Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data

By Mariel Borowitz, Information Policy Series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017.

It is no surprise to anyone that data has become a central and immediate concern in our daily lives; we are overcome by it. When we communicate, we most often do so through data channels; data predicts what book or movie we might next enjoy; and for social media platforms, data are us. Science has been equally overcome by data streams. Big data. Data-bases. Data infrastructures. Data politics. Data is powerful and economically valuable. In Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data, Mariel Borowitz examines the global satellite data industry and unpacks open access trends and how, during the last three decades or so, governments and space agencies have attempted to commodify data, only to discover such approaches are not sustainable in the long term. The dynamics of this often-repeated cycle leads Borowitz to propose a high-level model of open access policy development that can potentially be used to articulate new data sharing policies and predict scientific data’s economic value.

Open Space seeks to answer two main questions: (1) Why did transitions to open data by satellite agencies predate national open data initiatives? (p. 6) and (2) Why did many agencies follow the same general pattern of data openness and restriction: beginning with relatively “free from data provision[s] to [more] restricted policies and then back to free and open sharing?” (p. 257). Borowitz takes a case study approach to address these questions, splitting Open Space into three sections. Part I is foundational, where Borowitz introduces a model for data sharing and policy development. The proposed model is meant to lay-out the relationship between “people and ideas: the structure and dynamics of the organizations and entities that control and influence policy-making and the key attributes of the data about which policy is being made” (p. 15). Unlike other studies, this model draws on multiple disciplines and examines data sharing at multiple levels: from the organizational, to the legislative, to the technical. Borowitz then provides key definitions and literature overviews to contextualize her historical examination of open access (p. 16). A series of tables summarizes Borowitz’s model, which helps one predict a dataset’s economic value in relation to its commercial market and uses.

Part II, the core portion of the book, comprises a series of historical case studies—ranging from the World Meteorological Association in the United States, the European Space Agency, and the Japan Meteorological and Aerospace Exploration Agencies. Together these cases illustrate the aforementioned cycle of data openness and restriction. One gets a clear sense of how agency-specific values are impacted by national-level decision makers pushing for commercialization to recover costs of data maintenance. The cases illustrate a number of approaches to the commercialization of data, ranging from completely open practices, as is the case with NASA, to tired approaches to data access, such as those imposed by Europe, Japan, and China (pp. 201–205, 226–227, 250–252). Over time, agencies found that the income generated by charging fees could not recoup the administration costs of sustaining that very model. In response, open access policies, or considerably less restrictive models, were often adopted.

Data is often formulated into two buckets: essential and nonessential. The former being vital for the safety and security of humanity, such as for weather prediction. Climate change is a strong motivator for opening-up access to data given that weather, and its effects, are decidedly not only national events, but global ones. Deciding what data can be shared is often a careful balance between national security interests and the facilitation of scientific study.  Open Space exposes how non-Western nations fared during these rapid developments. As data satellites increasingly became the norm, surveillance on nations all over the globe also increased, meaning that Western countries often harbored vital information of interest to smaller countries not outfitted with a viable space program. Such programs also had positive impacts. It brought countries otherwise less involved in satellite data to the forefront, such as Japan in the first decade of the century (p. 229). Trends to open data as a result of global phenomena like climate change also spurred more research activity in nations that did not have this infrastructure, such as in Africa.

The final section of the book situates the cases as evidence for the data commodification framework introduced in Part I. Borowitz concludes that one reason for the success of open data programs in space satellite agencies (primarily in the U.S. and Europe) was their original dedication to open access from the outset of their programs (p. 258). Having openness as a core value of their mission meant that agencies were poised to promote such values in the political and governmental sector, despite economic pushbacks (p. 266). Additionally, this data was not economically viable. Commercializing data dampened noncommercial use which ran counter to the agencies “scientific and technology-driven missions” (p. 266). Smaller, non-Western countries with relatively few satellite assets often have more restrictive data sharing policies, either due to the fact that open access is not part of their core mission, or pressure from government entities to commercialize data or protect sensitive information.

One critique of Open Space is that it does not dig deeply into the broader, theoretical implications of data sharing—it remains at a high, conceptual level throughout the monograph, focusing instead on producing frameworks by which we can understand the economic viability of data. There is certainly room for further study in this area, especially in regard to the ethical dimensions of this earth surveillance activity. Thankfully, Open Space sets a solid foundation for these more pointed examinations.

Secondly, the book is Western-centric in scope and emphasis, though perhaps this is warranted given that a great deal of the environmental monitoring arose, and continues to be maintained, in traditionally “Western” countries—especially the United States. Two case studies on Japan are included in the book, as well as a chapter on “Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa.” There is a nice appendix that briefly describes monitoring activities in other countries throughout the globe. Admittedly, there are always limits to what a book can discuss, but it seems there could have been more emphasis on countries such as India and China, who, as the author mentions, have some of the largest unclassified monitoring programs in the world (2017, pp. 269–270). The nuanced relationships between non-Western countries and the rest of the globe could have aptly supported the broader claims made in the book, revealing the more politically-driven motivations for data openness and restriction.

Open Space would make for an effective classroom text focused on the introduction to scientific data curation, open access, and the economics of data. The broad nature of the book’s approach, along with the segmented nature of its narrative, clear writing style, and concise case studies, would lend well to classroom discussion. Open Space is also worth examining if you are new to the politics and economics of scientific data. A strength of this text are the agency histories that form the core of the book. They show how satellite data has the potential to be a source of great political and economic power, but despite this potential, they defy being readily commodified by governmental entities. Data, in this domain at least, remains available for pressing contemporary scientific issues. We can only hope this trend toward openness continues into the future as climate change research become ever more pressing and threatened.


Robert D. Montoya, Assistant Professor of Information and Library Science, in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, Indiana University Bloomington