Global Forest Watch, a mapping platform supported by Google, is using technology to keep a closer eye on the planet’s forests

he forestry website Mongabay recently reported that United Cacao, a London-listed company that promises to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, had “quietly cut down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest” in the Peruvian Amazon. The company claimed that the land had been previously cleared, but satellite images showed otherwise.

The satellite images came from an online platform called Global Forest Watch, which provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.

Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.

Before Global Forest Watch came along, actionable information about forest trends was scarce. “In most places, we knew very little about what was happening to forests,” said Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests program at WRI. “By the time you published a report, the basic data on forest cover and concessions was going to be years out of date.”

Several technology revolutions have changed that. Cheap storage of data, powerful cloud computing, internet connectivity in remote places and free access to US government satellite images have all made Global Forest Watch possible. None were widely available even a decade ago.

Governments and NGOs are both using Global Forest Watch, as are companies like Unilever, Asia Pulp, and Paper and Wilmar, all of which have made commitments to stop deforestation.

“Global Forest Watch revolutionizes the way we are able to monitor and engage with our suppliers,” says Alexandra Experton, who oversees Cargill’s supply chain sustainability from her base in Singapore. Cargill has set a goal of arriving at 100% sustainable palm oil in the next few years.

Glenn Hurowitz, the chair of Forest Heroes and a veteran forests campaigner, says Global Forest Watch is “our go-to source as we make efforts to police deforestation”, particularly when it is backed up by on-the-ground observations from local groups.

An ambitious undertaking, Global Forest Watch brought together a broad coalition of NGO, corporate and government partners. Working closely with WRI are more than 60 partners, including Google (which supported the software development and provides computing power), ESRI (a privately-held mapping company), the University of Maryland’s department of geographical sciences (home to mapping and land-use expert Matt Hansen), Brazil-based Imazon, the Center for Global Development (a Washington DC-based think tank), and the UN Environment Programme. The multimillion dollar program is funded by governments like Norway, the US and UK.

Google provides computing power, storage and software engineering, according to Rebecca Moore, the engineering manager for Google Earth Engine. Moore and other Google engineers, in a collaboration led by Maryland’s Matt Hansen, built the world’s first high-resolution map of global forests, which was published in the journal Science in 2013 and became part of Global Forest Watch.

Global Forest Watch updates its data and images frequently – daily in the case of fire alerts; every few weeks otherwise. Satellite images track tree cover loss or gain at a 30-metre resolution for the entire world, and to a finer resolution in key spots.

Since the launch, governments, companies, nonprofits and individuals have layered on additional, valuable information. The governments of Indonesia and some central African nations, for example, have made data about land ownership and regulations governing forest use available. (Here is a detailed profile of forestry in Indonesia.) The platform also allows users to upload and share information. For example, local NGOs have recently posted stories about threats to caribou habitat in Canada and forests being harvested for charcoal in Cambodia.

New features are frequently added to the platform. Software developers are building applications with a specialized focus, notably Global Forest Watch Commodities, which includes data about commodity production and processing locations. There are also annual and monthly tree cover loss alerts, and active forest and peatland fires.

“This allows you to analyze what’s happening at the end of a supply chain,” Sizer explains. “For now, it focuses on palm oil because that’s the highest priority of the industry.”

WRI and its partners also are working to deliver sharper, more timely images and instant alerts so those who want to protect forests can respond in a timely way to threats. “We’re going to be continually refining the freshness of the information, the accuracy, the resolution and the ease of getting into people’s hands,” Google’s Moore says.

Users are eager to see the platform evolve. Cargill hopes to support the addition of social indicators to complement the environmental data on the platform. Gemma Tillack, a forest campaigner with the Rainforest Action Network, which is now using Global Forest Watch to identify “bad actors” in Sumatra, says she’d like all the major palm oil companies to provide data on their landholdings and mills, and require the same from their suppliers.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine how the technology behind Global Forest Watch could help deal with other sustainability issues. Already, several NGOs working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are using satellite imagine and predictive analytics to assist park rangers who are trying to halt an unprecedented slaughter of elephants for ivory in Garamba National Park. Oceans could be monitored to track illegal fishing, or a map or database of the world’s factories could allow laborers to provide feedback on working conditions.

Information, as they say, is power. Perhaps this mapping project will help NGOs figure out how to wield more of that power in favor of the environment.

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Source: The Guardian

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