view, the job of governments and intergovernmental groups. NICFI’s investment in the recent data dump from Planet is a great early example. I hope to see more of that in the coming years, especially with some of the new SAR providers.
  4. Make government work more accessible to non-traditional contractors, including unclassified DoD projects. I work for a company that does not work on technology that supports war fighting. But that doesn’t mean we won’t work with the military — in the United States, funding for disaster response, resilience and preparedness, critical infrastructure management, and even foreign aid is often concentrated in the DoD (for better or worse). You need a PhD in bureaucracy to know how to find, let alone navigate, the average military contracting process. A great example of a sane entry point for non-traditional contractors is the Defense Innovation Unit which uses a combination of tightly scoped RFPs and rapid procurement processes to make DoD projects more attractive to tech companies. More of that for non-warfighting projects, please!



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Joe Morrison

Comedic relief at Umbra. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm [at] gmail [dot] com