Seeing both the forests and the trees is about to get easier, thanks to a new open-access tool developed by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) — with support from the Google Earth Engine Team and the U.S. government's SilvaCarbon Program — that allows anyone to track land use and landscape changes anywhere.
According to the announcement from FAO, Collect Earth Online (CEO) amplifies the power of FAO's Open Foris Collect Earth tool, which for the past few years has enabled the collection of data on land use, deforestation and for other purposes with the help of satellite imagery. CEO will become a central technology supporting FAO's global Remote Sensing Survey. The new platform is web based, free of charge, open to all, requires no downloads or installation and allows users to systematically inspect any location on the Earth with satellite data, FAO said.
The next-generation tool makes it easier to conduct surveys, collect samples and use crowd-sourcing techniques. CEO can be accessed by simply clicking on a link and registering on the platform, FAO said.
"This innovation allows collection of up-to-date data about our environment and its changes in a more efficient and participatory manner using the local experts that know the landscape and the underlying ecology. Thus, it helps us to obtain and upscale practical inputs at a time when environmental challenges are taking on urgent and unprecedented importance," said Mette Wilkie, FAO Forestry Division chief, policy and resources.
"The CEO platform is a satellite imagery-based crowd-sourcing platform that changes how we collect data about the Earth," said Dan Irwin, SERVIR global program manager at NASA. "It leverages four decades of satellite data and can help countries around the world better map and monitor their forests."
CEO is now available through FAO's Open Foris, a collection of tools and platforms that break existing technology barriers. CEO uses innovative forest and land monitoring tools and technologies and allows reference data for forest and other landscape assessments to be produced quickly. CEO will be integrated into the System for Earth Observation Data Access, Processing & Analysis for Land Monitoring (SEPAL) -- FAO's powerful cloud-based platform -- early in 2019, making it easier to link reference data directly to processing chains for generating accurate and transparent maps, data and statistics.
SERVIR is a program jointly run by NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that co-develops state-of-the-art geospatial services to help improve environmental decision-making among developing nations in more than 45 countries, with regional hubs in Kenya, Niger, Nepal and Thailand -- where much of the initial work of CEO was done -- and with a new hub coming soon in South America. The U.S. government's SilvaCarbon Program also provided funding support and technical expertise in the development of CEO and is currently developing training materials.
More accessible and easier to use
CEO, which provides access to high-resolution satellite imagery from multiple sources as well as historical imagery and mosaics from NASA's Landsat network and the European Union's Sentinel system, can be used by anyone as a stand-alone application.
According to FAO, monitoring the world's forests has become an increasingly challenging and rewarding task, as their importance for timber and fuel is now enriched by an awareness of their role in carbon storage, pest control and agriculture.
Both FAO and NASA expect that further innovative uses — in disaster management and glacier monitoring, for example — will emerge as more people use the tool. Its open-source and cloud-based nature not only broadens access but is a buffer against data loss, which is a significant value when digital and computing resources are limited. That opens promising prospects for ventures ranging from trying to protect natural wildlife habitat to broader projects measuring links between biomass and poverty.