Google Earth is all about putting things in geographic context, aiding literacy and helping users in discovery. This capacity that started out with Keyhole technology has continuously evolved to include more data, and greater usability now with direct interface integration with Google Maps. From its early origins, the tool has also been applied to local activism and scientific discovery. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio recently interviewed Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager, Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine at Google about the origins of the outreach effort, and the ways that they are assisting scientists with tools as well as computing power.
S&S: What inspired you to go into computer science?
Moore: I was a math nerd as a kid. I loved the beauty of logic and problem-solving and proving math theorems. However, I realized, late in high school and early in college, that I did not want to spend my whole life in an ivory tower proving math theorems. I wanted to solve real-world problems. So, when I discovered computer science, it was really a perfect fit. It was just like heaven, you know—math plus engineering—so I was hooked and I never looked back.
S&S: When and how did you start working at Google? When and how did you start working on Google Earth?
Moore: Both of those happened at the same time. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a surprisingly rural area considering that we’re only 30 minutes away from Google. There are many land use issues here. I stumbled onto digital mapping technology and a friend turned me on to Keyhole—this was back in 2004, before Google had acquired Keyhole, which then became Google Earth—and I started applying Keyhole to making maps for my community. I organized the neighbors to create a community trail network. We created emergency response evacuation routes from the mountains—and some fun things, too. I became convinced that Keyhole was just groundbreaking, the way it put satellite imagery in your hands and it was a 3D terrain. When Google bought them, I thought this could really change the world because when it was Keyhole it was a professional product targeted to real estate developers and the military and it was $800 a seat. When Google bought them in October of 2004, I thought that if Google did the right thing with it, it could be an amazing, democratized tool for increasing geo literacy and putting Earth in everyone’s hands.
So, I started writing to Google and pointing out bugs in the software and debugging the bugs for them. They finally said, “Who are you, and what are you doing?” They invited me to come in and give a tech talk on how I was applying for my community what they were then deciding to call Google Earth. I compared it to Esri software and to open source in a map server and gave a technical discourse on features that could be added that I thought would make it really transformative. They said, “Do you want a job?” and I said, “Yes, I do!” So, I was hired directly to work on Google Earth. I was actually the first person Google hired to work on Google Earth after they acquired Keyhole. They’d just acquired Keyhole, they were still digesting the acquisition, but they decided to go ahead and hire me to join the team, and I was the technical lead for the Google Earth layers.
That was my first job at Google. I was responsible for developing the tools and the workflow and publishing the overlays of information, like roads and borders; essentially the geographic map atlas data, because they had focused on imagery, and the map data was really terrible. When I joined, they were missing entire countries, such as Turkey. A big, dramatic leap forward had to be made in terms of those layers. That was my so-called 80 percent job. As my 20 percent project—every Google engineer is allowed to also work on something that they’re passionate about, as long as it relates to their main job—during my first few weeks on the job at Google I was using Google Earth in my community to stop the logging of a thousand acres of redwood trees. Based on the success of that project—saving the forest using Google Earth—many environmental groups started writing to me and asking me to tell them what I did, to teach them how I did it, how I presented it to politicians, how I created that animated flyover up the canyon, even how I imported the data to get the project started in Google Earth.
So, that’s when I started Google Earth Outreach as my 20 percent project to be Google’s liaison to the environmental community to help foster the use of our mapping tools. Originally, this was for environmental protection. However, at the same time, Google Earth was being used in New Orleans to save the lives of more than 4,000 people when Hurricane Katrina hit. So, it was that combination of applying Google Earth for grass-roots environmental advocacy and for humanitarian disaster response that really awakened a lot of management eyes at Google to the potential power of Google Earth as a tool for public benefit, and they supported me in creating Google Outreach as a program.
S&S: What are some recent examples of using GE to help nonprofits, communities, and indigenous people?
Moore: My team works closely with non-profits by taking the Street View trekker into very remote parts of the planet that may be under threat and using Street View to tell the story. In February, we launched polar bears in Street View, working with Polar Bears International. We launched Colorado River Street View with American Rivers. Not only is that a beautiful way for any arm-chair explorer to virtually raft down the Colorado River, but there’s also material in there about how the Colorado River is actually America’s most endangered river. So, it’s a way of raising awareness. We just did a special Street View collect with an indigenous community in Asia that I can’t say any more about, but that’s going to be amazing when we publish it later this year.
We launched Tour Builder [tourbuilder.withgoogle.com], a very easy to use story-telling tool. One of the challenges that non-profits have shared with us is that they want to be able to create a narrative in Google Earth, where you go from place to place and have photographs and videos and materials about what’s going on in that place. The problem is that it is too hard to offer that content in Google Earth. You have to be essentially a developer who can create KML. So, Tour Builder is a Web tool that makes it really easy to create beautiful tours. For example, Amnesty International, within a week or so of our putting that out, created a tour of previously undocumented prison camps in North Korea and published it. The Jane Goodall Institute also created an amazing tour.
In February, working with the World Resources Institute, we launched Global Forest Watch, the world’s first near-real-time global deforestation alerting system. You could think of it as both an Earth Outreach and an Earth Engine initiative. On April third, we hosted a Google+ Hangout on air for Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday. She started a group called Roots and Shoots, which is for kids to work on helping their communities in the areas of animals, plants, and the environment. There are more than 8,000 groups in 136 countries and many of these kids do mapping projects to help their communities. They draw paper routes by hand. So, we worked with her institute to create a tutorial on participatory digital mapping. We launched that on April third along with a massive open online course (MOOC) to teach kids and teachers all around the world how to use Google Maps Engine Light to incorporate collaborative, free, and easy-to-use Google mapping tools to create maps. One example was a first grade class in Florida that wanted to educate the community about conflict between black bears and humans there. They created a campaign around such issues as not putting out your garbage cans the night before because you’ll attract the bears. They used Google Maps Engine Light to map photographs of bear cubs and trees on their property, places where you can go to take the right actions, the steps you could take, and so on. That’s all in the tutorial that we launched.
My group’s charter has expanded from Google Earth Outreach, which was focused on non-profits, to now geo education: we reach out to K-12 educators and give them resources to improve geographic literacy; Google Ocean, which is our work with marine space, mapping for maritime domain awareness and helping ocean-related non-profits; and, of course, there’s Google Earth Engine itself, as our global-scale environmental analysis platform. Raleigh Seamster leads our indigenous cultural mapping program and she did a workshop at the University of Arizona and just gave one at the 2014 Tribal Telecom and Technology Conference. It’s about trying to improve Internet access in Indian country—with the National Council of American Indians—and improve the delivery of services. These tribal governments are responsible for delivering health services, educational services, etc. and they need mapping technology and, in some cases, they’re not even well documented on Google Maps. So, we’re not just working in the Brazilian Amazon, we’re working right at home with U.S. Native American organizations.
S&S: What’s new with Google Outreach? What’s new with Earth Engine?
Moore: With Earth Outreach, we just announced a higher-education summit. We offer a boot camp for educators so that they can have curriculum and resources in order to teach GIS and remote sensing in a higher-education environment. That’s going to be in August at the GooglePlex. My team will be teaching that and we’ve opened up the application process [http://geoforhighered2014.earthoutreach.org/]. We did this for the first time last summer and the teachers loved it because Google Earth Engine and Maps Engine have been developing very quickly and are much easier to use than the professional GIS packages or open-source GIS packages that they teach today. For example, for remote sensing, we have the entire Landsat catalog and dozens of computers at your disposal to do analysis and a very easy database to write algorithms. We’re trying to do for remote sensing what Google Earth did for geographic literacy in the general population.
As for Earth Engine, last November we published a Global Forest change science paper with Matt Hansen and the University of Maryland. It was a huge effort over almost three years. First, we had to get Earth Engine to the point where we had all the Landsat data and we could do that kind of global-scale analysis on millions of Landsat scenes. Now that we have that, working with Matt Hansen, we produced the world’s first high-resolution global map of forest cover and change from 2012. We not only mapped but also measured the rates of deforestation happening in different countries and published that in Science. We found, for example, that while in Brazil deforestation over that period was generally declining, Indonesia had the greatest increase in forest loss. The numbers we reported were significantly larger than what the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry was reporting. That caused, let’s say, some dialog with the Indonesian government, and it’s been quite constructive and they’re now adjusting their numbers. So this global forest training product—we’ve committed with Matt Hansen to updating it annually—just brings a whole new level of transparency to the state of the world’s forests. It puts this data in the hands of everyone: governments, academics, the whole society. When we made the data available for download, more than 2,000 institutions downloaded it within just a few days. That tells us that there’s a real hunger for this kind of high-resolution global information about natural resources.
We built Time Lapse, a visualization of the changing surface of the planet from 1984 to 2012. So you see phenomena like Las Vegas growing while Lake Mead is shrinking, the deforestation of the Amazon, and the artificial palm islands sprouting off the coast of Dubai. You see meandering rivers. You see the Columbia Glacier retreating in Alaska. When we launched Time Lapse, we thought it was fascinating but we weren’t sure whether the public was going to be interested in it. More than four million people have visited it, and they spend an average of more than two minutes each exploring Earth in this Time-Lapse form. That tells us that people are hungry to have a better understanding of our changing planet. Time Lapse was nominated for a Webby. Webbys are like the Oscars or the Grammys or the Emmys, but for Web applications.
We did the Climate Data Initiative with the U.S. government. The Office of Science and Technology Policy contacted us based on the success of our work with global forest monitoring, because of President Obama’s focus on making climate data more available. They wanted to see whether we would make any commitments around climate data. We had already been working with leading scientists on evapotranspiration, drought monitoring, and modeling sea level rise. So, we announced a commitment at the White House of a petabyte of storage that we would donate to host DEM data to create the world’s first high-resolution, global DEM, which will be open and freely available for modeling sea level rise and storm surge, and then 50 million hours of CPU processing on Google Earth Engine. We put these tools in the hands of scientists to model climate-related risks, such as extreme heat and drought, sea level rise, and modeling water consumption by vegetation through evapotranspiration.
We’re also working with scientists on modeling global earthquake and flood risk and on using the Landsat catalog to map human settlements on the entire planet at 30-meter resolution, producing a freely available, high-resolution map of population. We’re doing bio-diversity mapping—the Map of Life project—and actually getting into emerging infectious disease because there are correlations between environmental conditions and disease vectors, such as where and when mosquitoes hatch. So, it’s really exciting that now that Earth Engine is a proven platform with all this Earth observation data that’s updating daily, we have more than 1,500 researchers building applications on Earth Engine. We’re seeing it applied to this whole array of public benefit use cases.
S&S: What will be the impact of the explosion in satellite data—from minisats, cubesats, etc.—on GE and EE?
Moore: It’s an exciting time, because the perfect satellite does not exist. The satellites that are currently operating have different strengths and weaknesses. So, Landsat, of course, is fantastic for its systematic coverage at 30-meter resolution and its range of spectral bands, including thermal, going back more than 40 years. However, 30-meter resolution is too coarse and the 16-day revisit rate is not frequent enough to capture certain phenomena. So, it’s really exciting to see SkyBox, PlanetLabs, all these innovations that will give us, if they work, much more frequent revisits and higher-resolution data. Having a 1-meter, daily picture of the planet—as compared to MODIS today being 250 meters or 500 meters—will be transformative.
Now, that’s a lot of data and these institutions are struggling with how they’re going to handle terabytes of data coming in every day. First, just simply storing it and then distributing it. Then, how do you manage post-processing of all that data? Well, that’s exactly what Earth Engine is designed for, right? It’s very scalable, we’re already getting daily feeds of Landsat, MODIS, various weather datasets, elevation datasets, and so we’re very well-positioned to be able to scale, to bring in these additional datasets.
S&S: How did Google begin working with the U.S. government on data.gov/climate? What is Google contributing?
Moore: We were approached by the office of John Holdren, President Obama’s senior adviser on science and technology, and the Council on Environmental Quality, which is part of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren directs. I think they’ve done an extraordinary job of motivating different organizations to step up and make commitments. We are hoping to be able to announce some of the first fruits of these efforts at the Understanding Risk Conference in London at the end of June. We’re making headway in building that global DEM and finding science partners who will build derivative products from that, such as modeling sea level rise, storm surges, earthquakes, droughts, and so on.
S&S: Is Google collaborating with the U.S. government on other similar projects?
Moore: We’ve collaborated with NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) since 2009 on getting the Landsat archive into Google Earth Engine. We could not have done that without their willingness to build a bulk download capability. Before we approached them, the only way you could get Landsat scenes would be to go in through their Web interface and place an order. That’s appropriate for up to a few hundred scenes, but if you wanted all of the archive, millions of scenes, that approach didn’t work. So, they created the bulk download capability that we’re using and other large-scale data providers are using as well. We collaborated with the U.S. government on the creation of that Global Forest Change map. That initiative was led by Matt Hansen at the University of Maryland, but it included Tom Loveland of USGS and Jeff Mathis of NASA. It was a model collaboration across academia, government, and private industry. I think we’re going to see more such projects.