Google's New Mapping Tool Fights Deforestation
February 21, 2014

Google Backs Global Forest Watch To Provide Unprecedented Monitoring Of Forests Worldwide

[ Watch the Video: Google Joins The Fight Against Deforestation ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Google and several environmental organizations unveiled a new online forest monitoring system on Thursday that will help governments and corporations track deforestation in nearly real-time.

The online forest monitoring system, dubbed Global Forest Watch, will show tree loss around the world in high resolution and with frequent updates, making it possible to quickly view the condition of tropical forests that were previously under no surveillance. The data will be available for free, in hopes of pressuring policymakers and corporations to stop deforestation.

Google collaborated with more than 40 partners in developing the new mapping tool, including the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the United Nations Environment Programme, and said it hopes the software will hasten enforcement of one of the major culprits behind climate change.

Washington-based WRI provided public access to the new tool on Thursday during an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

“Businesses, governments and communities desperately want better information about forests. Now, they have it,” said WRI President and CEO Dr. Andrew Steer.

“Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”

The Earth lost roughly 900,000 square miles of forest from 2000 to 2012, according to data by Google and the University of Maryland.

"The problem to date hasn't been the lack of goodwill, or even the lack of nice forest regulations and laws written down. It has been, among other things, the lack of ability to really know what's going on," Steer told the AFP news agency.

"When the president of Indonesia passed good laws on forests, it was very difficult for him to know what was actually going on in real-time," he said.

The new database will allow anyone to look online and verify the boundaries of protected forests. This includes, for instance, buyers of palm oil who want to avoid illicit production, he noted.

To create the new database, Google uploaded millions of satellite images gathered over more than four decades by the US Geological Survey.

Rebecca Moore, an engineering manager at Google, told AFP that the company had studied deforestation and concluded that the biggest challenge was "to manage the enormous scale of the data" to a useful level of detail.

The company utilized its big-data analytics capabilities and Google Cloud technology to bring "turbo-powered science" to the problem, she said.

Environmental activists said they are counting on the new online tool to help them enforce corporate pledges regarding deforestation.

“When there’s a lack of information or when a supply chain is opaque, then it’s really easy for companies just to throw their hands up and say ‘we don’t know what’s going on and therefore how can you expect us to fix anything,’” said Rolf Skar, the forest campaign director at Greenpeace, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

“It’s increasingly rare for us to come across consumer-facing companies that have their heads in the sand entirely, but the few that still do have a wake-up call coming to them one way or another.”

WRI said it expects the software will help add to pressure on commodities suppliers in countries where forests are at risk.

Switzerland-based Nestle, which participated in the initiative, said the website could facilitate better oversight of suppliers of raw materials such as meat, soy and palm oil.

Indeed, Global Forest Watch will embed vital information in the images it displays, making it possible to check, for instance, which palm oil company is operating in a specific area of Indonesia which has experienced recent forest destruction.

That could lead to a buyer canceling purchases from a supplier, Sizer said.

"It is going to help us dramatically to refine our work on the ground, in places where we think there might be issues with our supply chain," said Duncan Pollard, associate vice president for sustainability at Nestle, in an interview with Reuters.

Indeed, Global Forest Watch will embed key information in the images it displays, such as which palm oil company is operating in a specific area of Indonesia where images suggest recent forest destruction. This might lead to a buyer canceling purchases from a supplier, said Nigel Sizer, director of WRI's Global Forest Initiative.

Some of the Global Forest Watch (GFW) features unveiled at Thursday’s launch event include:

• High-resolution display – annual tree cover loss and gain data for the entire globe at a resolution of 30 meters, available for analysis and download.

• Near-real time monitoring – monthly tree cover loss data for the humid tropics at a resolution of 500 meters.

• Speed – cloud computing, provided by Google, multiplying the speed at which data can be analyzed.

• The crowd – GFW unites high-resolution information from satellites with the power of crowdsourcing.

• Free and easy to use – GFW is free to all and no technical expertise is needed.

• Alerts – when forest loss alerts are detected, a network of partners and citizens around the world can mobilize to take action.

• Analytical Tools – layers showing boundaries of protected areas worldwide; logging, mining, palm oil and other concessions; daily forest fire alerts from NASA; agricultural commodities; and intact forest landscapes and biodiversity hotspots.

Google said it has donated its services to Global Forest Watch at no cost, while major funding for the initiative comes from the Norwegian Climate and Forests Initiative, the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development and private environmental groups.