Today, the big data and analytics markets are worth hundreds of billions of dollars. According to some, the analytics market alone will soon surpass $200 billion. Yet, that number only tells part of the story. It speaks to the explicit value of data while ignoring how it may improve or save lives — the implicit value. Particularly when it comes to data collected from space, both ways of valuing data are important to consider given the trend toward private satellite constellations and continued controversy about whether or not that is a positive change.
The scientific community rarely launches a research satellite thinking about how the data that comes from it might move markets or build businesses. Until recently, private industry has had to wait patiently for the public sector to release space data, often settling to take what they can get in a complicated format and through an unfriendly data portal. The data hasn’t always been what the corporate world needs or understands how to use, but as they old adage goes, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
Now with the NewSpace boom and lower cost access to space, private industry has the ability to identify a useful data set and retrieve it from space without having to rely on public funding or the lobbying of scientists and politicians. Private industry can pull some of its own weight and drive forward investment in data that matters to everyday issues such as operational efficiency, cost reductions, or revenue growth across a whole range of sectors – aviation, construction, agriculture, finance, retail, etc.
But that part of the story is only skin deep. It’s rational and it’s reasoned, but what it’s missing is the reality that the implicit value of data, the part that affects human lives, can’t simply be forgotten just because the data comes from a commercial satellite. For instance, when private satellites collect weather data, that data is no less valuable to the public weather community than it has ever been. It can still be a vital input in saving lives and property, helping monitor the climate, and driving new research. In fact, many companies do share these humanitarian goals. The implicit value has not changed despite the data coming from a different source.
What has changed is that space data now has an explicit value attached as evidenced by the existence of a price tag. At first, it sounds like a troubling development to have a price ascribed to something that previously felt like it was “free.” The truth is, that space still takes a lot of resources and, ultimately, someone pays for it. In the past, taxpayers carried the burden of subsidizing this data for private industry. Today, we’ve reversed some of those roles. Private industry is paying for its own data collection, with a large part of that data coming back to the public with a lower access cost. Further, information from space with both intrinsic and extrinsic value doesn’t end at weather data or public-private-partnerships.
By their very nature, commercial providers collect and deliver data with a business mindset, thinking through what datasets are in demand and what are of the most value to customers. This customer-driven approach to data collection greatly expands what types of data are collected, how much, and what can be done with it. New ideas as to what can be accomplished from space are emerging all the time, and commercial data providers have the flexibility to meet many of those demands and the public sector often ends up a wonderful on the back end.
For example, in the last decade, many different types of users across industries as diverse as commodity trading, supply chain management, and insurance have come to understand the need for better monitoring of vessel behavior, and nanosatellites are uniquely suited to collecting global, near-real time data. Along with the obvious benefits like smarter shipping lanes, this type of data also has a positive impact on monitoring the world’s food supplies and curbing activities like illegal fishing and human trafficking. This is where the explicit value of commercial data meets the implicit value of ship tracking. How it affects lives, which could only have happened once reaching a critical mass for the commercial sector, is an incredible benefit.
The aviation industry similarly recognized the need for this data back in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was as unbelievable as it was tragic. All 239 passengers and crew were declared lost at sea in a hyper-connected era when it’s easy to assume we are being monitored everywhere, all the time. But we are still blind in many parts of the oceans and remote locations. At the time, there was simply not enough data to determine what happened to the aircraft. In response, we now have commercial data providers that are addressing the issues that MH370 brought to light while at the same time creating efficiencies (e.g. in routing and fuel usage) that have never existed before.
The growing need of both industry and government agencies for a variety of datasets exceeds the capacity of traditional space-based technologies to deliver it all on their own. Thankfully, private industry is here and ready to help carry a portion of that burden. Private companies now have an abundance of capabilities, from rapidly delivering data that enables near-real time decision making in emergency response scenarios, to providing accurate datasets for evaluating air traffic routes. Commercial space data lies at the intersection of business and social good, augmenting current public data sets and expanding their applications. The true value of commercial space data is much more than the sum of its parts — it’s the number of people positively impacted. VS