Kopernicus - what's in it for Joe Public?

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Philip Hunt, 8 October 2008

The GMES forum in Lille on the 16-17 September 2008 was a perfect example of why so many EU institutional efforts fail to get a good press. The event marked the launch of Kopernicus, the new EU umbrella for a host of different earth surveillance services from satellites and ground sensors. Yet the occasion singularly failed to impress.

Lille was intended as a showcase for the many new ways of sensing climate conditions on land, on sea and in the air, as well as the possibilities for border surveillance and the movements of people. (It is worth noting here that the astronomer Copernicus looked out into space, while Kopernicus is concerned with looking down from space onto the Earth).

Space can be a fascinating subject, and since man arrived on the moon is capable of arousing interest even from the most dilettante reader. And in the aerospace sector alone, Kopernicus is Europe’s most significant satellite project since Galileo (which is concerned only with navigation).

However, the story was spoilt by the presentation. For journalists attending the conference, the information on offer varied from broad statements about Kopernicus benefits (with few details), to arcane topics such as data protocols and certification. For this reporter, time in the press conference would have been better spent interviewing the many technical experts on the exhibition floor.

Only after cornering a couple of the more senior project managers involved were more understandable answers forthcoming. For example that the range of surveillance capabilities varies in resolution from kilometres to centimetres depending on how frequently the data needs to be updated. And that the surveillance data generated had an obvious application (the ‘dual-use’ capability) in monitoring people as well as the environment.

As for the security and privacy of that data, a hot topic right now, no answers were forthcoming. It seems that this is yet another example of technology outstripping the legal and civil codes required to regulate how it is used.

Combine such organisational amateurishness with being told that Kopernicus will ‘grow by attracting increased investment in the value-adding [sic] market’, while at the same time remaining a public-sector project rather than attracting private investment, and you start to wonder if the institutions involved were trying to sabotage any possibility of meaningful press coverage.

You may think the view of this reporter is rather jaundiced. While it is true that he has been around long enough to see quite a few ‘grand projets’ arrive with a fanfare then quietly depart, clearly many of the new services underpinned by Kopernicus have the potential to benefit the man in the street, especially in the area of environmental monitoring.

Yet, while the Lille conference impressed for the efforts of a variety of differing organisations to publicise their work, I’m afraid that the results were yet another indication of a net failure at European level to address fundamental public concerns. Namely, the effects of yet more surveillance of the activities of you, me and every other inhabitant of the planet. ‘The police are very interested in Kopernicus,’ I was told. Somehow I am not surprised.

Kopernicus is promised a budget of some 2.4 billion euros to build up the space component and ensure access. It’s nice to know that your taxes are going to help more and more people check what you’re doing every time you walk down to the shops.

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