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Since 2008, Imazon, a Brazilian non-governmental organization, has used satellite imagery to monitor deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon. This method has had success in helping to combat illegal deforestation, an environmental problem with global ramifications. Now, with the help of crowdsourcing, Imazon may become even more effective in its war on illegal deforestation.
Over the last three years, Imazon has been working with Google to integrate the Google Earth Engine into its Deforestation Alert System (SAD, in Portuguese). The program allows researchers to detect and track illegal deforestation and degradation by collecting and analyzing data from satellite images – updated every day or two – provided by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. At Google’s “From the Ground to the Cloud” event at UN’s Rio+20, a conference on sustainable development, Imazon announced that starting next month, its monthly reports will be generated with help from Google’s Earth Engine.
Given the Amazon’s thick cloud cover, however, satellite data isn’t sufficient on its own; Imazon relies on the fieldwork of local organizations and communities to identify causes of forest degradation and to better understand the condition of the affected areas. This is where the crowdsourcing aspect comes in. By opening the software to NGOs in areas of the Amazon affected by deforestation, Imazon will not only have access to faster and more accurate data-gathering, but it will also be able to spend more time analyzing that data and ensuring that the public has access to the findings.
“It’s the collaboration of the satellite imagery and alerting with people on the ground using Google Android smartphones running software called open data kit,” said Google’s Rebecca Moore, an Engineering Manager at Google Earth Engine. “You push the button, and it submits it over the phone network into a database in the Google Cloud and onto a map.”
The new technology seems to be an effective way for local and regional organizations to collaborate and combat deforestation – and not just in the Amazon.
“Imazon and Google Earth Engine are really working on the technology side to make it possible for communities to really contribute to a landscape-, regional-, [and] national-scale type of monitoring effort,” said Kemen Austin of the US-based World Resources Institute.
While the potential environmental benefits are clear, it remains to be seen how effective the initiative can become. One reason for concern is the dangerous nature of the work – in the last 20 years, over 1,100 activists have been killed for their work in Brazil. Sadly, the death toll rates appear to be rising.