What are the Benefits of Landsat’s Current Free and Open Policy?

In 2008, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) stopped charging for Landsat data and made products from its suite of earth observation satellites free and open.  A group of researchers from different universities and government groups have published a study of how this change in policy has benefitted users, especially in light of recent efforts by the US government to consider charging for Landsat products.

Researchers note that since the policy change in 2008, Landsat downloads have skyrocketed.  The use of Landsat products in published research also increase rapidly.

Number of downloads of Landsat images from the U.S. Landsat archive (gray line), and the number of annual publications from 1972 to 2017 in the Scopus database that have “Landsat” (blue line) or “Landsat” AND “time series” (orange line) in their title, abstract, or keywords. Figure: Zhu et al., 2019.

Number of downloads of Landsat images from the U.S. Landsat archive (gray line), and the number of annual publications from 1972 to 2017 in the Scopus database that have “Landsat” (blue line) or “Landsat” AND “time series” (orange line) in their title, abstract, or keywords. Figure: Zhu et al., 2019.

Economic Value of Free and Open Access to Landsat Imagery

Researchers cite a few studies and surveys that have note the intrinsic value of Landsat products.  For example, “The National Geospatial Advisory Committee (National Geospatial Advisory Committee Landsat Advisory Group, 2014) analyzed sixteen economic sectors (e.g., agriculture, water consumption, wildfire mapping) where the use of Landsat data lead to productivity savings, and estimated the economic benefit of Landsat data for the year 2011 as $1.70 billion for U.S. users plus $400 million for international users.

Open Data Policy Among Other Agencies

The co-authors of this study also point out that Landsat’s free and open policy encouraged other agencies to also make their products free and open.  The researchers specifically point out the move by the European Union to make products from its Copernicus Program also free and open (see: Free and Open Access to Sentinel Satellite Data).  This movement has also encouraged interoperability between different earth observation satellite products “through common standards, cross-calibration, and development of harmonized products.”

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Zhu, Z., Wulder, M. A., Roy, D. P., Woodcock, C. E., Hansen, M. C., Radeloff, V. C., … & Pekel, J. F. (2019). Benefits of the free and open Landsat data policyRemote Sensing of Environment224, 382-385.

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