"Investment in space should lead to further uses" - Interview with Dr. Nico Bunnik

Dr. Nico Bunnik
Dr. Nico Bunnik
23 July 2004

Earth Observation satellites like ESA's Envisat gather data about the Earth environment every minute of every day. Beyond pure science, this information has numerous potential applications – and to maximise the return on Europe's investment in space, ESA is committed to ensuring its widest possible use.

In 1996 ESA first began an unprecedented programme called the Data User Programme (DUP), intended to foster the increased employment of satellite data, primarily though not exclusively from ESA missions. Eight years on the current version of the programme is known as the Data User Element (DUE) of the second period of the Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP).

Dozens of different projects have taken place in the meantime, exploring applications that range from risk management to ensuring air and water quality to supporting international environmental treaties.

Some trial projects have led to operational services being developed for the first phase of Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), a joint initiative between ESA and the European Community intended to build an independent global monitoring capability for Europe.

Dr. Nico Bunnik of the Netherlands Agency for Aerospace Programmes is a member of the DUP Advisory Committee and a National Delegate to the Earth Observation (EO) Programme Board. He also works for his country's National User Support Programme and is the Netherlands' focal point for GMES.

In this capacity he has followed the development of DUP/DUE from the beginning. On the occasion of his forthcoming early retirement Dr. Bunnik answered questions about its past, present and likely future:

DUP/DUE logo
DUP/DUE logo

What is the DUE?

"The DUE – like its forerunner DUP - is an instrument to support the development of operational EO applications. It is in particular working to support the users of such applications along with the EO service industry, and is instrumental also to encourage the cooperation between parties in the various participating states."

Who does the word 'user' refer to?

"The scope of the term is potentially very wide in EO, because a service provider could themselves be a user, as a client of data providers. In this context however we are talking about end-users who are only interested in getting the information they need, without having to have any particular space-related knowledge."

Why was such a user-centred programme initiated?

"Back in November 1992 a conference of ministers had asked ESA to come up with a programme proposal for user support, with a particular concentration on European satellites. The advantage would be that ESA has a lot of technical experience with the characteristics of these satellite systems – both the space segment, the instruments in orbit, and the ground segment, like data processing – so the projects that were selected could count on professional support from ESA staff, bringing added value to activities.

"At the time of the conference ERS-1 had just launched, and the connection here is obvious. Before launch ERS had been considered only as an experimental or pre-operational satellite, but its performance turned out to be outstanding. That was one good reason to come up with a programme ensuring maximum use of the data becoming available."

Data User Programme Poster
Data User Programme

What was the response?

"It was a small start – only Belgium and Switzerland subscribed when it began in 1996, with the Netherlands subscribed a year later and Italy two years later. It is fair to say there was a certain degree of scepticism because while ministers had asked for it, member states were not used to this kind of activity being executed under the responsibility of ESA, rather than at the national level.

"Against that, the drawback of a national programme is that you can only finance activities executed by entities within your own country. Starting the DUP enabled the encouragement and stimulation of cooperation between entities from different countries, like the European Commission does in its framework research programmes. Actually, almost all DUP/DUE projects have been multinational in nature.

"In the Netherlands we have supported the idea from the start, because we always recognised that an investment in space should lead to further uses, either in the area of science or applications."

Antenna at ESRIN, Frascati, Italy

How did the programme develop?

"The second three-year phase of the DUP started in 2000, with the same participating states. They decided to change a little bit the programme approach, endorsing the following two important changes. First of all ESA proposed to ensure from the beginning a certain level of commitment from users before working out and issuing a project's Invitation To Tender (ITT).

"This preparatory phase serves to increase the involvement of users in a project, and take responsibility and initiative for follow-on activities after the conclusion of a project. We went through a learning process – at the very beginning it was our expectation that users would automatically get involved as much as possible.

"However many users are working in a completely other area from the space world, so start off not fully aware of what satellites can do, and how information products from space can help them. So now ESA gets in contact with them initially as part of the ITT preparation. It's proved a very successful approach, and all the projects we've had running since have had committed users.

"The second change was to implement on the one hand so-called larger projects, with larger follow-on activities, and on the other hand so-called smaller projects with short running times to give a quick start to new activities."

New urbanisation in the area of Rome between 1995 and 2000
DUP project Urbex shows new urbanisation in Rome area

How successful was DUP, and what came next?

"One measure of the success of DUP has been that the actual content of the GMES Services Element is clearly built on its results.

"Then it was decided to include with the latest period of the overall Earth Observation Envelope Programme a new element which is called the Data User Element (DUE), the successor of the DUP. Now we have a much larger number of participating countries because you subscribe to the Envelope Programme, you can't subscribe to only one part of it.

"To date there have been a total of 50 projects carried out within the framework of DUE/DUP, including those completed and still running. The aim at the end of the project is that the service becomes self-sustaining. I would say there has been a 90% success rate with DUP-2 projects, less so with DUP-1. With DUE it is too early to say, but if we go on in the same way and follow the same procedure then the results should be of the same order."

DUE flood modelling analysis with satellite data

How does DUE relate to other Earth Observation-related activities such as Market Development and GMES?

"There is clear coherence between the DUE, the Earth Observation Market Development (EOMD) element and the GMES Services Element. With DUE you prepare applications, because within GMES there is no room for research or preparatory activities, it is all about operational services.

"So DUE is at the service of GMES, but its area of applications also ranges beyond it. This is because GMES is focused on fulfilling Europe's information needs, to comply with European policy in the framework of the European Union. In EO as a whole the potential area of applications are much wider.

"Meanwhile EOMD is focusing much more on developing the supply side, because the main players there are service providers and industry. DUE is concentrating more on getting new users into the sector."

Landslide Monitoring Survey Product for Arno Basin, Italy
DUE SLAM (Service for Landslide Monitoring) product

One large group of DUP/DUE users has proved to be implementing agencies for international environmental conventions. Was this anticipated?

"It was not a special focus at the start but its importance grew during the last decade, because you have important conventions such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

"All these protocols are based on the compliance of states that have to provide reports based on an analysis of environmental information, and a substantial part of that information can be derived from satellite data. So working with them was a logical development."

What is next for EO use overall?

"If you make a comparison with the everyday use of data from meteorological satellites, then it is clear we are some way behind: every single individual is a user of weather data! We are still in a transitional stage between an experimental pre-operational phase and the operational phase.

"In my view the next major step is for ESA and the European Commission to jointly implement GMES. Then after Envisat will come the next series of operational satellites, known as Earthwatch. It is going to be an exciting time, and making the decision to retire now has been difficult. But I look forward to seeing the way it goes from here!"

Dr. Bunnik, thank you very much.

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