NASA workshop strengthens community, application of satellite data

NASA observations from satellites, or earth observing (EO) systems, show the potential for profound impact on society. Early flood warning systems, for example, have issued alerts eight days in advance in Bangladesh, where floodwaters kill hundreds of people and affect millions annually. With so much remote sensing data and prolific science output emerging from satellite EO missions, how can this information be quickly converted to practical decision-making products for end users?

Organized by Faisal Hossain, associate professor of hydrology and hydrodynamics, CEE hosted the NASA decadal survey workshop, Globalizing Societal Application of Scientific Research and Observations from Remote Sensing: The Path Forward, June 23 – 25 to address this question and outline a path toward global capacity building. Experts from the applied sciences community and international stakeholder agencies came together to discuss capacity building using EO systems, debating the infrastructure required to move across the “valley of death” from science and research to societal application.

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Image courtesy of USAID. Click for larger view.

As one of the only universities to address the data deluge of the coming decade, CEE is providing nationally visible leadership on global capacity building through satellite data for worldwide benefit. The workshop looked at themes of public health and air quality, disaster management, ecological forecasting, water resources, and agricultural management to identify recommendations and inform NASA’s upcoming decadal survey. For Hossain, the discussions on disaster management stood out in light of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. While NASA’s response and collaboration with other agencies was deemed a success, it is not a disaster relief agency, Hossain explained, and the expense to respond to such events is large. Questions arose on how to establish a sustainable response and when another agency might take on the responsibility.

From the end user perspective, Naveed Iqbal, assistant director at the Pakistan Council for Research on Water Resources (PCRWR) spoke on groundwater management challenges in Pakistan. A PhD student at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, Iqbal joined Hossain’s Sustainability, Satellites, Water and Environment (SASWE) Research Group in May for a six month capacity building program. Working with Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite data at the UW, Iqbal aims to streamline and automate groundwater level measurements for a quicker system with fewer demands on human manpower and finances.

Ultimately, Iqbal explained, “we can calibrate our satellite based application research with ground observations and make future projections, and we can actually make ourselves in a better position to advise more confidently.” With frequent flooding a growing issue in Pakistan, the application data will demonstrate the impacts of floods and the behavior of groundwater systems, said Iqbal, and could aid the agricultural department in formulating policies and management strategies.

Several students from Hossain’s SASWE Research Group attended the workshop. For Xiaodong Chen, CEE PhD student, a key takeaway was that “we can make better use of the currently available data.” It is important to inform the public about the wealth of observed data from satellites, Chen explained, and to use this data toward solutions in developing countries.

Over the course of the workshop, Hossain saw scientists and end users come together in a way that is promising both now and for the next generation of students. “The voice of global capacity building is being strengthened,” said Hossain.

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