Enabling the public sector to save money, innovate and make more effective policy decisions by using space technology and data

Blog: Scream if you want to go faster... (or if you just need to scream...that’s OK too!)

By Sara Huntingdon, SSGP Manager (November 2018)

Sara Huntingdon, SSGP Manager at the UK Space Agency, focuses on the recent announcement about using free satellite data to address public sector challenges, and looks at the opportunities ahead.

It’s fair to say, the last few months have been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster...

Over the past 6 months, there have been a number of significant changes within the SSGP team itself. We sadly said a fond farewell to several long-standing members of the team, who have helped create and mould SSGP into the successful well regarded programme that it is today. We are now starting to welcome a whole new team into the SSGP fold (which will be the subject of another blog soon).  

Whilst all this has been going on, we have been working alongside industry and their public sector end users on our latest round of eight projects. These are all due to conclude next month, just in time for showcasing at the Space Applications Networking Event on 30 January 2019. We have also been working behind the scenes on something a bit different - which we hope will accelerate the uptake EO data and applications.

All of this has made for a very hectic and interesting 2018 so far – so I thought I would share some of my thoughts on our latest news announcement – with a few theme park analogies thrown in for good measure…

Surprise!

For those who are not directly involved in the satellite data supply business, our recent announcement may have come as a bit of a surprise.

SSGP has bought a substantial quantity (a bulk buy) of archive commercial high resolution optical and SAR earth observation (EO) data over the UK. We are making it available free at the point of use for R&D purposes to meet UK public sector challenges. Buying this data is not the endgame though – this is just an enabler to try and stimulate a whole new applications market within the UK Public Sector enabled by high resolution EO data.

Roll up, roll up…

The SSGP team has been making public sector users aware of free sources of satellite data available to them for several years now. This focus on free data has opened up a significant number of opportunities already (see our extensive list of case studies), but for some public sector users the resolutions available do not meet their needs and they have insufficient funding to explore whether higher resolution data/applications would be beneficial. The idea was to trial a new approach which would remove these barriers, attract new end users within the public sector to work with SSGP and encourage new SMEs into the space sector.

The hall of mirrors or a house of horrors?

Procuring this data certainly led to several sleepless nights. Trying to navigate the twists and turns of OJEU procurement law, GDPR, understand the seemingly impenetrable world of data licensing agreements and understand the bewildering options for data hosting, platform and download options has certainly tested my own patience at times.  

The lessons learnt exercise is certainly going to be very cathartic for me (hopefully no screaming will be involved) – but it certainly flagged up a number of observations about procurement complexities and making EO data more accessible for mainstream usage – which I hope to share with wider government initiatives in due course.

It was also tricky, because there were no previous examples we could refer to for what we wanted to do. This approach hasn’t, to my knowledge, been tried before. We wanted to demonstrate what high resolution data and applications could do for a significant proportion of the public sector, without a tightly defined user requirement. Buying data in a way which was still fair and attractive to the upstream data providers but also which explored a “buying the data once and exploiting it multiple times” approach at a price point that was affordable for SSGP. 

We tried to be disruptive – challenging the way satellite data is traditionally sold and licenced. In order to open up the competition to as many suppliers as possible, we requested a bulk buy of data which met some minimum quality criteria (such as coverage of major highway, waterway and a port) but then we gave suppliers the flexibility to offer up the best combination of resolutions, modes, archive length, geographical coverage and price – based on their capabilities which best met SSGP’s published aims.

So what happens next?

We have deliberately tried not to be overly prescriptive or put barriers in place around who can work with this data or with SSGP. Why? Because we do not know what the level of awareness is or what the real demand is for using this type of data within the public sector yet. We also know we do not have all the answers or all the great ideas to stimulate this new market on our own.

SSGP is a small team – we can create a framework and create opportunities within which innovation can thrive but we can’t do this alone. We can use our resources to get you to the theme park, we can be the power that drives the motor that pulls those first cars up that scary first incline on the rollercoaster – but at some point – we need to let gravity take over and see what happens. This could be a good and bad experience – and in the early days of this trial – we want to learn what works and what doesn’t so we can improve it.

So there isn’t a set plan then?

Not quite – we are focussed on getting the data in a form that is accessible and available to those who know what to do with it and making that available as soon as we can. We have an outline plan of what SSGP would like to do...which aligns to our publicised themes and stakeholders we have been working with over the last year. But we also want it to be as flexible as possible, be more agile, enable new and innovative ways to collaborate, establish new partnerships to encourage application development for the public sector. So basically – If you have a good idea and want to work with us – we want to hear from you. Yes, there are some limitations on how the data can be used – but we need to start somewhere.

The Challenge

So…are you craving the adrenaline fuelled excitement of the biggest rides? Do you like to avoid the queues and go for the smaller and quieter rides? Do you feel anxious or alive with anticipation when you are teetering on the brink of that first drop? Or do you just observe from the side-lines or hang back and see what happens? I don’t know how this experience will pan out long term – but we know we will need to support people along the way and the team are up for this. The question is - are you? If so – we would like hear from you (screaming is optional).