There is something so surreal and elegant about observing the earth from space. This is one of the reasons why I find remote sensing so appealing; however, after spending a year just trying to learn the basics of remote sensing software and perfecting my land-cover classification skills, I realized that there’s an inherently steep learning curve associated with this technology. An amateur like myself can’t just expect to download images from NASA and magically make sense of the pixels. In fact, it’s really challenging and there’s a lot of bad remote sensing that goes on out there. This being said, I’ve been blown away with tools like Google Earth that have made satellite imagery more accessible to the Everyman (who hasn’t checked out an aerial view of their childhood home or dream vacation locale?).
Somehow, in my frenzy following the Chinese delegation at COP-15 in Copenhagen, I totally missed Google’s announcement of a platform called Earth Engine, a new computational tool that allows for “global-scale analysis of satellite imagery” but in an easy-to-use, free, and Google-fied way. Google.org plans to publicly launch the Earth Engine platform at COP-16 in Cancun, Mexico in November.
Exciting stuff, but what does this mean?
1) The demystification of remote sensing. Like Google Earth, Google is bringing remote sensing to the Everyman, making it an accessible technology that perhaps my mother could use (I don’t mean to pick on my immigrant Taiwanese mother, but I realized how obscure remote sensing can be when she asked me what I meant by it in a recent phone conversation). Not only that, but it will be free. I had to shell over $200 last semester for a student license to ENVI, one of the popular digital analysis software out there, and was not happy that it only lasts for a year. With Google’s Earth Engine, pricey software will no longer be a barrier of entry for those who are interested in exploring the potential of remote sensing.
2) Google will be moving remote sensing to the ‘cloud’ (cleverly, Google.org called this ‘seeing the forest through the cloud‘). What this means is that users can contribute their own processing algorithms, images, classification maps and share them if they like (although Google also promises data protection and privacy for those who choose). So you won’t have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to looking at deforestation patterns in the Amazon basin, if someone else already has. Or, more exciting, you could produce a classification map and without having to fly to a location to ground-truth your results, you could put your map into the ‘cloud’ and then ask for users in that place to verify!
In these terms, moving remote sensing to the cloud make sense, particularly when considering all the time that will be saved if Google can take care of all the pre-processing that is often involved with using raw satellite images. In an interview for V1 Magazine, Rebecca Moore, engineering manager of Earth Engine and Google Earth Outreach, said this:
“If a university student wants to try out a new algorithm, this platform should allow them to do that within seconds or minutes rather than laboriously gathering data, doing orthorectification and cloud correction and all these sorts of things. We’ll take care of the preprocessing of the data to get it to a standard form that is immediately ready for advanced analysis.”
3) Google Earth Engine will bridge the digital divide between developed and developing countries with regards to remote sensing. As Moore also mentions, to monitor many real-time changes in forests, it often requires “a lot of computation horse power and storage for the massive amounts of data” involved with satellite imagery. Many institutions, particularly those in developing countries, often do not have this capacity. With Google hosting this imagery and information through this platform in the cloud, these issues become less challenging. Developing countries, where much of the world’s remaining forests occur, would be able to monitor deforestation in near real-time with this tool without having to make huge investments in servers and computer processors.
4) Google is coming one step closer in bridging the gap between remote sensing and policy. A question that I keep running into through my research is why hasn’t satellite information and remote sensing been adopted more in national and international policy-making? Satellite imagery has been around for 30 years, but why is it not used to monitor progress or compliance in any international treaty? It’s no coincidence that Google has chosen COP-15 and COP-16 as its platform of choice to release the Earth Engine. In the context of international climate policy, remote sensing has surfaced as a way to ensure that countries’ actions and commitments toward climate change mitigation are measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV), particularly in terms of forest carbon stocks, as emissions from forest degradation and deforestation (REDD) were important topics in Copenhagen. Google’s Earth Engine is making remote sensing as an MRV tool that much more of a reality.