Nasa satellite data now freely available to public

A satellite image of Bangkok (above). Such satellite-derived data can help predict where forest fires are most likely to occur, says Nasa administrator Charles Bolden.
A satellite image of Bangkok. Such satellite-derived data can help predict where forest fires are most likely to occur, says Nasa administrator Charles Bolden (above).PHOTOS: USAID ASIA, NIRMAL GHOSH

Move part of programme to predict floods, droughts in disaster-prone Mekong region

State-of-the-art image data from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is now freely available to the public for the first time under a programme aiming to predict droughts and floods across the disaster-prone Mekong region.

The Servir-Mekong programme - a collaboration between Nasa and the US Agency for International Development (USAid) - will train users in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar on how to utilise the satellite data to not only mitigate weather and climate shifts but also to plan land use.

The programme is based at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Bangkok.

Until now, the development community has been "just scratching the surface of how geo-spatial information can be applied to address a wide range of development challenges", said USAid Asia director Beth Paige.

About 75 per cent of the population across the region still depend on agriculture, but climate modelling studies have shown that the Mekong area is extremely vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.

"Data has always been seen as power, but we are going to lift up the hood and show everyone the engine, and there will be no hiding," Dr David Ganz, chief of party of Servir-Mekong, told The Straits Times.


A satellite image of Bangkok (above). Such satellite-derived data can help predict where forest fires are most likely to occur, says Nasa administrator Charles Bolden.    -- PHOTOS: USAID ASIA, NIRMAL GHOSH

"The system allows anyone to make a request, to participate, to share," said his deputy, Dr Peeranan Towashiraporn.

Before the programme kicked off last month, the satellite imagery had been fragmented and available only sporadically to the public and to institutions that gathered it themselves or could afford to buy it.

The Servir programme is already in place in eastern and southern Africa - it has helped to forecast frost in Kenya's tea-growing highlands - and across the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountains, where the satellite data helps in monitoring unstable glacial lakes.

The satellite-derived data can also help predict where forest fires are most likely to occur, said Nasa administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle astronaut. It can also be used to detect underground water aquifers from changes in the earth's gravitational field.

One of the problems was that there has been a "plethora of data" that has not been adequately used, Mr Bolden said.

"We provide facts, we provide data. The data has been there, and we have finally found a vehicle through Servir that is enabling us to get that data to end users in a meaningful way."

The programme particularly wanted to target young people and schoolchildren, Mr Bolden said.

"We want to be able to help the present generation of young people who are going to be decision- makers 15, 20 years from now and we are counting on them to get smarter," he said.

"As someone who has had the privilege of orbiting our planet and viewing it from space, I can tell you one thing - it is small.

"It is a beautiful, fragile thing, and when you see it without borders floating in the deep dark of space, it looks unified, the habitat of a single human species. Back here on the surface... we need to realise that it is the most important planet we currently stay on, or may ever stay on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'Nasa satellite data now freely available to public'. Print Edition | Subscribe