What is it?

The Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) program will build the world's largest operational platform for accessing and analysing decades of satellite imagery specific to Africa's land and seas. DE Africa will translate data from the world's free Earth observation satellites into ready-to-use insights about the continent's environmental conditions. Such insights will enable African governments, NGOs, businesses, and individuals to make more informed decisions about soil and coastal erosion, agriculture, deforestation, desertification, water quality and changes in human settlements.

The US-based Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Australian Government have funded the establishment of DE Africa. Digital Earth Australia (DE Australia)—a world-class platform funded by the Australian Government that uses satellite imagery to identify changes in Australia's landscape—will provide technical and operational guidance. An African-led ecosystem of governments, private businesses, international investors and non-government organisations will provide the enduring investment for DE Africa.

A Steering Committee for DE Africa was formed in 2018 and has broad representation including; Kenya Office of the Deputy President, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research South Africa, Group on Earth Observations,Ghana Statistical Service, South African National Space Agency, Geoscience Australia, World Economic Forum, Committee on Earth Observations Satellites and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. With the support of funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, the Steering Committee developed a study to determine the viability of a scalable, economically and technically sustainable model in Africa, for Africa.

Why is it important?

The insights gained from DE Africa will provide reliable, routine and near-real-time evidence about changes to Africa's natural and built environment. This kind of evidence underpins informed decision-making about agriculture and food security, deforestation, and strengthens the ongoing monitoring and management of mining, forests and water resources in Africa. Critically, DE Africa will eventually be a sovereign operational and analytic capability to Africa, with in-country expertise in data analysis, use and management.

Who will use it?

Governments, businesses and individuals from across Africa, as well as multinationals, and government and non-government organisations that work in Africa, will use the insights gained from DE Africa.

Where will it be?

The DE Africa Office will be established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and will centralise the operations, governance and forward work plan of the program. It will also build technical and policy expertise, and data analytics capability in country. The analysis, products and tools produced by DE Africa will be accessible across the continent to inform decisions about land and water.

How will the DE Africa Office work?

In its first year, the DE Africa Office will establish its operational and governance frameworks and build its technical expertise. The DE Australia team will help guide this initial development in partnership with data, policy and industry leaders across Africa. Recruitment for the office will include executive positions, technical experts, and communication and media officers. Recruitment is expected to commence in June 2019.

DE Australia will work closely with African government and non-government organisations to augment existing expertise and provide new opportunities to learn and grow from DE Africa's innovative operations. This will likely involve secondments and job sharing in the establishment phase.

The DE Africa Office will expand on the existing DE Africa community, and strengthen the long-term engagement of international donors, philanthropic and multilateral organisations, and nations (inside and outside Africa) that want to invest in high-impact Earth-observation solutions to address environmental and economic challenges across the continent.

Background

Africa is a continent with a rich and diverse environment that faces many development challenges such as ready access to drinking water, rapid urban development, active deforestation and food insecurity. Our understanding of these development challenges in Africa will connect directly to how well we understand its natural resources, and the human and climate impact on them.

Satellites provide images of our land that can help us understand our natural and built environment. Such images are a rich source of information, but they are difficult to acquire, scale up or down, and compute and analyse – their high-quality means having to deal with many petabytes of data. Additionally, a single image can only tell you the story of a single place, and only at a single time.

But what if you could analyse all the images taken over the last 30 years to tell the story of how a place has changed over time? And what if you could tell that story to governments, businesses and individuals so that they can make the most informed decisions about how they use their resources? And what if this story was freely, and openly available to everyone who wanted to hear it?

These questions led to the launch, in May 2018, of the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC), an initiative spearheaded by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, with strong support from the Group of Earth Observation (GEO) and focused on five countries: Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. The ARDC was a prototype that clearly showed the need for such a service and its value. It also highlighted the need for an African-owned and led continental-scale approach to the acquisition, storage, interpretation and delivery of satellite data.

A summary report in 2019 comprehensively established the current and growing demand for satellite data and data cube technologies. This demand came from a wide range of African and international governments, NGOs, research and academic institutions, donors and multilateral partners seeking to address specific problems and inform development decisions.

In February 2019, the USA-based Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust committed USD10 million to the development of DE Africa, with a further AUD10 million (approximately USD7 million) from the Australian Government. DE Australia committed to providing the technical and operational expertise and will coordinate DE Africa's establishment.

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