Q&A with Barbara J. Ryan

Barbara J. Ryan is Secretariat Director of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Barbara leads the Secretariat in coordinating the activities of 96 Member States, the European Commission and 89 Participating Organisations.  Together they are striving to integrate Earth observations into decision making across nine societal benefit areas: agriculture, biodiversity, climate, ecosystems, energy, disasters, health, water and weather.


GÉANT is a Participating Organization in GEO, recently publishing a report on how research and education networks can support the EO community as part of the project's ongoing contribution. GÉANT's key role is in the establishment of a worldwide communications network; engaging with European Earth Observations infrastructures and collaborations to assess technical and user requirements.


CONNECT spoke to Barbara about the GEO initiative, its challenges, and her ambitious vision for the future.


Let's start with some background…

The GEO Secretariat comprises about 20 people. Five or six of us are on contracts and the remainder are technical experts seconded for one to three years from Member government agencies and Participating Organizations (POs). We're small, and very thankful to the Members and POs for sending us their people.


GEO was initiated following the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. Industrialised nations came together and said, 'Why don't we have a better overview of the environmental challenges facing our society? We see the benefit of coordinated Earth observations.  Countries need to come together - give us a better picture of the global situation'. 


This is what GEO is now doing. The project coordinates the establishment of a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) as part of a 10-year implementation plan (2005 – 2015).


In addition to our 97 Members and 89 Participating Organisations, last year we began engaging with the private sector.  All are coming together in this collaborative platform with one common purpose: to ensure coordinated Earth observations are better used in policy decisions.


What are your objectives?

To proactively link the many existing and planned Earth observation systems around the world and support the development of new systems.  This will provide decision-support tools to a wide variety of users and we need to make sure they're used in tackling the major issues. How we do that is by advancing broad open data policies, building capacity all over the world - not just developed countries, and advocating sustained observation of the Earth. 


What are your biggest challenges?

The challenges we face are many. For instance, getting countries to want to work together; getting organisations to recognise that no single country or organisation can do everything, and that we are stronger working together than individually; creating a mutual understanding that the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts.


There are also declining financial resources across the globe and everyone is under tremendous financial pressure. Recognising that working together to leverage each other's resources is critical to our success is key. Sometimes organisations don't see that right off the bat.


Then there are the technological challenges. Though in some ways these are easier to deal with! GÉANT is in a great position to help us. You are a critical link that provides commonality between all the other Participating Organisations in Europe.


How do you see GEO in the future?

We're interested in how our partners organise their communities and how we can leverage the work they are already doing. In the first half of GEO's first decade, we were trying to get a handle on the community, finding every data set and getting it registered to GEO.  But the fact is, we don't have to track all that work!


Instead, we have started to rely on our partners to bring their own ecosystems to the table. So when I think about the future, it's really about leveraging the work everybody is already doing and placing a much heavier reliance on organisations for their coordination abilities. GÉANT for instance is doing a lot of coordination. I want to understand how we can better tap into that.


It's also about recognising we all have our individual strengths and weaknesses. Asking ourselves: how can the strengths of one shore up the weakness of another? 


When we adapted something called a Discovery and Access broker (DAB) - we started entering into interoperability agreements with institutions to make it easier for users to discover and access data.


For instance, WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) has an information system contributed by member countries. So, rather than us getting those countries to register their data in our system, we thought: why don't we just do an interoperability agreement and make sure all data is discoverable and accessible through our system?  Because of this, users are now getting access to WMO data they didn't know existed and vice versa.  It's a real win-win situation. 


That's just on the infrastructure side. But I think the same thing can happen on the coordination side. How can we do interoperability agreements with our partners to leverage work they are already doing, rather than us trying to account for every last piece of it?


Our strength is in this convenient, active platform with the convening ability to bring governments, private sector and other partners together in a community not mandated by anyone.


What do you see as the main value of research networks such as GÉANT?

It would be leveraging those research networks and exposing the research networks that we have, just like in the WMO example. Clearly all your own partners know about them, but what about those people within our network, who don't? That's where the win-win would occur, because more exposure would be coming to our partners and our partners would be exposed to your network who might not know it existed before.


Is it just about connectivity? What else do your users need?

Connectivity really is core for us. Whether it's connecting data resources, existing infrastructures and systems, or whether it's connecting communities - that really is our primary motivation. When we think about services and applications, we certainly see them as important, but we see those as downstream. We think they will occur naturally in the ecosystem when people can get access to the upstream elements. So, whether it's the universities or the private sector coming in, we really do think value-added products and services will be generated, but the connectivity to make sure people know about it, is what's going to be most important.


Issues of security, trust and identity are also vitally important, however GEO's main focus has to be on connecting our partners and encouraging them to share data sets. We expect the network to look after itself, so it's invaluable to have a partner such as GÉANT to whom we can entrust the movement and security of data, as well as trusted access to it.


What would you like to see from the global research community?

In each of our societal benefit areas there are certainly specific needs. We're happy to call them gaps. We could go in and identify those specific areas, but let's bring it up a notch. Let's look at it across the entire area.  What I'd like to see is a willingness to partner internationally; to expose some of the work people are doing to a broader audience, so that we could see more international collaboration.


Lastly, a willingness by our partners and contributors to describe their work in a way that policy makers might better understand. GEO needs to focus more of its attention on the 'so what' questions. Why is this important? That often requires someone from a communications perspective to get involved to translate and highlight this important work.   


In a way it takes us back to the connectivity theme. It's connecting people in the research domain with communications teams that are generally a lot better at translating the importance of that work for different audiences.


Anything else you'd like to add?

GEO is making great progress and the energy is palpable. We're tapping in to it - but more needs to be done. We need to see more countries and organisations adopt broad open data policies and practices. I'm optimistic, but there are still many challenges and opportunities. 


I'd also like to applaud the GÉANT community and the work you are doing. Your website is very clear, very comprehensive. You face many of the same challenges that we do.  If we could leverage this to make sure our respective communities are working more closely together we would welcome that.


Read more about GEO: www.earthobservations.org


GEO was set up to coordinate international efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). It links existing and planned Earth observation systems and supports the development of new ones.


The cross-cutting approach of GEOSS avoids unnecessary duplication, encourages synergies among systems and ensures substantial economic, societal and environmental benefits. For instance:


  • Forecasting meningitis outbreaks

  • Protecting biodiversity

  • Improving climate observations in Africa

  • Supporting disaster management in Central and South America

  • Managing water resources in Asia

  • Promoting solar energy

  • Improving agriculture and fisheries management

  • Mapping and classifying ecosystems


This article appeared in CONNECT Issue #18.

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