Big picture people Meet Norman Mueller: Earth observation scientist

Over the two decades he's worked in remote sensing, Norman has seen Earth observations go from on-request DVD mailouts to distributed, instant big data and time series analysis.

Last updated:18 June 2024

Digital Earth Australia Director of Engagement and Innovation, Norman Mueller.

How do you work?

At the moment I work on coming up with ideas to suit the requests of our clients.

So for instance, we might be requested to build a national product detailing burn extent information. We might be requested to build a system whereby aerial firefighters can find nearby water sources to help to fight fires.

So what we’re doing in those cases is first of all, working with clients try to work out their needs, and then building up a project team to actually create and deliver a product.

Mostly we aim to do national scope products, as ongoing operational services. So you have information services that you can count on.

And why is it important?

A number of reasons. First of all, we're in a really unique position as a federal agency. Observing the earth to provide information about land and sea in Australia is actually the responsibility of the state governments. However the states tend to focus on the things that they need. The federal government then needs to understand the national context and needs to understandable the bigger picture.

So we have this interesting sort of pull, which is we want to make national product so that we can inform the federal government; we want to be able to support the state governments work as well so that we don't end up with completely divergent information; and we want to boost the community.

So we want to be doing all these things, while at the same time making sure that we don't actually tread on the toes of the jurisdictions that actually have responsibility.

How did you come to work in GA?

I actually wanted to be a scientist since I was a kid. That took an interesting path. I went to uni, couldn’t get a job as a scientist even though I trained as one. At one point, I found myself in an environmental job (to try to get myself in somewhere) and it was actually as a field sampling operative for New South Wales Water and what I was doing was going to sewage treatment plants and testing whether or not the system is cleaning the sewage so it was okay to go out into the environment. I hated that job with a passion but what it did was it gave me a little bit of credentials. Shortly after we decided to move to Canberra, just because we’d had it with Sydney’s traffic - and sent out resumes to everybody in the Yellow Pages and had a job a week later as an environmental consultant.

That introduced me to remote sensing because they used satellite imagery to do environmental mapping. That was way back in 2003. And it was at that point that I started to learn about GA and when that particular job ended for me I looked for a way to get into Geoscience Australia. So I went to uni, did a post-grad diploma in GIS and remote sensing. I was consulting personally in GIS and remote sensing at the time, and a job came up at GA to do land cover in 2007, and I’ve been here ever since.

Interestingly enough, we recently delivered the continental-wide DEA Land Cover that we were originally employed for 15 years ago.

How did you end up in DEA?

DEA was the natural successor of where I started. So when I started it was just the end of what was called the Australian Centre for Remote Sensing (ACRES). We were still providing Landsat scenes one DVD at a time to order, so it was still a very physical, manual process of getting stuff out.

There was no idea of having this system which just let people get the data all the time.

However, when the USGS decided to make all the Landsat data freely available, all of a sudden there was no longer a market, which meant that what we were doing was pretty much just not viable.

So we came up with this idea (Simon Oliver and Adam Lewis really pushed this) of basically standardising all our data and then having it in a central accessible spot, sitting in supercomputing directly connected via internet and whatever else so that people didn't have to download anything.

And that was the first sort of inkling of what became DEA. It was this development, which took us from the scene-at-a-time madness into this big lump of data, which now is our Open Data Cube. What we want is fully operational access and delivery and analysis. This came with total leaps in the way that we thought, going from a disk at a time to big data and time series analysis. It was a huge difference.

And how do you think your past experiences help you in your current role?

I did a lot of different jobs, doing all sorts of different things, from being an industrial chemist to being an IT support person, to running my own businesses twice. All sorts of things.

And the thing about that is being in remote sensing, it's really important that you have a fair breadth of knowledge. We need to be able to have some idea of IT connectivity, and have some idea of various different sciences. On top of that, my personal interest in camping and bushwalker – I’ve travelled over most of Australia in one way or another – so I have an understanding of landscape and understanding of vegetation versus water versus all sorts of things. It's the general knowledge which actually really helps remote sensing and so when you put that together, it's kind of a natural fit.

I often say to people that I specialise in being a generalist.

You may have just touched on it, but what's the most satisfying part of your work?

Honestly, it is making a difference. It's generating something that actually helps us out and creates more understanding.

So, for me, the biggest thing I've done is the Water Observations from Space project. And that's used all over the world now. I really find that pretty awesome. To know that I've done something which has been picked up and used, that's what does it for me. And actually, I've found that that's repeated for most of the people I work with. They think the same sort of thing. They want to do something meaningful and make a difference.

And what do you wish people knew about your job?

I wish people knew that it was there. It’s a case that we really struggle to get highly skilled new staff. You need a real breadth of skills and a diverse background to really do remote sensing. They can be very few and far between. And I think that part of the problem is that people don't realise that it is actually a specialised, important career on its own, and tend to just take it for granted I suppose. We think Google Earth is something easy, we were able to see the maps and that’s it. They don't realise how much goes into making that work. On the other hand, Google Earth also pretty much popularised what it is that we do so in some ways, it's given us the hard job that otherwise makes it look like it's so easy.

Just to clarify, you want more people to know more about your work generally or within the scientific community?

More people generally, I would really like to see [remote sensing] taught in at least high schools. There should be connections into other parts of the education sector. If you want to understand the world, you need to know where it is, where it's going, you know, how it's changing. What are the tools you use to do that? How does all this fit together?

And what still surprises you about your work?

I think that the biggest thing is that it has changed significantly. One of the things I used to do when I started this was to take a topographical map out and try to plot ground points between that map and satellite image so that we can properly correct the image to the ground. And we're now on the point where it's all done automatically in the background. You don’t even have to think about it. So we're going through these huge leaps all time. From a scene at a time to one thousand scenes at a time; from two data sets about one little place to the entire globe. Go and have a look at some seminars showing how these techniques are being used on Mars. It’s just the way that it broadened so rapidly. New opportunities all the time. Just amazing.