Opinion: Space and the profusion of data – the new development frontier?

Shamika N. Sirimanne*

Space is not just for astronauts. It’s the next frontier for tackling humanity’s most intractable problems such as food security, climate change and social inequality, as revealed at the first World Space Forum late last year.

Developing countries are crossing over the space frontier with a growing number of maiden satellite launches and inaugural space initiatives. Yet many lack capabilities to navigate through the vast profusion of data acquired by space technologies, namely through satellite Earth observation, and satellite positioning systems, as well as to effectively utilize satellite communications.

To avoid a leap into the dark and to reap long-term benefits from emerging space programmes, developing countries need to address their capacity constraints in processing the tide of raw data that flows from satellites. The process of filtration, refinement and modelling for translating data into usable information in forecasting models requires huge computing capacities and appropriate skills in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Not just for rich countries

Opportunities for developing countries are not as far-fetched as some might think and need not require mobilizing resources on a massive scale for Apollo-style missions.

Space technologies can be vital in agricultural innovation, modern agriculture and precision agriculture.

The use of space technologies for farming and natural resources management used to be limited largely to developed countries, due in part to the high costs involved.

However, new technological developments that reduce the costs of using space-based applications and collaborations among local, national, regional and international stakeholders can potentially increase the uptake of applications relevant for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in developing countries.

For example, open access to geospatial data, data products and services and the lower costs of geospatial information technology facilities have stimulated the adoption of space technologies worldwide, particularly in developing countries, through initiatives such as Open Data Cube.

Space technologies are also crucial to monitor disasters, set up and feed data into early warning systems, and share alerting messages through multiple ICT platforms.

In May 2020, the Tropical Cyclone Amphan in the North Indian Ocean resulted in over 128 deaths and caused over $13.2 billion in damages. Satellite-based maps were used to track the cyclone and to help local authorities identify and evacuate vulnerable people as well as pinpoint areas where there were damages.

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*Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Technology and Logistics.

Source: UNCTAD