Open Science for a Changing Planet

Rebecca Moore

Rebecca Moore is being honored as a Champion of Change for the vision she has demonstrated and for her commitment to open science.

In 2008, I was asked by indigenous Amazon Indians in Brazil to come and teach them how to use Google Earth to defend their land from threats like illegal logging.  While I was there a leading geoscientist approached me.  He said that while Google Earth and Maps were great tools for visualizing satellite imagery and map data, they were not optimal for conducting scientific analysis of that data such as mapping trends and monitoring change in places like the Brazilian Amazon. He wondered, would Google consider building such a technology to address the need for monitoring change?

I soon learned that more than a million acres of Brazilian Amazon were disappearing every year, often due to illegal logging in remote parts of the rainforest where law enforcement on the ground was spread thin. From a climate perspective, deforestation is said to account for between 14 and 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. This accounts for more than all the transportation in the world put together (including cars, planes, trucks, ships, etc).

To tackle this problem, freely-available daily satellite imagery could be used as the foundation of an automated alerting system powered by scientific algorithms. However the scale of the data and subsequent data processing required were daunting. To monitor change in the Amazon requires many terabytes of satellite imagery, and the data analysis can take weeks or months to run on a single computer. By then, once deforestation is discovered, it is often too late.

I brought this challenge back to Google headquarters, and we built a new technology platform that we call Google Earth Engine. This analytical engine works for all the world’s satellite and environmental data, both historical and daily-updating. It also has an easy-to-use software framework for scientists to run their algorithms on thousands of computers in parallel in Google’s data centers. With a team of some of the best software engineers at Google, we developed collaborations with government agencies such as NASA, USGS and NOAA to bring their treasure trove of decades of planetary data out of tape vaults (like this.) We put it online, into Google Earth Engine, and made it ready for analysis.

We launched Earth Engine in 2010, and I’m happy to say that now more than a thousand scientists all over the world (e.g., in the United States, Brazil and Australia) are using it for everything from monitoring deforestation to forecasting drought. They are estimating agricultural crop yield and predicting where chimpanzees are likely to build their nests.

In collaboration with scientist Matthew Hansen and CONAFOR, Mexico’s National Forestry Commission, we produced the highest resolution forest and water map of Mexico ever created. The map required 15,000 hours of computation, but was completed in less than a day on Google Earth Engine. We used 1,000 computers and over 53,000 Landsat images.  On a single computer it would have taken almost three years.

We also recently used Google Earth Engine to create a stunning historical perspective on the changes to the Earth’s surface over time. We compiled more than a quarter-century of Landsat images of Earth (millions of images and trillions of pixels) into an interactive time-lapse experience – perhaps the most comprehensive picture of our changing planet ever made available to the public.  Now, anyone can view stunning phenomena such as the sprouting of Dubai’s artificial Palm Islands, the retreat of Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon and urban growth in Las Vegas from 1984 to 2012.

As we continue to develop the platform, we hope more scientists will use the new Earth Engine API to integrate their applications online—for disease mitigation, disaster response, and other beneficial uses. If you’re interested in partnering with us, we want to hear from you—visit our website!  We look forward to seeing what’s possible when scientists, governments, NGO’s, universities, and others gain access to open data and computing resources to collaborate online.  Together we can advance science, inform policy, democratize access to satellite data, and help protect the earth’s environment.

Rebecca Moore is an Engineering Manager at Google.

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