May 01, 2016

Google and FAO aim to usher in new era of environmental literacy for all

Geospatial forestry information is a first step in almost real-time natural resources management revolution

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15 April 2016, Rome—FAO and Google are working together to make high-resolution satellite data an everyday tool in managing the world’s natural resources in a joint effort that is changing the way the world goes about pursuing sustainable development.

Director-General José Graziano da Silva and Rebecca Moore, Director at Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine, hailed the intensification of the recently-established partnership at a joint event after a busy week of training and brainstorming at FAO’s headquarters in Rome.

The collaboration already allows resource managers and researchers in many countries to gauge changing land uses of individual field-sized plots seen by eye-in-the-sky satellites. The method offers a quantum leap towards improved abilities to assess a landscape’s carbon storage capacity or plan a nation’s approach to greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, easily accessible and rapidly-updated remote sensing data enable a shift in forest management from inventory reports to taking the almost real-time pulse of forests, thus opening a host of new policy prospects and further opening the doors of scientific perception.

FAO and Google are “ushering in an unprecedented level of environmental literacy,” said Graziano da Silva.

The initial focus is the forestry sector, where national experts can, after a short training, use FAO software and Google’s accessible geospatial data archives to conduct – in a few hours – mapping and classification exercises that used to take weeks or months. Opportunities for future collaboration are vast, and may lead to innovation in a range of issues from dietary nutrition and pest control to water management and climate change.

“The more people involved, the better it works,” said Graziano da Silva. “Understanding the effects of climate change, planning the improvements in the efficiency of production and distribution of food, and monitoring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals require more frequent and precise data on the environment and its changes,” he added.

“Partnerships like this bring our products into actual use,” said Google’s Moore, who described her team as “built to do science.” The partnership with FAO is a way “we can each bring our unique strengths to make a change for future generations”, she said.

Taking technology to new frontiers

The combination – in which Google makes data and processing power easily accessible while FAO devises ways to extract useful information – has already moved into innovative territory, notably with a Global Dryland Assessment, in which national experts, university researchers, partner institutions and FAO combined forces in an open-sourced exercise. Results will be published later this year.

FAO’s Locust Control Unit has used Earth Engine to improve forecasts and control of desert locust outbreaks. Satellites cannot detect the dreaded insects themselves but can accelerate identification of potential breeding areas and make ground interventions more effective. Other prospective applications for the technology may reduce crop losses yields and enhance plant health. Forest cover monitoring has proven useful in Costa Rica, as trees provide habitat for birds that predate on the coffee berry borer beetle, which can ravage up to 75 percent of a coffee farmer’s crop.

Further innovative uses will emerge as more people learn how to use FAO’s Open Foris and CollectEarth tools. In late May, a team from NASA, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, will be visiting Rome to study how to use these tools.

Google has put a huge archive of Landsat satellite images dating back to 1972 on the cloud, and recently added data delivered from Copernicus, the European system for monitoring the Earth, which are particularly useful for fast-moving real-time studies as they will cover the same plot of land every five days.

Besides the land-use focus, Google is making a parallel effort to allow data from remote sensors to track global water trends, including availability and reserves.

Seeing both the forest and the trees

Satellite imagery cannot replace the local knowledge and expertise – often dubbed “ground truth” – but it can boost the efficiency, quality, transparency, credibility, and above all the timeliness and efficacy of data collection and the validation of existing global mapping products.

For example, by zooming in to highly-granular local plots, researchers and officials may distinguish between temporary loss of tree cover due to harvesting and deforestation driven by land use change, an important technical difference in terms of carbon sequestration. By the same token, citizens may be able to make more efficient use of their natural resources and even police their misuse.

“We will be able to provide, every 10 days, forest assessments and in the near future food crop cover assessments, which are especially important in times of climate change,” said René Castro, FAO’s Assistant Director General for Forestry.

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