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DigitalGlobe Foundation: Fostering the Vision of “Seeing a Better World”

Thursday, April 24th 2014
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Summary:

The DigitalGlobe Foundation was established to support university research and the next generation of geospatial technology users through grants of satellite imagery. In this interview, Editor in Chief Joe Francica discusses the mission of the Foundation with its executive director, Mark Brender.

Directions Magazine(DM): Can you provide some background on the foundation, its history and original mission? 

Mark Brender (MB): The DigitalGlobe Foundation is now seven years old. We established it to support the development of the next generation of geospatial users and leaders who share in our purpose of “Seeing a Better World.”  This is the vision of Jeff Tarr, the CEO of DigitalGlobe and it is the driving force behind the Foundation’s mission. The Foundation is just one part – but an important part - of DigitalGlobe’s overall corporate social responsibility effort. The Foundation makes archive imagery grants to students or faculty at civilian and military educational institutions who need access to high-resolution commercial satellite imagery to support research projects. Typically an image award is about 1,000 square kilometers of archive imagery over a research area.

DM: How many universities are currently taking advantage of the imagery provided by the Foundation and are you activity seeking to grow this list?

MB: In 2013 we made imagery grants to 60 universities around the world. While we expect to make a similar number of awards this year, if the quality of the applications is high and research projects unique and interesting enough, then we are open to making more. For us it’s a matter of quality over quantity. I might add that the Foundation has a special relationship with the eight USGIF accredited schools and provides their students and faculty with even larger amounts of imagery. During the last month, we have made imagery awards to the University of Punjab in India for a GIS research project involving land cover; University of Redlands for environmental studies over two separate lakes in the High Sierras to show the differences in phosphate loading during different seasons; Chinese Academy of Sciences for a study on the impact of open space in urban areas on the health and well-being of a population; and Dartmouth College for faculty and students who are studying the spatial distribution of a rare plant found only in one area of Namibia. So you can see that the research subject areas just in the last month are quite diverse.

DM: What are the criteria for a university to apply for a grant for imagery and how long does it take to obtain the imagery once the grant is approved? 

MB: The DigitalGlobe Foundation makes imagery grants to civilian and military academic institutions. The Foundation can’t task the satellite for new collects, but there’s plenty of imagery in DigitalGlobe’s archive. The Image Library consists of more than 4.5 billion square kilometers of the Earth’s surface--that’s more than 30 times the landmass of the planet. As far as currency, the company collects 1.2 billion square kilometers of imagery per year. An applicant must be a student or faculty member at an accredited university-level educational institution. The applicant must be an active participant in an accredited research program. Once we have approved an application for an imagery award, it takes about a month to fulfill the request, though most receive it in a week or two. Delivery of the imagery depends on the number of imagery awards in line for processing. The key people at DigitalGlobe that work closely with the Foundation are Devon Libby, who is the manager of the DigitalGlobe Foundation and handles the imagery orders, and Nancy Coleman, who is DigitalGlobe’s senior director of communications and one of the Foundation’s board members.

DM:Does the foundation require programs granted imagery to provide a report or other accounting of their use and application of the imagery? 

MB: Applicants who receive an imagery grant must agree to provide feedback in the form of an article, thesis or white paper at the very least, with possibilities of video testimonials and postings through varies social media outlets. You can see some examples of these at the DigitalGlobe Foundation website in the multimedia section.

DM:The foundation has been involved in some very interesting case studies. Can you highlight two or three that you found most interesting? 

MB: Our case studies have proven to be quite broad.  One of the most impactful was Water Wells for Africa. Water Wells for Africa, DigitalGlobe Analytics and Mapbox teamed up to help rural communities in southern Africa find and distribute clean, safe drinking water to those who have none. It’s a seemingly basic but very important issue that is still plaguing many people today in developing countries. The Foundation granted Gettysburg College imagery to study wildfire hazards in Colorado. DigitalGlobe is headquartered in Longmont, Colorado so wildfires are an important issue for employees. Salem State University focused their research on the Darfur area in Sudan. They used high-resolution imagery to try to quantify the number of villages and huts that have been burned by armed militias and map the location of camps for displaced persons. Many case studies have touched the environmental world. One study dealt with the need to relocate some small Indian villages to better protect elephants and tigers; another study measured the impact and consequences of coastal zone erosion. In one study for Harvard School of Public Health, imagery was used to map and predict malaria outbreaks in Mali, a leading cause of death in children under five years of age. One of the fastest growing uses of imagery is in archeology for the discovery of new sites and for monitoring and protecting existing ones.

DM:In what future missions do you expect the Foundation to be involved and do you see it growing beyond its current mission? 

MB: First, I would say that as the capabilities of DigitalGlobe grow, so do those of the Foundation. DigitalGlobe’s newest and most advanced satellite, WorldView-3, is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2014. This will be the first super-spectral commercial remote sensing satellite and will increase DigitalGlobe’s collection capacity by some 20%. It will have a remarkable ground resolution of 30 cm and it’s hoped that by the time the satellite is operational later this year the U.S. government will grant approval to DigitalGlobe to be able to sell imagery at this resolution. If DigitalGlobe gets this modification to its operating license, then the Foundation will be able to offer this higher resolution imagery to researchers at universities, as well. If the U.S. government does not approve DigitalGlobe’s request, then the WorldView-3 imagery will be re-sampled to half-meter ground resolution and researchers won’t be able to utilize the best the satellite has to offer. I believe the government will make a decision soon. And with a larger number of spectral band combinations and other improvements, I suspect a greater number of universities will want to take advantage of this new dynamic imagery. Secondly, as the Foundation grows, we may offer other services especially to the accredited schools of the USGIF. These services may include help with curriculum development or analytical services through DigitalGlobe’s analytical services division. Thirdly, we may want to have some schools that have advanced geospatial programs help us evaluate the new imagery from the WorldView-3 satellite when it’s operational. Finally, guiding the Foundation through all of this is a terrific seven-person board of directors that includes a retired three-star Air Force general, a senior executive from Google Federal, the CEO of an intelligence/geospatial educational organization, an academic (and imagery activist), and the head of an international environmental organization. The board provides the governance and guidance and ideas that keep us headingin the right direction.


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