Margherita is an interdisciplinary Earth scientist and drone pilot with a background in geologic and environmental sciences. She has international experience working in fields such as Earth Observation (EO), remote sensing, drones & geospatial data analysis applied to the environmental and humanitarian sectors, sustainability and climate change. Margherita is passionate about natural and climate-related technologies that can be used to develop sustainable and long-lasting solutions. She is working for a more inclusive world (Women in Geospatial+), without any sort of geographical or social barriers.
Could you tell us the journey that led you to applying space-based technologies in the water sector?
I have always been fascinated by the power of technologies and innovations to solve environmental issues and wanted to explore connected scientific fields, such as geology, environmental and climate sciences. My very first encounter with space-based technologies, such as remote sensing, drones, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), was during my bachelor's studies at the University of Urbino, the town I come from in Italy. At the time I was studying Geology, there was a Geomatic course in which I had the opportunity to discover the vast world of space-based technologies. I was so excited when the professor took us to the nearby agricultural field to pilot a drone! My journey then led me to pursue a master's degree in Environmental Geosciences at the University of Milano, where I had the opportunity to explore a bit more the intersection between environmental sciences, climate change, and the more applied study of geomaterials (rocks and minerals).
Thanks to the Erasmus+ Traineeship program I could spend some time in the mineralogy department of the University of Malaga (Spain) working on an innovative, low-CO2 cement that can reduce the overall negative environmental impact of the cement sector. From there on, my passion for climate change-related issues was evident as well as my interest in applying my skills to create a positive impact. I was lucky enough to graduate in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic started; I landed in Luxembourg for personal reasons and started working at RSS-Hydro as a Geoscientist. The company is using geospatial technologies to mitigate present and future hydro-meteorological risks under a changing climate and the focus is on flood events. During my first week there, I was offered a training course to learn how to pilot drones, I immediately jumped on that and after several exams, I became a certified Drone Pilot. Seen my interest in using technologies to innovate sustainably, I am currently involved in different R&D projects using geospatial and remote sensing technologies to make an impact for a few Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), SDG 13 (Climate action) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals).
You are currently working on the SEMOR aid project in the Sahel region. Could you describe the impact of space-based technologies and data for water management and disaster risk management, especially in less developed regions? What are the main opportunities and challenges of the use of space-based technologies in these countries?
The Space-Enabled Modeling of the Niger River to Enhance Regional Water Resources Management (SEMOR) is a development aid project that started in January 2022 in partnership with European companies and local partners, addressing climate change impact and the current data challenges in the Sahel region. We are working on a sustainable space-based solution that will be visualized as an easy-to-use interactive web map showing the predicted inundation extent for different scenarios based on 2D flood inundation models and mapping tools. We are also creating a network of low-cost water level sensors to install along the river and that will be complemented by open-access Earth Observation and drone data for local river mapping and floodplain topography to validate our models. We decided to organize capacity training workshops and to transfer our models to the public partner institution in Niger that can use it to simulate future flood events and climate change scenarios, and that will assure the project longevity.
Geospatial technologies have a very high potential for better managing water and related disaster risk. Lately, an increasing number of companies and researchers are working to develop solutions in this direction. The effect of human-induced climate change on extreme events and disasters (such as floods and droughts) is evident and space-based technologies represent powerful tools for monitoring these impacts and producing actionable products. In an area vulnerable to water-related events, such as the Sahel, where each year there is an upward trend in the number of people affected by seasonal rains and floods, an efficient water resources management and risk reduction strategy are needed to improve the resilience of local communities. Our space-based models and IoT river monitoring network will help to improve national and regional predictions of hydrological extremes, thereby increasing resilience of vulnerable communities against future water risks.
The expected impacts of the project are manyfold, from supporting the data against water risks like floods, to improving the regional predictions and monitoring of hydrological extremes. We also aim at training local stakeholders and creating working groups on meteorological, hydrological, crops, and conditions monitoring. Moreover, the project is expected to make an overall positive regional economic and environmental impact, such as creating new jobs. The project will also help the relevant ministries, emergency institutions, local partners, and national governments to build safe and resilient communities through effective risk communication and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals 6, 11, 13, and 17.
One of the challenges of international projects is that you cannot always be physically present at the area of study. Hence, communication and information sharing can be less efficient and slow the progress.
Another challenge of working in areas such as the Sahel is that the region is experiencing multiple connected (and complex) emergencies. Many people face malnutrition, recurrent disease epidemics and outbreaks, cyclical floods, drought, and displacement. This is exacerbated by the instability in neighboring countries, creating an influx of thousands of refugees and migrants, stretching the capacity of governments and humanitarian agencies to respond to emergencies. Data scarcity represents another big challenge, since both water resources development and management are strongly dependent on the availability of data. However, data collection and hydrometric measurements have not been fully implemented in the Niger River Basin, with several abandoned or inexistent hydrometric stations that are fundamental to monitor the river and provide critical information to model and predict floods.
With the relevance of climate change impacts, lately the opportunities for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) have been growing in number. An increasing number of development aid projects from international organizations are being funded, which makes me optimistic for the future.
What do you see as the way ahead with regards to space-based and in-situ data? Do you think there is unharnessed potential in existing sensors and datasets to derive water-related indicators? If so, which sensors do you think are most promising and should be further explored? How do you envision an approach to coordinating the collection of space-based and in-situ data in the future?
Using space-based technologies is the fastest and most convenient way to produce actionable large-scale products for a multitude of applications, not to mention the “coolness” factor associated with the new space revolution. However, for most applications, geospatial data cannot work efficiently if they are not effectively complemented by in-situ measurements that represent the ground-truth from which you can calibrate and validate your computer models, tools, and geospatial analysis.
Lately, satellite remote sensing has become more valuable for disaster monitoring, such as flooding, and relief efforts from the beginning to post-crisis of an event through space. Estimations of flooded areas using satellite data serve as important input information for the models used for determining the extent of natural disasters and for making decisions regarding the recovery plans for the damaged areas. Looking at space-based sensors to monitor flooding, the most common ones are Synthetic Aperture Radars (SAR), such as ESA’s Sentinel-1. Due to their capacity to acquire data in all-weather conditions SARs are widely used for monitoring and mapping of flood-water inundation. Optical satellites with visible (VIS) and near-infrared (NIR) bands can also be used to detect floods with limitation due to their inability to sense through cloud cover.
On the other hand, more traditional in-situ sensors used to monitor floods are great to detect changes to certain parameters, usually precipitation volume and/or water level. Advanced gauges may also be equipped with temperature and wind speed sensors, and can be built into standpipes, making it easier to include other instruments, such as multi-parameter sondes equipped with an array of sensors, as well as data loggers and telemetry systems, connected to IoT systems. Radio transmission is the standard telemetry option. Depending on the location satellite and cellular options may even be more beneficial.
In my opinion, there is a long way ahead, to make in-situ measurements with a reasonable temporal resolution, openly accessible and available to everyone at any time. One of the challenges to achieve this is that they are generally managed by different stakeholders at national, regional or local level.
What are the main applications of space-based technologies in the humanitarian sector? In which ways are those technologies helping the humanitarian sector to improve the lives of people in need? Do you see future opportunities for the use of space technologies in this sector?
Space-based technologies have a huge potential for the humanitarian sector. They are increasingly used by NGOs and development aid organizations, who start considering satellite and drone data as a powerful tool to look and manage crisis from a different perspective. At the end of the day, this kind of data, coupled with Machine Learning algorithms and cloud computing, allows you to be as creative as you want in creating geospatial solutions to tackle specific global issues. In humanitarian contexts, remote sensing technologies and Earth Observation (EO) are becoming highly relevant since they allow to monitor conflict areas, watch the real consequences of human-induced climate change and related disasters, as well as manage rescue missions in emergency areas and improve preparedness. All of this is possible thanks to the nature of satellites, which act as “external observers,” distant from everyone and everything, but also able to see almost everything (even at night or in cloudy weather). The data can be manipulated (or misinterpreted) for various reasons but can maintain the objectivity necessary for studies and analyses linked to a territory and its physical characteristics (presence of water, floods, drought, infrastructures, etc.).
The opportunities for greater use of satellites in humanitarian contexts are manifold, from predictive modeling/forecasting of future scenarios, assessing past and present developments of an area (e.g., land use/land cover changes), timely understanding and assessment of crisis scenarios where rapid interventions are needed, to monitoring the reconstruction and adaptation of environments after disasters. But even before a crisis, the enormous amount of information ideally allows populations to increase resilience and to develop a greater awareness and communication of risk. Several easy-to-use web platforms or maps have been developed in the framework of humanitarian and development aid projects, such as Esri’s Humanitarian and Public Health platform, a collection of resources from the GIS community. Space-based data are also used to update the topographic maps of developing countries with tools that integrate satellite imagery with GIS mapping features, for example using the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) platform. Together with the improvement of regional predictions of hydrological extremes and increase of communities’ resilience, the creation of web maps is also one goal of the SEMOR project.
Innovations with great potential are the ones connecting space-based technologies to the activities carried out in the field by humanitarian organizations, such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) or the Red Cross. With the help of geospatial tools and maps, they can have a better overview of their areas of activity while monitoring different aspects of the health of humans living in changing ecosystems and climate conditions, who are increasingly vulnerable to extreme events.
How do you see space-based technologies being used in support of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development? Are those technologies being used to their full potential or is there place to improve?
The reduction of costs and the continuous improvements of remote sensing technologies is making it easier for people, companies, and organizations to use space-based technologies for designing new solutions to global environmental threats (natural, climatic, and linked to anthropic activities, in general). Lately companies are increasingly focusing their attention on sustainability, setting up concrete targets and strategies to reduce their environmental and social impact. Here, the agenda for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) helps us identifying Earth Observation and geospatial technologies as key elements to achieve sustainable development in domains like agriculture, climate change, water management, transport, construction, and infrastructure monitoring. Progress has been made, especially on SDG 1 (No poverty), but there is still substantial work to do to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030 as well as a need to define more practical strategies to achieve the targets and indicators.
Lately, both the European Commission and the European Space Agency (“EO science for society”) have started sponsoring projects to make an impact in achieving the SDGs using space-based technologies, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Which advancements do Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) bring to hydrology and water management? What are the main applications, challenges and perspectives?
UAVs, which I prefer to refer to as Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles or simply drones, are flexible tools for different applications around hydrology and water management. In fact, sensors mounted on drones, whether optical, thermal, multispectral, or even LiDAR, can provide valid monitoring information and allow you to create very high resolution orthomosaics, Digital Elevation Models (DEM), and 3D models of the terrain. High-quality DEMs are an essential input to flood inundation models that show the spatially distributed dynamics of water surface elevation based on the information contained in the DEM. Platforms like Geonadir (a map of the world using crowd sourced drone imagery) and GLOBHE (platform that put into contacts certified drone pilot from all over the world with companies that need drone data/products) are good example on how to innovate the way drone mapping data are acquired, shared and accessed.
The generally high cost and short battery lifetime, together with the new drone regulations such as the European one by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), are creating new challenges in working with drone technology, requiring long certification processes, risk assessments and planning. Comparing UAVs with satellite data, consideration about prices, resolution and revising times need to be made to choose the best ones for our needs.
With a background in geosciences and a wide set of geospatial skills, where do you see the biggest but unexploited potential of geospatial technologies in hydrology and water management?
The opportunities to use space-based technologies for hydrology and water management are vast and somehow not fully explored. Health and well-being are everyone’s concern. Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic and new war threats on a global scale, everyone has witnessed that there is much room for improving global coordination and management of health services at all levels, locally, nationally and globally. Health and well-being are also a top priority in the SDGs – in fact, both are at the core of this great endeavor.
Looking at water management, Earth Observation can be used in combination with medical diagnostics to improve healthcare services, with daily high-resolution water disaster-related parameters and climate change impacts aggregated in an easy-to-use web application. You can map mosquito water hotspots of vector-borne and water-borne diseases such as malaria after a flood event (areas where water stagnates) using Sentinel-1 data, or drought monitoring using optical (Sentinel-2) and thermal (Sentinel-3) data at a resolution of around 10 meters. The potential is there but I think we need more collaboration between the public, private, and non-profit sectors to exploit that at best.
If you had three free wishes to be fulfilled by a Space Agency, what would they be?
I would ask for:
- Bigger investments to foster the use of geospatial technologies to achieve the 17 SDGs.
- Better communication of the high potential of space-based technologies, starting with education in school, where courses or specific classes on EO topics can be organized, but also with more webinars, books and resources.
- An easier access to funding for projects for small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs) as well as young start-ups.
Space-based technology and data are very important tools for your daily work. Which advice would you give to water professionals who want to start using them? What do you consider the basic skills to develop? Could you suggest some introductory courses?
I would suggest them to be flexible and curious about new technologies and innovations linked to space, embracing the philosophy of lifelong-learning, or “the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons”. There are infinite free resources online to approach and learn about space-based technologies, remote sensing and so on. A good way to start could be the webinars recorded by NASA which are available on YouTube here. YouTube is also the place to look for tutorials on how to use specific software (QGIS, ArcGIS, SNAP, Pix4D, etc.) or to learn new programming languages (R and Python are the most used in the field), for example.
Talking about online platforms, apart from the well-known edX, Coursera and FutureLearn, that offer online courses on different technical topics (from remote sensing to programming and more environmental topics), the one that I recommend is for sure EO-College, a repository for high quality open education courses around Earth Observation, remote sensing and related topics. There is also Geo University, a subscription-based online platform to learn different aspects of GIS and Earth Observation.
Another advice that I want to give to people interested in the geospatial sector is to follow and join the Women in Geospatial+ community, a professional network of thousands of specialists to promote gender-equality in the geospatial industry.
You seem very passionate about technology. How do you do to keep yourself updated with the fast advancements in the field?
I am glad I give this impression from the outside! I like to stay updated on the latest innovations and cutting-edge technologies as much as possible using the infinite knowledge of the internet and the power of having an international and specialized network of people both in the real life and on social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter (let’s connect!). But I have tomust admit, I am not at all immune to modern conditions such as the fear of missing out (or FOMO) and the imposture syndrome, something to better not underestimate.
What do you need to innovate?
In the hyperconnected and fast-paced world we are living in, I try to find inspiration from the small details that surround us, which can sound spiritual, but it is a way to learn from the most efficient entity we know: nature. Of course, the environment and people that surround me are also very important in the process of shaping innovation. From the idea to the concept and final implementation. Unfortunately, that process is almost always dependent on the available budget.
What is your favorite aggregate state of water and why?
I would say the solid state is my favorite, with snow being part of many good memories, especially from my childhood. Snow makes everything appear quiet and calm, forcing you to move slowly, following the rules of the natural world, and to rethink your connection with nature. I come from a pretty mountainous area of Italy, in the Appennini, where it used to snow consistently during winter. It is something that I really miss nowadays. In 2012, we had an unprecedented snowfall (3 meters of snow in 10 days!) that paralyzed Urbino, my hometown, forcing schools and shops to close for one entire month. Needless to say, it was a magic period of my life, happily sliding downhill with my snow sledge, surrounded by the white peaceful atmosphere.