Satellite Technologies as Public Interest Tech: an Interview with Danielle Wood

In my work, I aim to explore this transformative process through projects under the category of satellite Earth observation as well as in the area of microgravity research to apply that technology for sustainable development.

Satellite Technologies as Public Interest Tech: an Interview with Danielle Wood

Question 1: What technologies are you working with, or have you worked with?

I'm a space engineer. And I like space. For me, I defined myself from the point of view of space as the main technical area of my expertise, and my practice is in Space System Engineering. When I think of public interest technology, I often consider another term that I often have used in my own mind to consider a related topic: that term is  “public service sectors.” I think it relates to what you call public interest technology. The reason I use this term is that I work in the types of sectors that are serving the broad public, such as satellite systems which operate for flow positioning, sending signals out all the time allows many of us to navigate the world around us. 

One of the best ways to explain my thinking that I return to is a TED talk I gave titled “6 space technologies we can use to improve life on Earth,” where I emphasized technologies that I see as having strong social relevance. I like to continue to study them and teach about them, and analyze how those particular technologies in space are different from each other in terms of how they have public interest impact to date, as well as their differing business operation models. These technologies are particular satellites used for Earth observation, monitoring the environment (including climate and weather), as well as positioning and navigation service satellites, and lastly satellites for communication. Through these technologies, I argue there several categories of research that can be evolved which includes fundamental scientific research on the human body in space, plants, animals and materials, as well as questions of technology transfer for non-space use in order to have a broader impact. From this talk, I have developed a course Space Technology for the Development Leader that engages these satellite technologies for public interest over a semester through discussion and projects that involve one or two of these technologies

Question 2: How do you take account of MIT’s obligation to pursue the public interest in the work that you do? 

How do I take account of the obligation to pursue public interest? In some ways, it's natural because of the space community’s historic legacy to put public interest at the forefront of the work and the subsequent international dialogues that have resulted since the start of the Space Age. For example the space community has created venues for international dialog such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). Early on, key principles were written in the Outer Space Treaty which codifies a commitment from countries around the globe to maintain space as a place free of weapons of mass destruction. The Outer Space Treaty also posits that space is a heritage for all humankind. 

Drawing from this heritage space as it relates to the public interest, I speak a lot in my classes about how the six technologies can all support the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, to provide key visions for how we should improve human life on Earth. I also argue that currently, satellite technologies are not designed to be accessible to a general audience. The important role of satellites in today’s modern infrastructure has sometimes emerged organically rather than as an outcome of intentional design. Take GPS, for example. GPS, or the Global Positioning Systems, were first designed by the U.S. government for tools of war to guide missiles. And yet, the same kind of technology turns out to be really useful for many of us now when getting a ride or walking around a new city. To understand how existing technologies can find new public uses requires new forms of system engineering. 

In my work, I aim to explore this transformative process through projects using satellite Earth observation as well as microgravity research., I'm actively trying to demonstrate how to  apply each technology for sustainable development. In my class, Space Technology for the Development Leader,” I build partnerships with individuals in companies and governments to identify how technologies from space can be adapted to their interest. One example includes an invitation from the Government of Ghana  to map deforestation due to mining. This invitation resulted in a mutual design process to make information systems using satellite data.. Right now, I have similar projects in Angola, Benin, Brazil, Mexico, and with a Native American tribe called the Yurok tribe in California.

Question 3: What more could you and others do to help MIT team meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology?

I have a long history with MIT, and I’ve been watching the institute improve for the last 24 years around this area of public interest technology. When I arrived in fall 2000 as a first year undergrad, I joined Amy Smith’s First Year Advising Seminar, which was an early iteration of what she would later found as MIT D-LAB, a major initiative that MIT now elevates and celebrates. This was one of the rare spaces then where students could pursue public interest work and international experience with a focus on technology. Today, I appreciate that public interest technology is supported through the Priscilla King Grey Center for Public Service, and more broadly through international and global thinking through MISTI initiatives and other programming. Opportunities like these are much more visible on MIT’s campus than when I first arrived at MIT. Another key example of spaces that are reshaping MIT’s campus is the Morningside Academy of Design which provides fellowships to graduate students pursuing public interest technology via design. 

And though not all students will be interested in investing their time in public interest technologies per se, I think as a community MIT needs to continue to push ourselves to ask better questions about our role as technologists. I also think we should continue to seek out different perspectives from different fields and sectors, as well as cultures and countries by building relationships and co-investing in learning across differences by observing, preparing, and then doing. 

Professor Danielle Wood is an Associate Professor in the Program in Media Arts & Sciences and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Wood serves at MIT as the Faculty Lead for African and African Diaspora Studies. Within the Media Lab, Prof. Wood is the founding director of the Space Enabled Research Group which seeks to advance justice in Earth's complex systems using designs enabled by space. The research of Space Enabled designs systems that use tools from space to promote sustainability on Earth and designs approaches to support sustainability in Space.

Prof. Wood's background includes satellite design, earth science applications, systems engineering, and technology policy. In her research, Prof. Wood applies these skills to design innovative systems that harness space technology to address development challenges around the world. Prior to serving as faculty at MIT, Professor Wood held positions at NASA Headquarters, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Aerospace Corporation, Johns Hopkins University, and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. Professor Wood studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a PhD in engineering systems, SM in aeronautics and astronautics, SM in technology policy, and SB in aerospace engineering. Professor Wood is a full member of the International Academy of Astronautics. In this role, Prof Wood co-chairs the IAA Space Traffic Management Committee and is a co-editor for the space journal Acta Astronautica. Professor Wood has served multiple times as a Private Sector Advisor to the U.S. Delegation for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Prof Wood has been honored with the National Science Foundation's CAREER Awardgrant, selection as a Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst and induction into the Black Women's Executive Leadership Fellowship.