Google, Jane Goodall, forests and the cloud

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. [click to continue...]