Cheryl Kahla
Deputy Online News Editor
4 minute read
13 Oct 2021
5:21 pm

Sansa and Digital Earth Africa to tackle socio-economic challenges

Cheryl Kahla

Digital Earth Africa makes Earth observation (EO) data readily available to specialists and analysts. Here's how it benefits the continent.

Fifty years of data is now analysis-ready within three hours, as opposed to six months. Picture: iStock

Digital Earth Africa this month celebrated the appointment of the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) as its Program Management Office (PMO).

The announcement was shared at an event hosted by the Australian High Commission in Pretoria.

High commissioner Gita Kamath said at the launch the programme “is a wonderful example of what can be achieved through collaboration between Australia and South Africa”.

What is Digital Earth Africa?

Digital Earth Africa is an innovative programme created to improve the lives of people living in Africa by “translating Earth observations into insights that will support sustainable development.”

The project will enable policymakers, researchers and scientists to create decision-ready products shaped by five decades worth of data to address social, environmental and economic challenges.

In short, the project makes Earth observation (EO) data readily available to specialists in the private sector and civil society.

The partnership between Sansa and Geoscience Australia will “expand the available data substantially for the benefit to private and pubic sectors” in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

According to Sansa CEO Dr Val Munsami, it could show a measurable change towards the continent’s socio-economic challenges by 2030, and save Africa billions of dollars in the process.

What does this mean for Africa?

EO data is currently being used to monitor deforestation in Benin by analysing changes that have occurred over time in the soil, either due to climate factors or human interference.

Data collected over the past three decades can now be used to refine policies while also contributing towards remedying the effects of deforestation.

Meanwhile, in central Africa, scientists are using Digital Earth Africa to monitor changes to Lake Chad, as well as the impact of the water quality on surrounding countries.

“Flooding and drought mean that lake levels have been extremely variable in recent years, and local industries and food supply chains are being disrupted as a result”.

“Digital Earth Africa provides vital data services to help map and monitor changes to the lake that can be used to inform decisions about how best to manage the water supply”.

digital earth africa eo data sansa
Australian High Commissioner Gita Kamath and Sansa CEO, Dr Val Munsami at the PMO launch. Picture: The Citizen/Cheryl Kahla

Saving Africa $2.3 billion dollars

EO data could also be used to monitor unregulated mining by utilising systematic coverage to look at the changes in the landscape over the decades.

A researcher can then monitor changes in the landscape and, with the help of artificial intelligence, differentiate for example between informal settlements, construction sites, etc – even mining activity.

“They can differentiate from space without actually going the place. […] With unregulated gold mining, you can pick up that there is some activity happening on the ground,” Dr Munsami says.

According to the World Economic Forum, EO data could save the continent up to $2.3 billion:

  • $500 million – EO industry accelerated growth
  • $900 million – Agricultural productivity boost
  • $900 million – Unregulated gold mining detection and prevention

How does it work?

Dr Val Munsami explains: “Satellites orbit the earth every ninety minutes and takes imagery of the ground and dumps the information in the ground station.”

“What we normally do, historically, is take the data and store it on a server.”

“If you store a time series of data – going back 50 years – and you want to know exactly what is happening in Pretoria, for example, you’ll have to process all the information in the server related to that area.”

If a researcher had to process it the old fashioned way, it could take three to six months. With Digital Earth Africa, the satellite imagery is pre-processed and stacked into a data cube.

In other words, fifty years of data is now accessible and analysis-ready within three hours, not six months.

What is a data cube?

Data cubes are structures containing large collections of datasets which makes analysis-ready information more easily accessible.

These data cubes – which are typically in three dimensions: latitude, longitude, and time – can then be used to create modern approaches and innovative solutions.

This information would have been expensive to process and difficult to access in the past, but thanks to the evolution of information technology, EO data now provides a tailored user experience.

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