e-shape: The next revolution in satellite data exploitation, after GPS and weather forecast

In recent years the exploitation of satellite data has brought a bona fide revolution in our daily lives: from checking the weather on your smartphone, to the sat-nav in the car suggesting the best way to avoid congestion on your way to work.Now thanks to e-shape, a global EU project that sees the involvement of several research partners, this revolution will expand into many more areas of life.

The benefits of Earth Observation data, now for everyone

E-shape is developing a number of approaches on how to apply Earth Observation data to a veritable host of different sectors: agriculture, health, ecosystems, energy, water and disasters. Each line of research is organized into teams called “Pilots”, and Pilot 2.1’s health related objective, in particular, is Earth Observation-based surveillance of mercury pollution, to support the Minamata Convention on mercury, and to create tools to evaluate the effectiveness of mercury pollution reduction policies, to protect people’s lives, health and well-being.

From the sky for our daily lives

If all this seems something somewhat removed from daily life, consider, whether you are buying a new house or choosing where to send your children to school, you want to be sure that particular house or building has not been built on contaminated land. Right now, this information is not readily available, short of paying for an expensive survey. But thanks to e-shape it could soon be possible to launch a smartphone app to check if you should be looking at another area, because there is mercury leaching in the water table from an old, long closed industrial plant nearby. 

Or if you are a firefighter or a policy maker, and you need data about the potential of a specific area for forest fires or floods; you work for a public authority, and you are worried that an old landfill could be slowly leaching mercury or other pollutants into the soil; the potential applications and numbers of end-users is huge. Essentially, e-shape has the potential to do for Earth observation data what sat-nav and similar software did for GPS data.

Pilot 2.1: the relevance of mercury pollution monitoring

The potential of all the Pilots is really great, but here we are pointing the spotlight on Pilot 2.1 and on mercury, because this element, as pretty as it is, can actually be really bad news. Although mercury  is fascinating, and has been used for years, it is dangerous. It is a neurotoxin and very persistent in the environment. It has become a pollutant of global concern due its potential impact on human health and the environment. Once released into the atmosphere, from a number of anthropogenic and natural sources, it deposits to oceans and terrestrial ecosystems affecting the food chain and ultimately human health, especially considering its propensity to bioaccumulate in biota – including humans.

Methylmercury in particular, the most toxic form of mercury, accumulates in fish and reaches humans through the food chain, causing serious diseases. It can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as on the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, compromising cognitive and / or sensory functions and motor skills; it is also possible for mercury to cross the placenta and irreversibly damage a fetus.

How all this data will be made accessible?

So there are huge benefits in the e-shape objective of freeing the huge amount of satellite data now “locked” in the servers of research institutes and public authorities, in order to build a network of networks, an interrelated system to openly and publicly share all available Earth Observation data (satellite, but also in-situ etc.), build statistical models from these data and make them available to both the general public and, equally importantly, the policy makers through a Knowledge Hub.

This, in particular, will be a freely available web service that will assist decision & policy makers in their assessments, so they will be able, for example, to evaluate the cost effectiveness of actions directed to reduce mercury pollution even before actually putting them in place.

It will be an open system, so any developer, as happened with GPS data, will be able to access it and build, from that, an app or web service. This will provide the basis for an explosion of new services that will become so intertwined with our daily lives that we will not be able to imagine a “before”.

Anyone will then have access to apps, web services etc. capable of offering any kind of satellite-related information to the general public, for example, fire & flood prevention or mapping, agriculturally relevant data, or for prospective homeowners, pollution or landslide data about the area/neighborhood where they are house-hunting, the number of potential applications is vast.      

The sharing of Earth Observation data

Essentially, it will lead to a surge in the sharing of information obtained from all Earth Observation data. For the general population the biggest benefit will most likely be the possibility to make better informed decisions regarding their important life choices, where to work, where to study, where to live. Being better informed also allows the public to participate and contribute to local debate on governance, local government spending priorities, risk management plans, and therefore contributing to the improvement of the local environment.

For more information you can check the main project page: https://e-shape.eu and the one specifically related to Pilot 2.1, about mercury pollution monitoring: https://e-shape.eu/index.php/showcases/pilot2-1-eo-based-surveillance-of-mercury-pollution

The e-shape project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 820852