From space to village

The NASA agency SERVIR – Spanish for ‘to serve’ – and the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente have agreed to work together from 2018 to 2028. The aim is to better equip developing countries for harnessing the power of earth observation and geo information to solve societal issues. ‘It's about sustainably increasing well-being and prosperity in those countries,’ says UT researcher Freek van der Meer. ‘We’re taking the final step towards practically applying earth observation and geo information products in the local community. From space to village.’

Lots of data, lots of stakeholders

The data generated by NASA satellites are very precise and highly varied. That is exactly what makes converting them into concrete applications challenging, especially in developing countries. Bureaucracy also plays a part. ‘In addition to the many types of data, there are also many stakeholders in the game,’ says Van der Meer. ‘SERVIR works in the target countries with local partners representing these stakeholders: governments and ministries, the business community, social organizations – as well as farmers and other individuals. Bridging the last gap between data and application is the big challenge; helping develop products that will contribute to solving local problems. For example, how can you scale down data generated on a global scale so that local farmers or water managers will benefit from it? How do you extract the specific data that the local community needs from general geo data, without having to invest in additional field research? How can you get real-time information about radical weather changes, such as floods or drought, to the most vulnerable target groups in time? These are the questions we want to answer. We will train local organizations and entrepreneurs, provide technical support and help organizations connect with the possibilities of geo information.’

An insurance for farmers in Ethiopia and Tanzania

Before the collaboration became official, UT and NASA often worked side by side in this area. One example is the release of earth observation data for farmers in Tanzania. Another example is an insurance scheme for farmers in Ethiopia based on earth observation. Van der Meer: ‘Traditionally, small farmers in such countries have not been able to insure themselves against the consequences of, for example, a failed crop or a drought. If something like this happens, they lose everything and have to start over again from scratch. As a result, they face recurring periods of having nothing. Together with various partners, we developed an insurance which allows these farmers to invest in measures prior to a drought or failed harvest – instead of having to clear up the rubble afterwards. Earth observation makes this possible. It provides a degree of economic continuity, making the community stabler, healthier and more prosperous.’

Great opportunities for UT alumni

NASA sees the UT as an important partner in this kind of project. In a press release on the partnership, Global Manager Dan Irwin of SERVIR says, ‘NASA is keen to work together with world-class partners who are already working on positive change. The ITC Faculty at the UT is doing this through their well-known collaborative educational and research activities to help vulnerable communities increase their resilience and flourish on this changing planet.’ The UT’s ITC Faculty develops projects in various fields, from food security and water management to disaster management.

Van der Meer: ‘For us at ITC, collaborating with NASA is obviously an encouraging form of recognition of our work as well as an extension of our scope. Among other things, we believe this project will help us to better help alumni in developing countries start up their own companies aimed at supporting the local community with the knowledge they have gained at the UT.’


Professor of geothermal energy and natural resources, University of Twente

Studied Geology at the Free University of Amsterdam and got his PhD at the University of Wageningen

Vice Dean of the Faculty of Geo Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) at the University of Twente

Fields of interest: earth observation and providing spatial information for the development of geothermal energy for energy generation in the context of the energy transition

‘It is not difficult to explain what fascinates me about my work. Scientific publications are important, but translating that knowledge into practical application is what it is all about. In that way, knowledge adds value to society. It is fulfilling to see scientific research you have engaged in find practical application. In our field, the application touches highly vulnerable situations, where the use of knowledge can lead to major improvements in crucial areas, such as food safety. That is one of the reasons I am a scientist: to try and leverage the knowledge and possibilities we have for making the world a slightly better place.’