Turning Satellite Data into Corporate Insights: Interview with Sarah Middlemiss

Ecometrica was a sponsor of Innovation Forum’s recent sustainable landscapes conference. In a follow-up interview, Sarah Middlemiss, Space Programme Manager at Ecometrica, spoke with Ian Welsh about trends in how companies are using satellite and other Earth-monitoring data to counter environmental risks.
What does Ecometrica do?

We are what we call a ‘downstream space’ company – we take the information and data that comes from satellites and try to extract useful insights. We’re very much a data-driven company, providing services to a range of customers both corporate and government, normally around sustainability and environmental risk management.

As well as using satellite data we also bring in other types of geospatial data to help companies and public bodies assess, manage and report on environmental-related risks and opportunities.

And what sort of trends are you seeing in the information that companies are asking you to provide?

There’s three big things. Around compliance, we’re looking at where there are certain regulations in place – so a big one in supply chains for example in Brazil, there’s a forest code, so we need to know if we are sourcing from farms that are compliant with that code. Are they restoring a certain amount of forest? We’re developing the algorithms to extract that information from satellite data as well as combining it with their existing farm data.

Equally I think it’s being used a lot more strategically, with companies trying to identify where they should be sourcing from. Are there certain areas that yield has been increasing? Are climate factors having an impact on how certain crops are being grown, and the amount that’s able to be grown?

Also, due diligence is another important factor, looking through your supply chain and understanding, for example, what sort of impact am I having by sourcing soy from this particular area? Plus, from an investment perspective, you might ask if there’s something lurking that you should be aware of before we invest that we might be able to find out from using satellite or other types of geospatial data.

The recent Forests 2020 Conference you organised showed that companies want to engage with data and do better, but I also think that many companies are a little bit lost as to how to engage. How do you see companies engaging with the benefits of better data provision and analysis?

I think our experience so far has been reasonably slowly. I think a lot of companies have an old school approach to it, so preferring to commission one off bits of consultancy or pilot projects and governments are the same. But I think things are changing. There is more of a shift to identifying it as an operational cost. I also think a lot of businesses and public bodies have cut levels of middle management and there’s more technical positions such as GIS and mapping departments. So what they want and what they need are easy to interpret insights that produce actionable information, so they don’t necessarily want the raw data itself. Most people, especially those making the decisions at quite a high level, require the insights and the information brought out of that data in easy to read reports, tables, interfaces, you know – formats that are easily digestible.

So you’re seeing that companies want more sophisticated data on one hand, but on the other they want that data to be boiled down into easily digestible information?

Yes, I think a lot of managers and decision makers aren’t necessarily interested in the technical details of NDVI indexes, or the algorithms behind detecting where the forest is converted into agriculture. What they’re interested in understanding is: is my supply chain at risk? Are we compliant with this specific regulation around deforestation, or this particular certification that we’re trying to achieve? And then also, the information that informs a decision or an action around that; so if I’m not compliant, what is the action this is required, and then how can I check what kind of impact that has had?

map of indonesia

Are we seeing a move from companies from wanting data and insights for retrospective reporting, towards developing business opportunities? Where’s that balance now?

Starting to get there, certainly. A lot of it is still around risk but I think particularly as climate change is having an impact on how certain crops in supply chains are growing for example, we’re seeing that some customers are interested in understanding where’s the best area to source a certain crop from – barley for beer, for example. Do I need to source from a different area because the temperatures are rising? A classic example would be the English sparkling wine industry; the reason that’s taken off is because the weather has changed sufficiently to make the English climate better for growing that particular grape. There will also be other similar crops where that happens, and I think companies are very interested to get ahead of that curve. That’s something else that came out of the Forests 2020 Conference: as well as just looking at regulatory risks, how do we manage those longer-term climate risks and gain insights that will help mitigate against those?

What supply chains are you seeing your customers being more interested in now? And by that I mean, what are the supply chains that people want greater information about?

All the ones supported by the Tropical Forests Alliance (TFA) 2020, so soy and palm oil are huge ones. We do a lot of work in Brazil and in Southeast Asia on that front. Cocoa is also very, very big; as part of our Forests 2020 Project with the UK Space Agency, we work in Ghana and support the local Forestry Commission to produce better data to identify where shade-grown cocoa is actually being grown so that companies are able to identify whether they’re sourcing cocoa that’s being grown illegally in protected areas or not.

I think there are a lot of other ‘cash crops’ that are growing in importance; coffee is one, and avocados are another. There’s been stories in the news recently about cafes that have stopped serving avocados on toast because of the impact it’s having on the environment and the implications with certain drug cartels in Mexico. It’s something that both governments and companies in Mexico are incredibly interested in understanding – is this a risk? Can we certify to say that our avocados are being sustainably sourced, and feed the generation of millennials desperate for their avocado on toast?

It’s certainly something people wouldn’t have considered before, I’m sure. Let’s talk a little bit more about your Forests 2020 Project – obviously it’s a very large project, UK Government funded but working in West Africa as you said. What’s it all about, and what are the benefits that are coming from it?

The whole purpose behind it at a very basic level is to try to improve national forest monitoring through the use of Earth observation. We work across six countries globally in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, and we’re trying to improve how satellite data is used in some very technical terms – for example, how do we best detect where change is happening in forests? There are particular challenges around cloud cover where illegal logging is happening, which means the data can be quite fragmented and difficult to see. Cocoa data, again, is very difficult to extract purely from satellite data because a lot of it is grown under the canopy. The Project aims to explore the new techniques and types of data can we use to address those challenges.

Another big aspect is a risk and opportunity mapping, understanding which forests are most at risk of being lost either from anthropogenic drivers like conversion to agriculture, or from natural risks like fire. All of the countries we work in have made huge commitments as part of the Bonn challenge to restore millions of hectares of forests. The question is, how do we identify the areas that are most suitable for restoration so that those efforts and those resources are most efficiently managed and allocated to those areas.

Similarly, with risk, there’s no point in putting lots of money towards conservation projects in an area where the forest is already lost, or in forest that’s already very well protected and at quite a low risk of being lost later. And then, the third general theme is around digital infrastructure; as part of the project, we are improving the data that’s being created generally. There’s just a lot more data around with the European Copernicus program – there’s reams of free data available, so the questions is, how do we make sure that it’s managed and disseminated and communicated appropriately?

That’s where Ecometrica comes in. Our Platform is providing a digital infrastructure to enable governments, NGOs and the private sector to actually access and disseminate and interrogate that data in an accessible and manageable way.

Looking the future then – is that where we’re going to go? There’s going to be more and more free data available, and it’s just a question of how we’re all analysing it and thinking through its implications?

I think a big challenge going forward is definitely not what data is available, but it’s how to manage how much is available. But I think even with commercially provided data the cost of data is coming down. The more satellites that go up, the more that the cost goes down for the resulting data. There’s also increasing interest in other types of geospatial data, for example using UAVs and airborne surveys to gather much higher resolution optical imagery or LiDAR imagery. Working out how to combine that so that you’re getting the most from the data, but also at the best price point for the customer, I think will definitely be an increasing trend going forward.

Thank you very much. There’s obviously a lot of exciting stuff happening in the space information sector. Sarah from Ecometrica, thanks very much.

Thank you!

All the work we do takes place on the Ecometrica Platform, and if you’re interested in finding out more about everything that Sarah’s discussing in the interview above, check out our Continuous Monitoring page for free downloads about the Asset Risk Profiler, the Deforestation Ops Center, and the Water Monitoring Center >

hectares indicator map

Reading Time: 12 Minutes

Date Published: June 10, 2019




Go to Top