If you had X, you could solve Y: Leveraging digital tools for sustainability science

Apr 2019

Noel Gorelick, Google's Chief Extraterrestrial Observer, presents Google Earth Engine, a platform to monitor and map the environment at a planetary scale.

By Andréa Ventimiglia and Patrick Lacombe.
Video by Paula Monroy.

Noel Gorelick, Google's Chief Extraterrestrial Observer, presents Google Earth Engine, a platform to monitor and map the environment at a planetary scale. 

Future Earth recently hosted Google's Chief Extraterrestrial Observer (yes, that’s his official title) for the first in a series of dialogues exploring how digital innovations can create solutions for sustainability. Noel Gorelick presented Google Earth Engine, a data analysis and visualization platform to measure, monitor and map the environment at a planetary scale.

Armed with the hypothesis, “if I had X, I could solve Y”, and with Google’s massive computing infrastructure – literally petabytes (that’s a quadrillion bytes) of satellite and remote sensing data – Noel gave some fascinating real-life examples of how Earth Engine can be used to solve large-scale societal problems.

One group used Earth Engine to monitor daily global evapotranspiration to build a drought detection tool and, by extension, a famine early-warning system. Another collected high-resolution Digital Elevation Models (DEM) to build a real-time flood alert system. The model maps river dynamics to pinpoint (down to the neighbourhood!) where flooding will occur and sends flood alerts to people within the predicted affected area. To eradicate malaria, a platform called  DiSARM is currently being used in four countries in southern Africa. Earth Engine maps variables conducive to mosquito breeding (e.g., elevation, precipitation, population density) and overlays that with malaria breakout sites, plus locations where mosquito nets have already been deployed, to create highly detailed risk maps. These enable targeted mitigation efforts, such that pesticide can be sprayed in a small-range, high-risk radius instead of blanket spraying, or where mosquito nets can be deployed to specific villages.

Watch the full recording of Noel’s talk.

The talk was followed by audience questions and an animated discussion on the democratization of data. The power of digital tools enable everyday citizens to access and share data, and this is now changing how we do science and for whom we do it. Digital innovations, like Earth Engine, provide a platform where scientists can work across disciplines and bring data forward to the public sphere, helping to bridge the gap between research and action with effective and efficient solutions. This also reshuffles power dynamics embedded within the science-policy interface by enabling the two-way flow of information where power, control, and influence play out. Scientists can access a platform which allows them to solve for their ‘y’, policy-makers now have a tool to spread information across civil society, and communities can access useful real-time data previously inaccessible to make informed decisions when faced with environmental disturbances and livelihood risks.

At Future Earth, we are currently building two initiatives that leverage digital innovations for sustainability science. Our Sustainability in the Digital Age program explores opportunities to disrupt the systems sustaining our unsustainability, while our Earth Targets program will develop science-based targets on local, regional, and global scales to support achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Both initiatives seek to capitalize on the speed and transformative power of digital concepts and technologies to scale-up solutions for global sustainability.  Moreover, recognizing that data now flows via networks and “non-experts”, we are designing these programs collaboratively with businesses, governments, scientists, and citizen representatives who all have valuable information to share.

During his talk, Noel said that his end-goal is to enable scientists to turn their research into phone apps, for example, to take drought or watershed modelling data and turn it into a mobile, personalized alert for individuals on the ground. The ultimate purpose of digital innovation within sustainability science is to enable positive action within a rapidly evolving Anthropocene. Providing accessible, free data is just one example of how digital technologies are creating a new solutions space for global sustainability.

Future Earth will be hosting a training for Google Earth Engine in May.
Sign-up here to participate in future trainings.