How Mapping Technology Can Help Us Tell Stories and Protect Ecosystems

Google Earth Outreach founder and visionary engineer Rebecca Moore says the signs are all around us, telling us that our life-support systems are in critical condition. Only recently has it become possible to monitor the health of Earth’s life-sustaining resources in a manner both globally consistent and locally relevant. Moore is showing how satellite data, cutting-edge science and powerful cloud computing technology such as Google Earth Engine allow us to achieve an unprecedented understanding of our changing environment and put this data into the hands of those who can take action. Combined with Google Earth’s new narrative storytelling tool, grassroots activists, communities and other environmental change-makers can now vividly show what’s at stake, and envision solutions in ways that can change hearts and minds, while guiding wiser decision-making to protect and restore our vast, fragile planet.

Rebecca Moore discussed how mapping technology helps us achieve conservation and social missions at the 2018 Bioneer Conference. The full text of her presentation follows.

Click here to watch a video of her presentation.

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Rebecca Moore:

We’re going to talk about Earth’s vital signs. Think about it: When you go to the doctor, you can get your heart function measured, your lungs, your brain. You can get all kinds of tests done. But what about the planet? What about the Amazon that produces the oxygen that we breathe, or all the river systems of the world that are like its bloodstream? Where can we all go and know how healthy those critical systems of our Earth are? Historically, the answer has been basically nowhere. But if there’s ever been a moment to harness technology in service of planetary health, this is it.

I’m going to start not with big data but with small data. I got my start in my own community, and I believe that’s a very great way to start out as an activist, because you learn and then you can scale. So I started in the Santa Cruz mountains about 10 years ago. We got a letter in the mail, “Notice of Intent to Harvest Timber.”

Nobody could read this map. Black lines indicate where the logging’s going to happen, but black lines are also the roads and everything else. So most people simply threw it out.

But Google Earth had just come out, and I’m a mapping nerd. I said, ‘I wonder if I studied this plan and remapped it in the full 3D satellite imagery of this new Google Earth, could we really understand what was at stake?’ Maybe it was nothing to worry about, or maybe it was. I wanted to find out.

Over that weekend, I brought in the data. There were going to be helicopters hauling logs over the daycare center and nursery school, and I could make 3D models of it. I showed my work at a community meeting, and people were horrified. Now they could really see the reality: How big the project would be (1,000 acres, six miles long) and how close it was going to be to so many aspects of our community life.

We called ourselves Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging, or NAIL. Our mascot was Charlie the Beaver because beavers are responsible loggers.

This was Google Earth 10 years ago. This was Rebecca 10 years ago. I was asked to present this Google Earth logging flyover to political groups and the media because no one understood the official plan. But they could understand in a few seconds what was wrong when they saw it in Google Earth. My neighbors were writing, saying, “I thought I understood until I saw it on Google Earth; now I’m shocked and appalled.” The Chronicle talked about green eyes in the sky as a new tool, satellite imagery for environmentalists.

When you can present maps and data in the context of the real planet, then people can understand. We used this technique to raise awareness. Ultimately we proved that the plan was not only a bad idea, but we used Google Earth to prove that it was illegal, and we stopped the logging.

And it gets better. We’ve always had this feeling in our community that we stopped the plan, but wouldn’t feel safe until the land was permanently protected. Just a few months ago, a bill was passed, and funding was secured. It’s going to become a new open space park in the Santa Cruz mountains.

So that’s how I started: with 1,000 acres.

Storytelling through Mapping

Fast forward: We launched a new version of Google Earth, and with everything that we’d learned over a decade, we realized the heart of it was storytelling and tying the issues, concerns, dreams, solutions and challenges to the land.

We’ve invented a new digital magazine we call Voyager. Every week we’re updating it with stories, and as you can see, there’s a bit of an environmental bent – nature stories, stories about climate change. We’re trying to educate the world about the world.

My current personal favorite Voyager story is the brown bears of Katmai National Park. There’s a live bear cam, so you can see what’s going on right now. We want to bring the world alive. We want to help everybody understand and be able to celebrate this dynamic planet, this beautiful place where we live.

The Introduction of Google Earth Engine

That’s not where the story ends. Our storytelling and visualization is fantastic, but we have a problem: The world is changing dramatically in ways observable from space. You can see, for example, deforestation in the Amazon. We were approached about eight years ago by Brazilian scientists who said what they really needed was to deal with the fact that we were losing a million acres a year of Amazon rainforest. It was typically happening illegally in parts of the forest where there’s not good law enforcement on the ground. However, there was daily satellite imagery that was free, public domain.

There was a virtual alerting system. We could use science to detect changes, and we could alert people. The problem was it was petabytes of data. That’s billions of megabytes of data. If you were going to try to manage all that satellite imagery and then analyze it, it would take weeks on a single computer. So they were stuck.

That’s where Google Earth Engine was conceived: in the Brazilian Amazon. We do have a few computers at Google. They’re running YouTube, Gmail, search, etc. Why not have them run an environmental analytical engine for the planet? So that’s Google Earth Engine: an environmental planetary scale engine to help us understand, map, measure, and monitor what’s going on on Earth.

There’s all this incredible data being captured while we’re sitting here. The problem is it’s typically going onto tapes and stored in a vault somewhere in a government archive. The way I think about it is, ‘How can we liberate that, bring that online, and make it available to scientists and anyone who wants to turn those pixels into knowledge?’

With Google Earth Engine, we spent three years bringing all that historic data online. We’re also bringing the new data online as it’s being collected, co-located with massive computing to derive the insights that we need to understand what’s changing and what kind of solutions are possible. So once that was built that, we wondered what it would look like if we stitched together a global, panable, zoomable planetary timelapse. An animated video of the planet.

It was fascinating. We could see Las Vegas growing while Lake Mead shrunk. Hmm…that’s interesting, isn’t it? We could see deforestation in Bolivia, which would be artistically beautiful if it weren’t sad. We could see the Alberta tar sands.

But there are beautiful things too, geologic features like the shifting sands of Cape Cod beaches.

To build that timelapse, we had to analyze five million satellite images. It was three quadrillion pixels. We ran it on 66,000 computers in parallel. We had it in a couple days. On a single computer, it would have taken 300 years.

The first big scientific vital sign, you might say, was working with one of the world’s leading scientists, Matt Hansen, at the University of Maryland to create the first high-resolution, fresh map of the state of the world’s forests: where they’re still intact, where they’re disappearing, where they’re growing back because of reforestation efforts. That was published in the journal Science. It’s been incredibly highly cited. It was a million hours of computation that would have taken 15 years on a single computer.

But we don’t want to just produce scientific papers. We want to drive change on the ground. So now we’ve operationalized running that program every week. The data goes into an application that you can check out called There’s real transparency now on what’s happening to the forests of the world.

Now it’s a cat-and-mouse game. The people that are doing the illegal logging used to log during the dry season because that was more convenient for their trucks. But now they know they can be seen from space, so they’re logging during the rainy season. They used to be able to get away with that, but now there’s radar. We bring all the radar data into Earth Engine, and this group, Instituto Socioambiental in Brazil, developed a radar-based algorithm. They saw this line developing of change in the heart of the Amazon, not near any roads. It was an illegal mining operation. They got it shut down immediately.

Now let’s switch to fisheries. Something like 20 percent of the seafood that we eat is caught illegally or unsustainably in some way. There’s a moratorium in China for a month once a year to allow fisheries to recover. The day that moratorium is up is a bad day to be a fish. No one has ever been able to know what’s going on in the high seas, which is the global commons, owned by all of us, but owned by no one nation, and therefore not well protected.

With Oceana and Skytruth, we built a tool called Global Fishing Watch. It’s bringing in data on all these vessels. They’re beaming their position for maritime safety, but now it can be used to manage and understand how we can fish sustainably. Fisheries are collapsing, but it’s well known that if we can just conserve and fish a little more intelligently, the oceans could be abundant for generations to come.

We can see the tracks of individual vessels. We can determine using AI if they are trawling, long-lining pr just transiting.

Mapping Data Assisting Scientists

On this map, the green area is a new protected area that went into effect in the Kiribati Islands. You can see before and after. It looks good, right? The fishing cleared out. However, about a month later, you can see that one vessel was fishing illegally. The government of Kiribati impounded the vessel. It resulted in a $2.2 million fine, which is 1 percent of the country’s GDP.

This is critical for these small island nations. They don’t have the U.S. Navy. They have thousands of islands. How are they going to protect their waters? This is a way to virtually ensure that these protected areas are truly protected, they’re not just paper parks.

In Indonesia, seafood is incredibly important for their diet. The Minister of Fisheries has now adopted Global Fishing Watch for her government’s use. If she knows a boat is illegal, she will warn the crew, they get off the boat, and then she blows it up. You do what you’ve got to do.

So there’s also a very strong scientific aspect to our work. We’re making all this data that we’ve produced available openly for scientists, economists, and ecologists to study and understand what these patterns are and how they relate to slave trade, sustainable fishing, and so on.

Mapping Data Goes Solar

We have amazing 3D data in Google Earth and Google Maps. If you fly into the cityscape of San Francisco or New York, you see these beautiful 3D buildings. What if we could turn that into an understanding of the solar potential of every rooftop in the world? That’s what we’ve done with Project Sunroof. You can go there, enter your own address and see the solar potential for your house. We have very precise information of the potential for cities and countries to go solar.

We packaged that up into a tool that we launched called the Environmental Insights Explorer. San Jose took that data and has become the first city to commit to becoming a gigawatt solar city. They knew they could be that ambitious because we showed them they could generate 3.4 gigawatts. We’re giving them the data to increase their level of ambition.

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