A planetary-scale platform for environmental data & analysis
July 1, 2015 1:02 AM   Subscribe

According to Wired, "Paired with AI and VR, Google Earth will change the world". But just after its tenth birthday, Google Earth is already changing the world even without AI or VR, simply by giving scientists tools to map the world's problems (NYT). Google Earth Engine has become an emerging tool in environmental monitoring, conservation, water resources, regional planning, epidemiology, forestry, agriculture, climate science, and many other fields:
In 2007, not long after taking the job at Google, Askay flew to Brazil, helping an indigenous tribe, the Surui, map deforestation in their area of the Amazon, and this gave rise to a wider project called Google Earth Engine. With Earth Engine, outside developers and companies [and scientists] can use Google’s enormous network of data centers to run sweeping calculations on the company’s satellite imagery and other environmental data, a digital catalog that dates back more than 40 years.
“So, if you want to look at 40 years of Landsat imagery and do change projection over time, you can,” Askay says. “You could do retrospective models of where deforestation took place and how fast, as well as predictive models and even near real-time detection. We’re getting to the point where we can start sending alerts saying that something that looks like deforestation has occurred in the last three days.”

As it stands, Earth Engine is only available to a limited number of outsiders, but Askay and Moore say Google plans to gradually open it up to a much larger audience. [Wired]
Earth Engine allows users to quickly access images captured from selected NASA Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites, such as Landsat or MODIS, then analyze those images using Google's servers. Landsat, an EOS mission which has been running since 1972, is an especially useful source of imagery. This satellite takes 30m resolution images of every place on Earth every 16 days, using bands at multiple wavelengths to bring out different environmental properties. The USGS has already begun work on Landsat 9, and continuing these EOS missions (many of which are supported by NASA) will be essential to continuing these environmental monitoring efforts.

While access to Google Earth Engine is currently still restricted, scientists can sign up to help beta test, pending approval from Google.

Here are just a few neat projects that people are doing with Google Earth Engine: And if you still haven't had enough remote sensing by now, try installing this Google Earth View, a Chrome extension which gives you a new aerial image with every new tab you open.
posted by dialetheia (12 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Wow! Just wow! Great post!
posted by CCBC at 2:50 AM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm just looking at the fires from space one.

I assume the north sea fires are all oil rig flares and the like, but what's with the south atlantic?
The entire ocean is blanketed with low temperature fire.

Also you can spot the main oil producing regions by the high temperature flares. It's quite distinctive.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:22 AM on July 1, 2015

I'm already seeing most very simple mapping tasks ("put a polygon around the property and highlight the areas of concern") being done in Google Earth rather than ArcMap, because it is so much faster and easier. If they open up access to the analytic side, I wonder what that will do to Esri.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:47 AM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I wonder what the license agreement says about ownership of algorithms and interactions with the service...
posted by jefflowrey at 4:52 AM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think this is very cool! It will be really interesting to see how this evolves in relation to the tools and services that Esri currently provides. These look like individual projects at the Google end, and so it will also be interesting to see how data integration might start to work across different projects.

I'd like to see the data and algorithms be public domain. A lot of researchers are increasingly required to provide this anyway if they are government funded. It has the potential to be a very broad platform indeed.
posted by carter at 5:53 AM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just to clear up the public domain aspect, the data that Google Earth Engine offers is all public domain already. I'm not sure which algorithms people are referring to specifically, but scientists are generally the ones writing their own algorithms in this case; you can use the Javascript Playground to write scripts for Google Earth Engine, then execute them on Google's distributed servers. Google provides some helper functions so that users don't need to be fluent in javascript, but these are all very transparent, simple tools, not unlike what you'd find in the ArcGIS toolbox. Here's the Earth Engine terms of service.
posted by dialetheia at 6:43 AM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm already seeing most very simple mapping tasks ("put a polygon around the property and highlight the areas of concern") being done in Google Earth rather than ArcMap

Same. I've also seen a huge uptick in the use of Mapbox's tools, which are easier to use than ArcMap and look a lot better than Google Earth (and are way, way friendlier w/r/t open source). It's nice that Google is doing this, though I'll like it a lot more when it's open outside of approved scientists.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 7:42 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yep, Mapbox is really pushing the envelope in the online mapping space.

Landsat-live basemap with constantly updating 30m imagery

Mapbox GL mapping library; now with perspective mode
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 8:03 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I signed up for Google Earth Engine recently, but I thought when I did they said it would be shutting down soon? http://www.zdnet.com/article/google-maps-engine-quietly-coming-to-a-halt-as-sign-up-window-shutters/
posted by jjwiseman at 8:58 AM on July 1, 2015

I love the idea of this, but working where I do (an public agency with fierce internet security controls) it's almost meaningless to me. I can barely use some of Google Maps' services now (the recent upgrade, combined with our restrictions on security certificates, means I can no longer get Lat/Long data from GMaps), and they discontinued Google Earth a couple of years ago.

So I'm stuck with an intentionally-hobbled version of ArcGIS, where I have to fumble my way through importing the data from various places and nothing works very well.

But yay for publicly-accessible environmental data! I'm glad someone will be able to use it.
posted by suelac at 9:37 AM on July 1, 2015

esri is on the way out unless they can really accelerate away from closed-systems. open data formats are supported, but as an afterthought. the whole sde technology is OBE - people like human-readability (wkt, kml...) and native spatial types without the bloated mediator that is sde. the arcobjects library is really something to behold. a remarkably engineered library with tight OOD and *lots* of hard-to-recreate-by-hand geospatial goodness. but the licensing...draconian.

their thought-pattern is broken, too. it's past time for them to stop 'make the web script kiddie come to COM and geoscience' and instead 'build the abstractions so they can be leveraged by a web script kiddie'.

some strides here, like with their javascript map client. too bad about putting all those eggs in the dojo basket, though.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:40 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I signed up for Google Earth Engine recently, but I thought when I did they said it would be shutting down soon?

That's Google Maps Engine, which is distinct from Earth Engine (although I agree, the terminology overlaps in a really confusing way!). Earth Engine will continue to be supported for the foreseeable future, and Google is sinking a lot of resources into its development, including directly funding researchers.
posted by dialetheia at 11:28 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

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