GIS-talk: interview with Steven Ramage.

Aspectum Jul 9, 2020
GIS-talk: interview with Steven Ramage.
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 Steven Ramage is an external relations manager at the Group on Earth Observations Secretariat, technological specialist, advisor, and professor with several dozen years of experience in GIS.

We have interviewed him, asking about the GIS-industry in general, discussed how spatial technologies changed over the last few decades, what changes are expected to come, and chatted about professional goals, challenges, and motivations that drive his work.

1. You have a long and diverse career in a geography field that’s taken you around the world. Can you note any differences in usage of GIS and earth observing technologies in different countries?

The use of GIS or geospatial technologies has changed dramatically since I started work with Oceonics (now Fugro) in the early 1990s. When I started in the field there was MapInfo, Geomedia and Smallworld that were doing quite well in specific sectors, as well as ArcGIS, there was also Manifold and GRASS and some others, but QGIS didn’t exist. Also some of the monumental changes in the sector came from Google Earth and Google Maps, the opening of Landsat in 2007 and then the Copernicus Programme several years later. 

I would like to focus on some of the similarities rather than differences. Firstly though, I would note that when I worked in the mapping sector, (for Navteq [now HERE], 1Spatial and Ordnance Survey) I saw and heard very little about Earth observations. Even today when I speak with mapping and statistical agencies (such as the United Nations Statistics Division or UN-GGIM), they understand maps but many government agencies still struggle to see the value and usefulness of Earth observations. 

I think that work done by the private sector data providers, historically by Airbus and Maxar and more recently Planet has started to change awareness. However, I still see confusion about circumstances where high resolution data is required or not. There is room for the public and private sector to work together here on this education and awareness raising and indeed, space agencies such as ESA and NASA are already working on these topics with a number of private firms. I have also had discussions with organisations, including Orbital Insights and Descartes Labs on the same topic. 

Over time the number of practitioners in the geospatial arena has grown enormously and this is excellent, I see so many mainstream IT organisations now considering geospatial tools and technologies to support their business analytics and decisions, where previously it was much more specialist. Since I have been doing this for 20+ years I’ve watched the industry acquisitions with great interest, even just in these last weeks there has been Maxar acquiring Vricon, Mapillary becoming part of Facebook and PenBay joining Cartegraph. 

In the government arena and more related to my day-to-day job, there are still many countries that have limited capacity or funds to support better services, this includes a limited number of agencies responsible for space activities, where quite often Earth observations sit. However, the advent of open data and associated policies have helped here. For example, Australia has no satellites of their own, but they have managed to build world-leading technology around the open data cube and receive government funding for Digital Earth Australia. In Africa where there are more than 50 countries, there is now Digital Earth Africa, which is also building on the work done in the open data cube. 

The similarities are that EVERY country in the world is now feeling the effects of biodiversity loss, land system change and ocean acidification, to name but a few of the nine planetary boundaries that are being breached. This is where geospatial knowledge, services, tools and technologies, including Earth observations have the biggest role to help us address planetary challenges at the global, regional and local scales. 

2. From your perspective how has the GIS industry changed for the last 5 years?

 For a start, I see a massive differentiation in sectors where Autodesk (I guess more engineering than GIS), Bentley, Esri, Hexagon and the other big players operate, it seems much clearer in terms of the sectors where they deliver value. It may have always been there, but their positioning seems more refined today. I have seen the integration or overlap of people using R and Python with or instead of their historical GIS. However, there still seems to be different schools of thought about geospatial vs GIS software and I guess that will never change. 

Through my involvement with OSGEO and FOSS4G I have watched the development of open source tools, technologies and services. It’s quite interesting to watch the realisation by people that they can do so much with open source software. It’s also been great to see continued support for these communities and international meetings from Carto, Esri, Mapbox and the other bigger players. To some extent I am not sure that it’s necessarily the GIS industry (whatever that is) that has changed, but the broader movements around open data, such as OpenStreetMap and open science that have helped provide ideas, concrete opportunities and stimulus for progress. It has been great to see a number of small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs) grow and flourish, such as Sparkgeo, Pixel8 and DevSeed. You can find some more info here from our friends @geoawesomeness One of the focus areas for GEO in the coming years is to work more with more SMMEs around the world. 

3. How do you see the future of geospatial and earth observing technologies?

Some of my former (and existing) colleagues have worked extensively to address this question in the Third Edition of the UN-GGIM Future Trends document here.

From my perspective, there’s still more automation to come, visualisation methods are improving all the time (I’ve only just seen animated workflows in Houdini), interactive modes, advances in standards and openness, developments in science including some of the most advanced sensors that we have seen for space-based Earth observations from satellites and tools for processing and analysing data. There was a lot of talk about digital twins in the construction sector several years ago, being able to provide a digital copy of the physical world. Now in the Earth observations community there is also work going on in around digital twins, the European Space Agency recently published a call relating to digital twins and the European Green Deal.

I pivoted my career several years ago because we are drowning in technology, but barely able to keep up with policy, regulations and actually describing the value and usefulness of all these tools and technologies. The future of these technologies lies in the questions ‘what is the ROI and the impact?’ I’d like to see this question given more consideration in the future. 

4. What do you think, what type of data can be the most important in reaching sustainable development goals?

I don’t think it’s one single data type. You need to have information relating to the socioeconomic aspects, as well as geography or location to make decisions. For sure, Earth observations provide essential insights for evidence-based decision making, which is what the SDGs require. GEO has a work programme with more than 60 activities and one of those (described as an initiative) is EO4SDG – Earth Observations in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. EO4SDG is led by Mexico, Japan and USA working together internationally. 

A lot of work has been done on methodologies for using EO with other data, such as national statistical data to support the indicator development process for the SDGs. For example, on SDG6 with UN Environment, UNCCD for SDG15 and UN-Habitat on SDG 11; on this last example we have been working on an SDG Toolkit with UN-Habitat and have more than 50 applications to help develop this toolkit. Up until recently I was an expert member of UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS), working with them and another GEO partner, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) there are plenty examples of other types of data that are useful for reaching the SDGs. 

5. What new programs and initiatives GEO plans to launch in the nearest future?

GEO has been incredibly busy in the last 6 months since the GEO Week 2019 and the Canberra Ministerial Summit. The GEO governance is led by the GEO Plenary, a meeting of the 111 GEO members somewhere different around the world each year as part of GEO Week. At the Plenary we review what has happened and plan the coming year, in between times we have an Executive Committee made up of sixteen countries (including the European Commission) that guides the community and a Programme Board that supports and drives the GEO Work Programme.

I have tried to explain the governance, because on top of the 60+ activities in the GEO work programme, we now have advisory groups, subgroups and working groups in the Executive Committee and Programme Board for the Pacific Islands, Private Sector, Capacity Development, Climate Change, Data and Disaster Risk Reduction. As well as recent open calls with Microsoft for $1m worth of grants for developing Essential Biodiversity Variables with GEO BON, with Google for production licenses for Google Earth Engine for $3m to measure planetary health and we are one year through a $1.5m cloud credits programme with AWS, currently there are 20 projects in 17 developing countries supporting the use of Earth observations in a cloud environment.  

This month at the GEO Virtual Symposium, we launched a call  in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) related to Earth Observations for Climate Change Impacts on World Heritage Cities. This open invitation to support a new GEO Community Activity, plans to incorporate urban cultural heritage aspects into the 2020-2022 Work Programme.

Last month we also held a global GEO Indigenous Hackathon organized by the GEO Indiginous Alliance. The GEO Indigenous Hack4Covid Event hosted 146 participants from 33 different countries. We also had participants from First Nations, Native Hawaiians and Indigenous People from Oaxaca, Mexico. The event did not only attract the typical “hacker”, with a remote sensing/GIS and coding background, but also experts in Indigenous GIS, research and community engagement, Indigenous rights, web-mapping/apps development, art, anthropology, design and mechanical engineering. Half of the participants were working professionals with over 10 years of working experience, but we also had hackers who were retired professionals, research scholars, academics and even high school students! This incredible mix of knowledge, skills and experience culminated in the co-development of some very interesting and innovative solutions and GEO announced the winning teams in the last week of June. 

6. From your perspective which GEO programs are the most successful in reaching goals and why?

We recently published the GEO Report on Impact (also available as a PDF) to help answer that question and it provides stories from many programmes across the GEO community. 

The goals are all about helping to monitor our planet and provide insights and evidence for policy development and decision making. With 60+ activities in our work programme (not counting the additional 50 activities with the major technology providers), it’s difficult not to pick many examples. The ones that I have invested some of my personal time and energy in recently include GEOGLAM, GEO Blue Planet who are doing some excellent work on SDG 14, notably on coastal eutrophication and marine litter and GEOGLOWS on streamflow forecasting.

7. What benefits businesses can get from partnership with GEO? Can you share some interesting cases?

At our annual GEO Week 2019 in Canberra, Australia we saw many partnerships develop and launch. During this weeklong event we held an Industry Track and outcomes from this event are helping to drive GEO towards new areas of collaboration. GEO welcomes mutually-beneficial engagement from commercial sector organizations in support of its mission and vision. In turn, GEO provides them with the opportunity to connect with and learn from its expansive Earth observation expert and user communities, including scientific and technical experts from universities, government agencies, research institutions and international organizations.

As you can imagine, as someone who spent the first 15 years of their career running private sector businesses, I have worked hard to try and engage businesses in GEO, but this obviously has to benefit GEO members, as well as businesses. I think we have made extensive progress in recent years and it is a two-way street, as a return for helping to build the open resources and services used by the GEO community, engaged commercial sector organizations gain knowledge and experience that can guide the development of their business.

8. Couple of days ago you participated in the GEO Virtual Symposium. Can you share thoughts and impressions about the online event format, which became our new reality?

Due to the travel restrictions around COVID-19, GEO explored new ways of holding our annual GEO Symposium. This year was the first ever fully virtual Symposium and we found that this format was a great opportunity to engage the global community. For example, we had over 1500 registrations, global participation, fabulous examples of recorded talks. One of which was the opening session on COVID-19 that highlighted the role of Earth observation in the global response and recovery. All of the sessions have been archived on our YouTube channel and can be replayed here.

9. How can global corporations provide positive changes using earth observation and data analysis?

It depends what you mean by global corporations. I know that the major geospatial players, Airbus, Esri, Maxar and Planet are already doing so through a variety of programmes linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, disaster risk reduction and more recently COVID-19. On COVID-19 we have been collecting information on efforts in the GEO community here and the work of EO4Health, notably presentations from practitioners can be found here

10. What are the main challenges in communicating the necessity of GIS and earth observing technologies to the public and governments?

I am not sure this has ever changed during the entirety of my career, it’s always been about providing solutions to problems, providing choice for these solutions and probably most importantly explaining the value of geospatial technologies (incorporating GIS and EO). I have talked about the technology translation gap previously, i.e. helping bridge the gap between science, technology and policy or the public benefitting. One of the things that I have also pointed out, alongside numerous others, is the different languages that different communities speak. One exercise we undertook a few years ago was to bring together a team of scientists and a team of economists, which resulted in this write up. I would encourage more of these types of activities which are linked to value determination and understanding. 

11. What have been some of your biggest challenges in your career?

In 2004 my wife was diagnosed with cancer when our son was 9 months old and we were one year into a Management Buy Out. She was given a few months to live and that was really tough. To make a long story short, after 5-6 incredibly tough years she survived and she is still alive today, so I really experienced the worst and the best of life. It really helps put things in perspective for me and to always remember that you never know what other people are going through in their personal lives. 

On a more general note I have worked at senior management level since I was in my late 20s and it’s never easy dealing with very smart people who quite often have inflated egos. What I learned is that management is two way, you can obviously manage people in your team, but managing up is also very important to set expectations and push back occasionally.

12. What project(s) have you worked on that you are most proud of?

I could list many, but for reasons of brevity I have chosen only two. One is work that was carried out when I was at 1Spatial more than a decade ago. I worked with a broad range of colleagues to help Tele Atlas (now TomTom) with the quality control elements of the business rules that are at the heart of their digital mapping platform. We spent a huge amount of time explaining what was possible with our software, being really challenged by the technical and business teams at Tele Atlas and generally negotiating constantly. The important part was that the revenue that was finally realised as a result of this project helped to keep 1Spatial afloat during a tough financial period. 

Earlier I mentioned Digital Earth Australia, and a few years ago I was chatting with Barb Ryan, my former boss at the GEO Secretariat and Stuart Minchin, the Branch Chief at Geoscience Australia. We were discussing the impact that Digital Earth Australia was having and would have across Australia based on the new approach they had devised. Given that Australia is a large geographical area with some similarities to Africa from an environmental perspective (although also obviously very different at the same time in places), then we discussed putting together a continental-wide solution for somewhere else that wasn’t Australia and this became Digital Earth Africa. Many people will not know how much work I did in the background to support this in the early days and it’s now a fully fledged programme providing open data for the whole of Africa. As well as being part of the GEO work programme, I’m hoping that it goes on to deliver benefits across the whole of Africa via the open data resources. 

13. What keeps you motivated in the work you do every day?

I believe that I am surrounded by people who want to make a difference. Working together, I hope that we are actually helping to contribute with Earth observation data to saving the planet for future generations.


Steven Ramage leads external relations at the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat, this involves focussing on the interfaces between science, technology, policy and decisions. He is on the Governing Board of Digital Earth Africa and the Advisory Board of EO4GEO. Steven was an owner/director of 1Spatial before taking on a role as Executive Director of the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), and then Managing Director of Ordnance Survey International. Steven is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow and SASNet Fellow at the Urban Big Data Centre at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He’s also a member of the OGC Global Advisory Council and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Steven is also an Ad Hominem member of the UK Space Agency Earth Observation Advisory Committee.
He tweets as @steven_ramage

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