Whoever controls the data, controls the service!

Like many people last week we watched the US Congress fail to pass the federal budget and shutdown the US Government. Putting aside the ridiculous scenario that the world’s largest country is closed and the financial hardship they’re inflicting on their public service workers; as a small company in the UK who currently don’t work for America or American companies, we didn’t expect to be impacted commercially. We were wrong!

NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) control a significant number of satellites and the remote sensing data streams from them. The federal shutdown has closed all their websites and associated structures; although NOAA has kept Weather.gov open for critical weather information only. You’d expect no satellites to be launched during this period, you’d probably expect that should anything go wrong it wouldn’t get repaired, you might even know that some data downloading processes require human intervention and could be impacted too. But surely that’s all? Websites can operate quite happily on their own can’t they?

Given the immense size of remote sensing data sets, in the region of multiple terabytes, many academic and commercial organisations download data when they need it; rather than have the cost of massive data storage facilities. This is where the real impact of the federal shutdown bites. These datasets are downloaded from websites which have been closed by the federal shutdown. It’s not that they aren’t being updated, it‘s a total shutdown. The websites simply have a front page stating that due to the lapse in federal funding the websites is not available; some specialist sites are still up if you know where to the find them, but even they say information may be out of date. Also, the Twitter feeds of NASA, NOAA and USGS have stopped tweeting!

Everyone assumes that the data is still being downloaded in the USA, and will be processed and made available once the federal shutdown is resolved. A little delay maybe but no major issue for research, unless of course something has gone wrong and data isn’t being downloaded. Will researchers in the future, have to refer to the 2013 Data Black Hole or the Federal Fault of 13 in their trend analysis?

However, what about time critical applications? Remote sensing is being used to provide services such as flood and disaster monitoring, crop watering and oceanographic applications. How many of those customers, or suppliers, realised that their ability to receive or deliver those services was dependant on the American government? Anyone relying on Landsat or MODIS data downloaded from a US website, are currently becalmed without a data stream. The European MyOcean service is reporting degraded and interrupted ocean colour products due to a lack of spatial coverage.

Companies who want to provide reliable, consistent and dependable remote sensing applications really need to control the data stream alongside the application. This essentially is having your own ground stations to receive data, out of the reach of most organisations.

This week has clearly shown whoever controls the data stream, controls the service. How much of your service pathway do you control?