Negotiating a Humanitarian Data License

Above: BMGF Mapping exercise in Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of BMGF

Get the Most Data for your Dollar – How the Pros Negotiate a Humanitarian License

Fight for health and climate equity by mastering the fine print 

Just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the government of the West African country of Sierra Leone was able to use geospatial data to identify at-risk spaces where social distancing would be difficult. They had tapped into groundbreaking partnerships brokered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) that generated open geospatial data, with new findings accessible in a national digital dashboard and COVID-19 hub.  It put Sierra Leoneans on the map, and gave them an advantage in COVID-19 response.   

When maps fail to represent every person, essential health services fail to reach every person. As a former program officer at the Gates Foundation, Io Blair-Freese’s mission was to use geospatial data and technologies to fight poverty, disease, and inequity around the world. However, gaps in the public data needed to solve these issues often hindered progress. Some of those gaps could be filled by commercial data sources, but the licensing that accompanies such commercial data often comes with high transaction costs – navigating complex legal language, back-and-forth negotiations on terms and conditions, and frequent stakeholder consultations. And, as is the nature of humanitarian emergencies like disease outbreaks and natural disasters, data needs were often urgent and time constrained.  

“Over time I figured out how to make the fine print work for us and make our work more equitable. In doing so we have been able to reach communities that otherwise would have been missed.”

Io Blair-Freese, BMGF

In 2020, Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment entered into a contract worth up to NOK 400 million (approx. USD 43 million) with Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and its partners Airbus and Planet, to provide universal access to high-resolution satellite monitoring of the tropics to support efforts to stop the destruction of the world’s rainforests. This investment, known as the NICFI1 Satellite Data Program, has reached and empowered a previously underserved user base in the forestry community. Anyone around the world can detect deforestation occurring in very small areas, whether it be indigenous organizations, government authorities, companies buying raw materials associated with deforestation, investors, journalists, scientists, or NGOs. The images are provided to end users free of charge. Such an agreement had never been done before and it has helped revolutionize global forest monitoring. You can check out NICFI’s custom license here

“Our experiences on the importance of licensing conditions and accessibility can be valuable to both data providers seeking to adapt their business models and institutions that experience commercial data licenses as a restraint.” to reach communities that otherwise would have been missed.”

Henrik Fliflet, NICFI 

Organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Norway’s Climate and Forest Initiative had two main assets at their disposal in these negotiations: their money and their voice. Io and Henrik agree, they are most effective when they use both. Financial assets allowed them to invest in large datasets that cover a wide range of use cases and geographies. Their voices allowed them to advocate on behalf of many end users’ needs and secure the best possible terms with commercial providers to provide value across the community. Below are Io and Henrik’s tips and tricks in negotiating humanitarian data licenses. 

Above: Consulting a satellite image of Kronggahan village, Yogyakarta, Indonesia with the village chief. Photo courtesy of BMGF

Tips from Io from her experience at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Include language for purchasing on behalf of partners

When negotiating licensing on behalf of a foundation or other granting organization, it is important to focus the conversation on the broader set of partners that the data is intended to benefit. Rarely are data purchased by the foundation used solely for internal analytic purposes, but instead by contractors, grantees, and others. Therefore, it is necessary to include language that covers both the negotiating organization and any partner organizations. For example, when negotiating the purchase of data to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the license needed to cover additional government health ministry and other NGO partners.

Align investment strategies across donors

Having more than one donor organization involved can further complicate negotiations, especially when donors have different ways of working that influence their licensing priorities. For example, some donors invest in organizations based on their geographic priorities and are less focused on having global communities have access to data. Others champion the commercial sector to foster rapid innovation and do not typically invest in global public goods. These priorities need to be balanced when negotiating data licensing, and there are a myriad of trade-offs to consider, some discussed below.

Allow for derivative products

When engaging with commercial data like satellite imagery, the value comes not from the raw images collected by the satellites, but the analyses of the image pixels which include aggregated and manipulated maps, and data, annotated basemaps, and more. In licensing conversations, these are referred to as derivative products as they are derived from the raw data. Many humanitarian use cases require derivatives since imagery is used in advanced models to estimate community-level statistics, like number of households that need life-saving interventions. It is important that the license allows users to create derivative products if we want those derivatives to be widely shared with partners, or even better, as public goods (e.g. OpenStreetMap data layers or Global Forest Watch alerts). This often means explicitly stating the license and/or attribution that the derivatives will inherit – like requiring the derivatives take on the more open Creative Commons license. For these conversations, having legal and technical expertise and guidance will also help streamline licensing discussions and identify mutually acceptable terms, such as paying an additional charge to make the data open.

Share data hosting

Data hosting terms commonly come up in licensing negotiations. Default terms often only allow data to be hosted internally by one organization, not on any shared or public platforms. Since our partners generally work with multiple organizations involved in a single project, it is important that the language allows hosting amongst all the organizations involved. Such licensing rights allow organizations to also share expensive computing and infrastructure costs. 

Consider paying by consumption instead of area of interest

Traditional models priced imagery by the square kilometer, which meant that customers needed to know the specifics of the area they were purchasing. Would they need imagery coverage over a city, a forest, populated areas, the tropics? Sometimes customers know the specific area they need, but humanitarian emergencies can happen anywhere at any time. New business models offer a wider range of options for humanitarian organizations. For example, cloud-based imagery-as-a-service models stream data and charge users based on consumption. Having access to all the data but paying only for what is needed and consumed allows humanitarian organizations to be more efficient with their budgets (as well as their time). 

Save money by buying in bulk

As mentioned earlier, with any purchasing negotiation, more open licensing and/or additional licensing rights can increase the price. The largest driver is usually how widely the data is shared – either priced by the number of organizations who have access or by the number of unique users. Since humanitarian actors usually want to share with a wide variety of partners, it is almost always more cost effective to buy more data that can apply across our partners and offset the cost of sharing with bulk purchasing discounts. This means working with multiple programs and/or multiple grantees to make the most effective use of the contract spending. As an illustrative example, getting a bulk discount of 20% to buy data across an entire country will more than offset the 5% upcharge needed to share it across the partners working in each of the sub-national areas covered.

Buy only the resolution you need

Another element that impacts the pricing of geospatial data is spatial resolution, particularly for raster data which is delivered in pixels (digital aerial photographs, images from satellites, digital pictures, or even scanned maps). When using raster data, try to understand your end user’s use case well enough to determine the highest spatial resolution they need. Oftentimes, partners new to using pixel-level data will ask for the highest and most expensive resolution, sub-meter data, even if it is not necessary. A good rule of thumb is to start by asking what the data will be used to produce, and work backward with them from there. For example, when looking at forest cover change, it is often preferable to save money on a resolution that allows the user to see the boundaries of the forest, not count individual trees.

Above: Degraded forest near the village of Litoy in DRC . Photo courtesy of CIFOR

Tips from Henrik from his experience at the Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative

Leverage emotional appeal and desire to make a real impact

Like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s voice and convening power, NICFI’s mission to save the rainforests has strong emotional and branding appeal. Collaborating with NICFI appeals to companies, including commercial imagery providers, who are seeking to improve their public sustainability profile as well as to tackle global sustainability challenges. This “brand” appeal increases the value of concluding successful negotiations with NICFI, and also increases the “cost” should those negotiations fail. 

Aggregate demand to increase ROI for everyone

Our experience is that the data licensing conversations must be focused on the intended users of the data, and not the customer conducting the purchase on their behalf. The data providers are used to customers negotiating on their own behalf, so their expectations, service systems, commercial offers and license terms need to adjust to a centralized purchase model where the buyers are negotiating on behalf of other external users. Allow time for this.

The licenses govern the relationships between the data providers and the users on whose behalf we negotiate. They should allow not only the expected core use cases, but allow for broader use and innovation and those unexpected use cases. This is especially important when so much of the market has been underserved. Our experience is that once data is made more accessible, unforeseen opportunities for use are developed.

End users should define accessibility

How easy it is to access and use the data is as important as the price of the data and the license terms. Accessibility of the data should always be a key element in the deliverables from the data providers. Do data users want to access an API? Are they in low-bandwidth environments and need offline access? Do they need access to all the data, or just to more manageable snapshots? Working closely with our diverse forestry community, these were key questions for our requirements gathering.  

Avoid conflicts with data providers’ core business and customers

Licensing is directly tied to pricing for commercial satellite imagery. Imagery providers consider the future value of the data in their pricing and how current deals and terms will impact the ability to sell that same data again. Our experience shows data providers are willing to give greater license freedoms within particular thematic (e.g. sustainability or humanitarian uses) or geographic areas (e.g. the tropics or many low-and-middle-income countries) if their core business areas are excluded (e.g. commercial applications or re-distributing to other government agencies). Under the NICFI Data Program, a custom, Creative Commons-like license allows broad and free use of the data within a predefined Purpose. Introducing such a Purpose in negotiations, for example dictating that the data shall be used to support sustainable development, can limit the expected or perceived future cost to the providers. However, this can result in a loss of the completeness and potential for broad impact that define a true public good.

Assess whether raw data or derived data products are needed

In our particular case, the data providers developed new data products, such as satellite image mosaics (many satellite images stitched together to cover wider areas), rather than offer the raw data of underlying satellite scenes. Mosaics allowed the users to meet most of their needs (forestry mapping, change detection, land use) , while the providers retained tight control of their core data products. In a similar vein to the considerations around scope, identifying the data product that can meet most user requirements while removing challenging use areas or geographic areas may aid negotiations. Developing new data products may allow more lenient licensing.

Acknowledge the role of commercial analytical partners

Introducing non-commercial license aspects is one of the easiest ways to limit the scope of use and assuage concerns from the data providers. However, a vast number of users rely on commercial service providers for analysis (e.g. Unfolded’s “Planet NICFI connector” and Google Earth Engine basemaps), and many potential users are themselves commercial entities whose use may still contribute to the Purpose of the data. Denying access to all commercial entities severely hampers the users, and in turn the impact of the data purchase. Compromise should be sought in negotiations that allow commercial entities access to the data in a form, or under limits, that are acceptable to the data providers.


Photo credit: Shaya Bendix Lyon
Io Blair-Freese

Io Blair-Freese works as the Chief Executive Officer of DevGlobal, leading efforts to maximize the network across the DevGlobal, DevAfrique, and DevIndia teams. Io brings experience from 8 years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding global goods at the intersection of geospatial technology and sustainable development, with a particular focus on improving national health programs. During her time working in development technology, Io has brokered the purchase of millions of dollars of satellite imagery and other earth observation data.

Henrik Fliflet

Henrik Fliflet is a senior sustainability risk analyst at ABN AMRO. During his time in NICFI, he particularly covered topics related to access to and transparency of geographical information. Henrik supported the establishment of the Global Forest Observations Initiative, and led the procurement and establishment of the NICFI Satellite Data Program.