ADAM, the Digital Earth platform

NO2 monitoring over Europe, points shown for Bologna, Milan and Madrid, using Sentinel 5P through ADAM

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton,1675.

One year ago, this week, MEEO launched The ADAM Digital Earth, a revolutionary platform to help professionals leverage Earth Observation and environmental geospatial data to enable insights into climate and environmental change.

To honour ADAM’s first anniversary, we look at the technology milestones that we feel had to be in place for ADAM to work, also we note the first sparks of the idea of a Digital Earth, see how far we’ve come, and delve into how ADAM is being used across a variety of different fields.

Early Satellites

1957 — We start with Sputnik 1. Launched by the U.S.S.R, it demonstrated that an artificial device could be launched in orbit around the Earth. It also triggered a competitive space race between the U.S.S.R and the U.S. From these spirited efforts, many major technical advances were born that greatly paved the way for the future of Earth Observation (EO) from space.

1958 — The U.S. formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

1960 — NASA launched the TIROS experimental weather satellite programme.

The Television Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS) used TV cameras to make observations of the Earth, which were then broadcast as black and white stills, via radio waves, to receiving stations on the ground.

black and white picture of the Earth from space
The camera in TIROS recorded images to video tape which then transmitted to the ground. Credit NASA

While the images may appear crude to us now, at the time they were a revelation. For meteorologists, they revolutionised weather forecasting, showing that the Earth’s cloud cover was highly organized on a global scale. By the time of TIROS III in 1961, the programme was saving lives as the satellites were sending back images of hurricanes that meteorologists had not been able to predict. Most importantly, the TIROS programme demonstrated that is was possible to take electronic pictures of the Earth and broadcast them to collection stations on the ground.

In total, there were 10 TIROS missions/satellites. The final satellite deactivated in 1967. Each one was more sophisticated than the previous one, and the programme set the template for the satellites that we have today.

It is interesting to note that while TIROS satellites were proving the feasibility of radio wave broadcasts, there were other satellites in orbit during this period employing a different method. These were launched with physical film. After taking pictures, the satellites would eject the exposed film in canisters to fall back to the Earth. These canisters were then collected and processed in specialised laboratories. When the film was all used up, the satellites were useless.

1962 — The Geoscope is Proposed.

Inspired by the images generated by the TIROS satellites, Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor and innovative futurist, proposed the Geoscope—a physical globe, about 61 m in diameter, that would function as a large spherical display and visualise global patterns derived from data stored on computers around the world. Fuller theorised that the Geoscope would enable scientists to study and recognise formerly invisible patterns, thus expanding the potential to forecast and plan.

geosdesic frame of dome built for the 1967 Expo
The Geodesic Dome Buckminster Fuller designed for the Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada.

An idea before its time….

Unfortunately, the Geoscope was beyond the computing capabilities of the 1960s. The computerised data archives did not yet exist, and the idea of digital geographical data was yet to be fully realised.

But Fuller’s visionary concept resonated with the scientific community and is one of the most significant early sparks we see leading to the Digital Earth as we know it today.

1970-1980s – Telecommunication Boom

There was a proliferation of telecommunication technology launched during this time. The Global Telecommunications System (GTS) was developed by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) for the purpose of sharing weather observations between nations. The TIROS system evolved into National Oceanographic and Atmosphere (NOAA) programme of operational weather satellites. Personal computers become a staple in many homes and the Internet appeared on the horizon.

Also, from this era, we have noted some specific milestones towards the development of the Digital Earth.

1970 — In the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere (NOAA) formed.

1975 — The European Space Agency (ESA) formed.

1977 — The first pan European weather satellite was launched.

1984 – Apple Macintosh was released, heralding the beginning of user-friendly computing, further strengthened by the release of Microsoft Windows in 1985.

1986 – The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) was officially founded.

1990’s – The Information Highway Widens

In the mid to late 90s, we saw the exponential growth of the Internet, tremendous improvements in personal computers and easy-to-use software applications, and the adoption of mobile communications. It was the first time that an individual could be connected to a worldwide network of information.

1994 – The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) was formed. The OGC is dedicated to the development and creation of standards for the publication and sharing of geo-spatial data.

1996 – MapQuest, the first commercial web mapping service is launched.

1998 – U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s speech: “The Digital Earth: Understanding our Planet in the 21st Century”.

Gore proposed the concept of a ‘virtual globe’ of the Earth, designed to display geo-referenced data from the world’s digital knowledge archives. This ‘virtual globe’ would help identify and manage environmental and other global problems facing humanity and would be available to any person via public access points, such as libraries.

It is helpful here to remember that back in 1998 high speed internet was available at libraries and universities but not yet at homes and definitely not on mobile phones. Also, since wireless networking had just been launched in 1998, browsing the web on a laptop from a café was not yet possible…

Once again, it was an idea ahead of its time…

Gore outlined six areas that needed to improve for the Digital Earth concept to emerge as a viable platform:

    1. Computers will need to be more powerful.
    2. Mass storage will need the capability to handle the increased amount of Earth observation data.
    3. Improvements in spatial and temporal resolutions will be needed in Satellite imagery.
    4. Broadband networks with increased bandwidth will be needed to better transport the data.
    5. Interoperability between computer systems, particularly in the area of geospatial data, will need to improve.
    6. Standardisation of data about data (Metadata) to improve data quality and the utilisation of the data was required.

Over the next decade, major advances were made in all these areas and our timeline towards a working Digital Earth accelerates.

2006 – The Cloud: Amazon launched its Cloud services offering, focused on making the Cloud easily accessible for software developers.

2007 – Smart Phones hit the market: Apple launched the iPhone, revolutionising the idea of the portable computational device. Now all of one’s digital content can live on the Cloud, accessible via a mobile device. Other phone providers soon followed with similar offerings.

2008 – Earth Observation Open Data arrives: The U.S. Government announced that data from the series of Earth Observation satellites known as LandSat was now freely available to interested parties in both the commercial and public sectors.

2014 – The Copernicus Earth Observation Programme is announced: The European Union and the European Space Agency set up the Copernicus Earth Observation programme, which soon became the leading Earth Observation programme. All observations from the programme are deemed Open Data and made freely available.

Everything was in place for a Digital Earth like the systems proposed by Buckminster Fuller and Vice President Al Gore.

2018 – MEEO launches ADAM: A Digital Earth.

ADAM launches at the European Space Agency’s Phi week in Rome, a web based application that marshals Cloud resources, such as computation and Big Data to deliver insights without the user needing to write code or manage infrastructure.

ADAM leverages Cloud computing, Open Data, and geospatial and meta data standards. We created ADAM with the vision of being in full compliance with Open Geospatial Standards (OGC) for data discovery, data access and data processing.

Key features/functionality include:

  1. Large pool of global environmental data, mainly extracted from satellite data, but also including data from numerical simulations that run on super computers all over the world. Much of the data is Big Data, which ADAM makes seamlessly available to users.
  2. A web browser hosting a graphical user interface based on a virtual globe; the globe displays patterns derived from available environmental data. Users can also perform calculations on the data and display the results on the globe.
  3. ADAM fetches data from numerous remote archives and data feeds by following standards in metadata and computer interoperability.
  4. When users access data from ADAM, the data is ready for analysis.
an architecture diagram of the ADAM system
Conceptual Architecture of ADAM

2019 – ADAM in ACTION

A year since its launch, ADAM is used by scientists, engineers, and other professionals, who want to use geospatial environmental Big Data to investigate the impacts of climate and environmental change.

Typically, ADAM is used as a stand-alone platform where users can access more than 20PB of data. Users visualize and compare data through the Explorer (web user interface), process this data via Jupyter Notebook, and download data subsets.

User-provided information layers, such as areas of interests, can be uploaded to subset data extraction and focus analysis activities. In addition, ADAM is designed to be an e-collaboration tool and users can collaborate through a “data share” function.

ADAM bridges a skills gap that has emerged for people who use geospatial data in their work but don’t have the skills or resources to access the huge archives of data sitting on the Cloud. These users are results focused and time poor, they have a job to do and technology is just a means to an end.

Third party user interfaces can be plugged on top of the ADAM data pool exploiting the OGC-standardised interfaces or the ADAM APIs.

ADAM is used across a variety of research fields.

To improve time to analysis for users, ADAM instances can be deployed based on a specific theme.

a dashboard for selecting a version of ADAM based on a theme
ADAM systems based on themes.

For example, an ADAM themed on the resilience of ecosystem services (water, air, food etc.) to climate change is used to extract aggregated climate values at country levels.

a picture of ADAM visualising climate change parameters
Using ADAM to look at Climate Change impacts.

Looking to the Future

As society responds to environmental and climate change, decision makers need reliable and easy access to quality large Earth observation data sets. MEEO, through ADAM, is committed to meet this need so users can make data driven decisions as quickly as possible. As part of this commitment:

    • There will be more blogs describing features of ADAM and sharing user stories on how ADAM is being used.
    • There will be more data in the ADAM catalogue. The selection of data will be driven by the needs of our users and our analysis of upcoming new data sets from organisations like Copernicus.

In the longer term there will be versions of ADAM tailored towards education and science communication:

    • Education:  In the education sector, teachers, limited by resources,struggle to teach solutions to earth observation and climate model big data challenges. We are developing a virtual laboratory ADAM that will allow trainees and students practice with real big data challenges. It will empower educators and help the knowledge transfer of data science to new generations of students.
    • Communication: In the science communication sector, experts are often limited in timely access to robust, validated and clear information that would help them convey the scientific message . This is particularly true when communicators are dealing big data sets from earth observation and climate change sciences. We are developing version of ADAM aimed at this sector.

So exciting and busy times ahead for ADAM and the MEEO team. Please keep up to date with ADAM developments by following the ADAM twitter feed: @platformadam.

About the author: Stefano Natali and Conor Delaney

  • Stefano Natali has a degree in General Physics and more than 20 year experience in analysis of satellite data, mainly optical data, for atmospheric and biophysical parameters retrieval. He has developed tools for processing MODIS data to derive measurements of air quality, precipitation, cloud classification, fires detection and land cover classification. In additions, he has more than 15 year experience in project management in EC, ESA and national projects. He is a founder and partner of MEEO srl (from 2004) and of SISTEMA GmbH (from 2009).
  • Conor Delaney is an Environmental Data Scientist with MEEO. He has a PhD in Atmospheric Physics, a Master's degree in Environmental Science and over 20 years of experience designing and developing software for environmental protection.