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Top Takeaways from the Satellite Interoperability Workshop


About a month ago, more than 100 leaders from the geospatial industry, government, and NGOs gathered at the USGS Menlo Park campus to discuss one of the biggest questions facing the Earth observation field: is the data from different satellites “interoperable,” or exchangeable, with one another? How much effort are we spending trying to make them appear interoperable? How much of this work constitutes getting data ready for analysis? Is analysis-ready data (ARD) the same thing as a interoperable data

What’s the big deal with interoperability? For one, despite the incredible power of satellite imagery, it remains a relatively niche data source because of the difficulty in turning raw pixels from different sources into actionable insight. Even the most seasoned users of satellite data are forced to search for data across different locations and massage the imagery in order to perform analysis, and there’s no standardized definition of “analysis-ready data”, or ARD, to which practitioners adhere.

This lack of standardization is even more of an urgent issue as vast archives of EO data head into advanced machine-learning-based pipelines for data mining, where lots of compute resources are wasted effectively harmonizing the data, but result in non-portable models and classifiers.

Convened by Radiant.Earth and sponsored by a host of companies, including Planet, the workshop spanned three days. Attendees traveled from around the world for the opportunity to discuss and debate different definitions and approaches to ARD and interoperability.

One of the recurring questions during the workshop was how ARD is defined and how it relates to interoperability, whether on the commercial or government side. Although we might not have reached consensus on standards in just three days, what became clear was the vast amount of de facto “readying” and harmonizing of data happening behind the scenes. Commercial and academic players were very candid in describing their challenges and obstacles in creating fusion products. The amount of duplicated work was at times staggering, but hinted at a wealth of opportunities ahead.

One of the first steps toward interoperability – and the second track of the workshop agenda – is something called SpatioTemporal Asset Catalog (STAC). The product of a number of collaborative sprints, STAC is essentially a more streamlined and simple way to search for data across providers. More work on STAC is expected in the coming months, but one thing is clear: because it sits squarely in the open source software tradition, there was a clear playbook in which users drive definitions of standards. When it comes to ARD and interoperability, in contrast, public missions have an outsize effect on cost and schedule considerations for commercial providers of fusion products. This has traditionally discouraged the commercial sector from leading implementations of standards, which was what partly motivated the workshop discussions: the need for more industry-driven collaboration.

Overall, there was broad agreement that standardization is needed and reaches into previously unaddressed areas, like global georeferences or provisioning SLAs between providers of data. We discovered that all of us are solving similar problems over and over with little channels for consolidation and peer review. There was also consensus that no simple definition of ARD can exist without the definition of standardized families of applications (for eg, analysis-ready data could be ready for a surveyor, but maybe not for a farmer).

This means that ARD ought to open up a more expansive definition of data that overlaps with rich metadata, like radiometric and geometric covariance such as precise camera models or point-spread-functions. To explore this idea, however, requires shifting our mental framework from one in which data transforms along a pipeline to one in which the core data is precisely defined and constant and the contextual metadata is enriched into more complex products instead.

A number of key takeaways emerged from the 30+ presentations, among them:

  • Interoperability is a Measurement of Quality. The way that practitioners assess if data is good is by comparing it to another source of known quality, like Landsat or Sentinel data. It is core to what makes data usable or ready-for-analysis.
  • ARD Isn’t the Same as Interoperability. While the terms are often used interchangeably, the processes that make data ready for analysis are not necessarily what make it interoperable. Sentinel and USGS have ARD products that are not directly interoperable until you do harmonization around either standard.
  • ARD and Interoperability Require Standardization. In practice, making data ready for an analysis – which is yet to be defined – hinges on precisely defining standards for the behaviors of the resulting products.
  • Standardized ARD Will be a Cornerstone of Commercial Data. Creating harmonized data around standards is something that commercial providers must invest in and open up. At Planet, providing data in a form that is seamlessly integrated with public data is a cornerstone of our product roadmap for 2018-2019.
  • Harmonization of Industry Roadmaps and SLAs will be needed. Aligning the readiness of different levels of processing, new mission conops, launch manifests as well as the implementation of standard will happen over time, but more complex products require that this happens in a coordinated fashion. You can combine products that are not available at the same time in a given year or even at the same time during the day after its acquisition.
  • Tapping into the Groundswell. While seemingly esoteric, ARD and interoperability are indeed hot topics in the industry; the workshop showed that there are many independent efforts to make commercial data like Planet’s interoperable with public sources. These should continue to be consolidated in the open.

Exciting times are ahead: attendees left the workshop ready to continue to take action on many fronts. Some folks left planing to embrace STAC as a standard in commercial platforms as well as OpenDataCube and other standards that already exist. Working groups are planned to start harmonization in the open-source context; government players are taking their enthusiasm back to their agencies; and groups like Open Geospatial Consortium are folding the workshop outcomes into future publications. There was also renewed enthusiasm to get behind the efforts of USGS and ESA in aligning industry-wide standards around upcoming Sentinel and LANDSAT products – such as Level 2 ARD, Collection 2 LANDSAT release.

For the full conference agenda, click here or go ahead and dive deep into our YouTube Channel and watch the presentations.