Not long ago, the only people who could access and analyze satellite images of the earth were government officials, the military, well-equipped scientists and oil, gas and mining companies.

Today, anyone with a computer and Internet connection can access to Google Earth. Since its introduction in 2005, Google Earth has become a powerful tool for scientists, activists and ordinary citizens who want to better understand, monitor and communicate about the environment.

It’s not just westerners either: Tanzanian villagers are working with the Jane Goodall Institute to monitor deforestation and identify chimpanzee habitats and elephant paths. Indigenous tribes in Brazil can map their lands and track illegal logging and mining. All they need are mobile phones equipped with cameras and GPS technology.

What’s more, the technology is getting better all the time. Last week in Copenhagen during the UN climate negotiations, Google Earth announced that it has worked with experts in remote sensing to build a new platform that incorporates satellite images, massive data and online computing power, making it easier, faster and cheaper to analyze forest ecosystems. (See this and this at the google.org blog.) It’s currently being tested by a handful of organizations, but will be rolled out more widely before long. The red spots on map below, for example, show new deforestation in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

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On my way home from Copenhagen, I learned about these new developments from Lilian Pintea, who is the director of conservation science at the Jane Goodall Institute, which is best known for its pioneering research on chimpanzee behavior. We met when we missed a connection in Geneva, so we arranged to have dinner during the layover.

Lilian Pintea of the Jane Goodall Institute

Lilian Pintea of the Jane Goodall Institute

You could say that Lilian, who is 38, has already lived through two democratic revolutions. A native of Moldova, he was studying ecology in Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He subsequently came to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar and earned a PhD in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota. As a specialist in geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing, he has watched technology that was once reserved for elites in the developed world spread to the rest of the world, including remote villages in the global south.

“As a biologist, I was always frustrated that I was in the middle of a lake or forest and I would collect my data, and I didn’t know what was happening a few kilometers away,” Pintea says. Now, satellite images reveal landscape patterns that simply aren’t visible from the ground—evidence of illegal logging or gradients in deforestation. “You can then look for political, social economic and ecological factors that explain the pattern,” Pintea says.

Lilian, who lives in Maryland and works the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, travels frequently to Tanzania and Uganda.

“One problem which we often face in our project areas is the lack of capacity,” he told me. “Every trip to Africa, I do training… We want to empower local communities and governments  to take charge and manage their lands.”

In places were traditional land tenure systems are breaking down, the technology had help settle boundary disputes. “Sometimes people don’t agree on where their village begins and ends,” he said. Not surprisingly, geospatial technologies are also used to better understand the relationship between chimpanzees and their habitats.

If all goes well, the Google mapping tools announced in Copenhagen will enable communities to generate accurate and timely information about their forests. That’s crucial to a financing mechanism known as REDD  (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which is designed to prevent deforestation. Regular readers of this blog know that emissions from tropical deforestation account for about 17% of global warming pollutants, more than all of the world’s cars, trucks, trains, boats and planes.

The government of Norway, a major backer of REDD, has given the Goodall Institute a $2.7 million grant to equip and train villagers in western Tanzania and their institutions to prepare for REDD. Google programmers including Rebecca Moore, an evangelist for Google Earth Outreach, visited the region last fall to train Goodall Institute staff, village forest monitors, local government officials, university staff and others to gather data, take pictures and upload their findings to “the cloud”–meaning the Internet, where powerful software and data are stored.

“It’s still a work in progress but we are already doing it,” Lilian told me. “They’re mapping the forests and monitoring the threats.”

The number of scientists, NGOs and companies working on GIS and forestry issues is impressive: Students and professors at the University of Washington have created free software called ODK (Open Data Kit) that makes it easy to collect survey data and upload it from Android phones. Digital Globe, an imagery and information firm based in Longmont, Colorado, gathers more detailed satellite images than those available on Google. ESRI, a software firm based in Redlands, Ca., is the world leader in GIS, proving tools to build geospatial infrastructure. For its part, Google collaborated with Greg Asner of Carnegie Institution for Science, and Carlos Souza of Imazon to build its newest platform, and it got support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

In my job, I hear a lot of blah-blah-blah about the importance of public-private partnerships. Usually that means a nonprofit wants a business to write a check.

Here you have businesses, NGOs and communities combining their brainpower, passion and knowledge to do vital work. That’s exciting.


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