News Archive

posted 06/03/04

NASA Awards $20 million to Columbia University to Support Use of Remote Sensing

map showing the 
urban and rural populations of three West African countries

The subnational, georeferenced data reflected in this map, which shows the urban and rural populations of three West African countries, is an example of the work for which the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) recently received a new $20 million, five-year funding contract.

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute has received a five-year, $20 million contract from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to operate the NASA Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) in support of the application of remote sensing data in research and decision-making.

SEDAC is a unique source of data and information about human population distribution and human interactions with the environment, designed to complement data from NASA’s earth observing satellites. Typically more than 100,000 users access SEDAC’s resources each month via the Internet.

“SEDAC fills an important niche for the scientific, educational, and applied decision-making communities,” says Prof. Michael Goodchild of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who chairs SEDAC’s external advisory group. “SEDAC data have been used widely both in research and in practical applications such as hazard planning, public health assessments, and natural resource management.”

Established in 1994, SEDAC is one of eight Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) in NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). The new contract runs through 2008.

According to Dr. Robert S. Chen, SEDAC’s Manager and CIESIN’s Deputy Director, “SEDAC serves a variety of users, from scientists who need detailed spatial data on socioeconomic and environmental factors to students and teachers who are interested in the interactions between people and the environment. For example, our Gridded Population of the World (GPW) dataset enabled researchers at Columbia and Middlesex University in London to more accurately estimate the numbers of people living within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the coast—people who are exposed to coastal hazards and who affect the coastal environment.”

SEDAC is one of the NASA units working actively on NASA’s new initiative on public health applications. Dr. Robert Venezia of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise notes that “SEDAC’s experience in working with social science data and its strong links with the public health community are a valuable resource in our efforts to strengthen NASA’s ability to support public health decision making.”

SEDAC is also helping to address the data needs of the Millennium Project, an initiative led by Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, on behalf of the United Nations. “We are very pleased by NASA’s strong commitment to SEDAC,” says Prof. Sachs. “As someone who used SEDAC’s data in economics research even before coming to Columbia, I feel that it is vital for NASA to continue supporting the close integration of Earth science and socioeconomic data to advance both science and policy. SEDAC’s data are vital to the world’s efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for reducing poverty, hunger, and disease to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.”

The new NASA contract will enable SEDAC to expand its online, interactive mapping services and increase support for standards for data interoperability being developed by the Open GIS Consortium (OGC). “We acknowledge the leadership role that the Earth Institute has taken with regard to the use of open standards to advance collaboration and exchange of critically important socioeconomic and earth science information,” says Mark Reichardt, the OGC’s Executive Director for Outreach and Community Adoption. “SEDAC’s geo- referenced socioeconomic data will very much complement the range of environmental and remote sensing data now becoming available at local, regional, and global scales through open standards.”

SEDAC data products include the widely used GPW dataset, the Population, Landscape, and Climate Estimates (PLACE), the Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators (ENTRI) database, the Demographic Data Viewer, and the Last of the Wild and Human Footprint datasets. “In addition to downloadable datasets and online databases, we offer a number of information resources such as the Thematic Guide to Global Population Projections and the Population-Environment Research Network,” says Chen.

SEDAC is presently working on a number of new data resources geared to meet the needs of national and international researchers and policy makers. For example, a new global dataset on the extent of urban areas, based on both remote sensing and socioeconomic data, is being developed for use in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international initiative to assess the state of the world’s ecosystems.

SEDAC works closely with other parts of NASA’s research and data infrastructure. Several of SEDAC’s data and information resources have been developed in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is also based at Columbia University. SEDAC’s User Services Manager, Joe Schumacher, leads the User Services Working Group that coordinates user support and outreach across the DAACs, and SEDAC Manager Chen is currently the chair of the overall DAAC Alliance.

SEDAC has a strong base of users, including researchers, applied users, educators, and students. SEDAC data have been cited in more than 90 different scientific journals and have featured prominently in publications of the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, and the Environmental Systems Research Institute. Maps based on SEDAC’s population data have appeared recently in The New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, and several new atlases.

Dr. Roberta Balstad Miller, CIESIN’s Director and Chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ U.S. National Committee for CODATA, comments that “one of SEDAC’s unique functions is to bridge the gap between the socioeconomic and environmental sciences, providing tools and data that facilitate interdisciplinary research and help to solve real-world problems that cut across disciplinary boundaries.”

For further information about SEDAC, please go to SEDAC’s web site at: SEDAC User Services is available at +1 845-365-8920 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on Monday through Friday (except holidays) and via electronic mail at

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines –earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences –and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.

Related Links:
The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN):
The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS):
The Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC):
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA):
Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs):
Gridded Population of the World (GPW):
Open GIS Consortium (OGC):
The UN Millennium Project: