article / 21 December 2015

Cheap Space, DIY Imaging and Big Data

John Amos, President of SkyTruth, explores how remote sensing is being used in conservation today and the importance of sky-truthing. He examines the role that citizen scientists can play in increasing transparency in the private sector as image resolution advances and the speed of data access accelerates.

We are entering a new age, one that is democratizing access to earth image data. In his talk at the 2015 Fuller Symposium, John Amos, President of Skytruth, outlined how satellite technology has progressed since its inception and what this means for conservation. In 1972 LANDSAT was launched, allowing for greater earth imaging capabilities. Today, we have satellites that provide up to 30 centimeters of detail, allowing for unprecedented spatial analysis.

Large datasets that are freely accessible can lead to greater discoveries and more informed decision making. Through freely accessible data and crowdsourcing analysis, the public is able to make a greater contribution. In one case, one man from Japan went through 5,000 image tasks in 2.5 weeks to support detection of the spread of infrastructure for natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Advances in satellite imagery have allowed for better scientific understanding and response to problems such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other environmental threats. By crowdsourcing analysis of satellite imagery, the amount of oil being released into the Gulf of Mexico was discovered to be 60,000 barrels per day, compared to the 1,000 barrels initially estimated by British Petroleum. Policy interventions have also been supported through the use of satellite imagery. Data collected by Skytruth on mountaintop removal in West Virginia, for example, has led to the development of six scientific studies and caused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revoke a mining permit, the first in U.S. history. 

Google and World Resources Institute are now working together to create datasets for monitoring deforestation. Their system has the capacity to relay quarterly e-mail alerts if there are deforestation events in areas of interest, via a platform called Global Forest Watch. Global Forest Watch showcases forest cover losses and gains, and also enables users to upload their own datasets. In the marine space, WWF is developing a program to create voluntary fishing vessel tracking. Skybox Imaging now enables users to download high definition video imagery from space. Humans alone cannot save the planet, but imaging technology can help us to accomplish this task.

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