Eyes on Earth Episode 19 – 100 Million Landsat Downloads

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Detailed Description

For decades, each Landsat image had a price tag – a hefty one at times, ranging from $400 to as much as $4,000. That all changed in 2008 with the enactment of an open data policy that made the entire Landsat archive available for download at no cost to the user. In this episode of Eyes on Earth, we talk with one of the architects of that policy, as well as an EROS data manager who saw the post-2008 spike in Landsat data use in real time. The 100 millionth Landsat scene was recently downloaded from the EROS archive, marking a major milestone for a policy shift that opened the door to previously impossible wide-scale research projects and generated billions of dollars in returns worldwide.
 

Details

Episode Number: 19

Date Taken:

Length: 00:13:27

Location Taken: Sioux Falls, SD, US

Credits

Guests:

Barb Ryan, former Secretariat-Director for the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and former Associate Director of Geography for USGS

Kristi Kline, Project Manager for the Landsat Archive

Host: Steve Young

Transcript

YOUNG:
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Eyes on Earth. Our podcast focuses on our ever-changing planet, and on the people here at EROS and across the globe who use remote sensing to monitor and study the health of Earth. Iím your host, Steve Young. Todayís guests are Barb Ryan and Kristi Kline. Before retiring in 2018, Barb was the secretariat-director of the Group on Earth Observations, also called GEO. Before that, as the associate director of geography at USGS, her signature on a policy paper on January 2nd, 2008, co-signed along with her friend, NASAís Mike Freilich, led to a decision by the USGS, the Department of the Interior, the Office of Management and Budget, the White House and Congress to make Landsat data free and open. Welcome, Barb.
BARB RYAN:
Steve, thank you, itís a pleasure to be here.
YOUNG:
Also joining us is Kristi Kline, project manager for the Landsat Archive, who has been here at EROS since 1997. Welcome, Kristi.
KRISTI KLINE:
Thank you.
YOUNG:
Barb and Kristi are well-positioned to discuss the landmark just accomplished by Landsat, the 100 millionth download of a Landsat image. So when you hear 100 million Landsat acquisitions, what does that say to you, what does it mean to you?
RYAN:
Yeah, you know, itís actually kind of unbelievable. What it means to me is, even more than just the download, is that these images are getting used, and so itís really quite exciting to have been associated with the program and this accomplishment. 
YOUNG:
How about you, Kristi? Does 100 million Landsat downloads seem like a big deal to you?
KLINE:
I think itís a really big deal, actually. When I started here, we were still selling Landsat data, and because of Barb Ryan, we actually put all that data out for free. That started in fiscal year 2008, and that year, we went from selling 25,000 products a year at our highest to distributing over a million a year for that first year. Now, of course, we distribute up to 20 million a year. So itís not surprising to me that weíre now on our 100 millionth download.
YOUNG:
Before 2008, getting access to those scenes could be a spendy proposition. Was it an easy decision to make it free and open? 
RYAN:
You know, itís funny. It was Ö well for me it was an easy decision because if you looked at the data, you know I thought it was sort of a no-brainer. But there were so many approvals that needed to be obtained that it turned out to be quite hard to do. And I think this is a good time to mention that actually when the first Landsat satellite was launched, there were people arguing at that time that the data needed to be broadly and openly available. And yet, at the time it was probably Interior and the Geological Survey werenít resourced to do it. I know that NASA wanted it broad and openly available right from the beginning. So I would say that for the 35 or so year history of the program, before the policy change took place, there were many, many people that really, you know, just lost a lot of sleep and spent a lot of hard time trying to get the policy changed.
YOUNG:
Whoís using these images?
KLINE:
Oh, really itís everybody around the world, mostly scientists, but thereís commercial industry and various other types of industries that use our data. Most of the data that we distribute is to users here in the U.S., but we do distribute data to users around the world.
YOUNG:
Weíre here in large part to serve other federal agencies, universities, those are all big users of  information like this?
KLINE:
Yeah, theyíre really our biggest users. But we also distribute data to both Google and Amazon and other large redistributors of data. So if you get on Google Earth, for example, Landsat is one of the layers of data within Google Earth. As well as various other entities that download all of our data, really, and make use of it for various other means. 
YOUNG:
Weíve had 100 million downloads. How many images are we actually acquiring each day from the two operational Landsat satellites that are still flying? Give us a little bit of the history of those numbers.
KLINE:
It depends on the day, but we generally acquire over 1,000 images a day from both satellites. Early on, the amount of data we could take was limited. Ground stations needed to be able to see the satellite in order for us to take data, so there was no onboard recorders. So the amount of data we could take was severely limited by the number of ground stations we could downlink to. If you look at our acquisition history from the early missions, itís pretty spotty. With todayís satellites, we basically take data every time weíre over land. So significantly more data. In addition, when you think about the systems available in 1972, we didnít have a lot of computers that were sitting on peopleís desks. So all of our data went out as a hard print, basically a photo print of the image. We actually had a photo processing lab here at EROS that would take the data and create that print, and then we would mail those off to whoever the user was. Users had to pay for that service. Because of the paying for the service, I think it limited the amount of data that got used. So when Landsat 7 was new, basically, it was when we saw our highest amount of sales, and that was the 25,000 that I mentioned. For several years prior to that, Landsats 4 and 5 were run by a commercial entity, and the data prices could be upwards of $4,000 for an image. So that really limited the amount of data that got used by scientists during that time. Today, with the free data it really has opened up the amount of data thatís being used by users.
RYAN:
I think the other thing that maybe is worth mentioning is that even when government sold the data, at 4 or $500 a scene, and I think it was maybe 2001 it was the peak of data sales, we were selling about 53 scenes a day. Now 53 scenes a day, 365 days a year, I mean we were taking in, you know, probably four and a half or five million dollars. Which, you know, itís a significant amount of money to any federal agency. But if you did a studyóand we didóabout who was actually buying those 53 scenes a day? Number one? Other federal agencies. Number two: universities, largely paid for by the National Science Foundation. And then number three: contractors that were largely financed by the defense department. So those 53 scenes a day, while one agency, our agency, the USGS, was taking in four and a half or five million dollars, it was still just all federal money. So at the federal government level, we were just taking money from one pocket and putting it in to another. And every single agency was incurring administrative costs, you know, to buy and sell those images. And so that was the argument. We said ìJust stop. Now that we can deliver the data over the web, it will save the government money.î
KLINE: 
After the data went free, some of the biggest comments we received back were that scientists could now actually run studies on a much larger scale over their search area and saw much better results.
YOUNG:
What surfaces with you as being the most significant impact of all that data becoming free and open?
RYAN: 
I would say that there are two things that come to mind. First of all, as soon as the policy was changed, we saw a two order of magnitude increase ñ 53 scenes a day to 5,300 scenes a day, and I think to this day it may even be a little bit higher. So two orders of magnitude more data was getting into usersí hands. So for me, the two biggest accomplishments are you could finally start to do national Ö regional, national or global assessments, whether it was forest cover or land cover change. I mean, you just couldnít do these large area assessments if you had to buy the data at 4 or $500 a scene. Some of these analyses would require I donít know how many hundreds of thousands of scenes, and so it was maybe a third of the cost of the satellite. So these global analyses did not get done. So thatís number one from a scientific and a research perspective, and just a public policy perspective. Getting it into resource managersí hands. The second big accomplishment is the return that it actually gave from an economic standpoint back to, first the United States, and then to the globe. It was 2011, a couple years after the policy change, where the Landsat Advisory Group undertook an economic analysis, and they showed a $1.7 billion return to the U.S., a $400 million economic benefit outside the United States, for something like a $2.1 billion global return. Now that far exceeded the four and a half or five million dollars that we were taking in, you know, for selling those 53 scenes a day. It was really Ö that economic return was a good news story for good government in the United States, and also globally. 
YOUNG:
Weíre talking about placing a copy of the Landsat archive in the cloud. How will that change what researchers can do?
KLINE:
I think itíll be a huge change for many users. Now, some users are already doing that, as I said before. Google has been downloading our data now for several years, and so if you went to Google Earth Engine, for example, you can use all of our data there. What weíre doing is weíre using our cloud contract and Amazon to actually create the next collection of data. We went to a collection philosophy for our data here a few years back so that the data that youíre getting today is all consistently processed and is just more consistent for the scientists in general. And thereís no waiting to get the data, itís immediately available. Itís all processed and ready to go. Weíre going to be improving that collection here in a few months and reprocessing it. And instead of it taking us months or years to do that, weíre actually going to process it in the cloud, which is just going to take us weeks instead. So for us, moving the data to the cloud is partly being able to provide that data more quickly, but itís also being able to provide that data to users more efficiently, as I said before. 
YOUNG:
How has the decision to make Landsat data available to the users at no cost strengthened the future of the Landsat program?
RYAN:
I think it lays a really solid groundwork or framework for that. Because to this day, the Landsat program is thought of as the gold standard for the world. And while other governments, other agencies, other entities, including those in the private sector, can come in with wonderful assets, the fact that weíve got the fabric and the foundation built with the Landsat program is just absolutely essential. You can compare the data from one satellite to the next through the Landsat program, and that is just something that needs to continue into the future, so that you can have that gold standard for all other countries and all other organizations to compare like data to whatís collected through the Landsat program.
YOUNG: 
We hope you come back for the next episode of Eyes on Earth. This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Thanks for joining us.