Scientists, companies & users – Benjamin Koetz develops new applications for Earth Observation data
Benjamin, what did you study?
I started my studies with a Masters in Applied Environmental Sciences. This interdisciplinary subject gave me the opportunity to develop an understanding of the main processes that run the Earth system and to get familiar with the physics and tools of Earth Observation. I then did a PhD in Earth Observation which helped me to expand my expertise in the field and to apply it in related research and development projects such as forest fire and agriculture.
What are your professional tasks?
A major challenge for the success of my job is to understand what needs to be implemented, and transfer a technical or scientifically interesting and sound approach into an operational or commercial environment. It has been and will always be a continuous learning exercise to understand and deal with the industrial and scientific players involved in such an endeavour, who often have different cultures and mentalities due to their backgrounds and interests.
What do you find especially interesting about the projects that you work on?
The most interesting part of my job is to continuously develop, implement and test new ideas as the interface between research and applications for Earth Observation data. This involves creating, monitoring and promoting projects in different fields such as biodiversity, urban planning, forestry, agriculture and water management in Africa.
What steps are involved in designing a new project?
A typical project starts with an idea coming from discussions with users, experts and scientists in a particular field. Such an idea could be a new algorithm or new approach on how to process and exploit Earth Observation (EO) data, which will need to be developed and verified within dedicated user consultations. This first step normally involves scientists and EO companies but most importantly the final users, who will eventually integrate the final geo-information into their daily operations and decisions. Users could be the secretariat of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (UNCBD), the department of water affairs of South Africa, the city council of Prague or industrial players such as SwissRE.
A mature project idea with clear user requirements allows ESA to write a statement of work, laying out the work and tasks to be done within the project. A crucial step in the set-up of the project is the evaluation of external proposals and the subsequent selection of the most competitive and suitable consortium for carrying out the project. During the project the focus is on supporting the implementation and monitoring of the milestones critical to fulfil the set user requirements. For every successful project it is necessary to keep a close relationship to both the users and the EO experts running the project, which involves regular progress and review meetings at their premises.
Is any particular knowledge of software or development required?
For setting up a project or evaluating technical proposals in depth, understanding of existing Earth Observation techniques and the state of the art processing capabilities are required.
What recommendations can you give to students or young graduates applying to ESA?
The research fellowship after the PhD was an excellent opportunity for me to get to know how ESA worked, while further developing my scientific experience in an international environment for an academic career. The fellowship is in my view the best way for a scientific graduate to test his or her interest in working for an intergovernmental agency such as ESA.