Google’s New Earth Engine for Satellite Imagery Analysis: Applications to Humanitarian Crises

So that’s what they’ve been up to. Google is developing a new computational platform for global-scale analysis of satellite imagery to monitor deforestation. But this is just “the first of many Earth Engine applications that will help scientists, policymakers, and the general public to better monitor and understand the Earth’s ecosystems.”

How about the Earth’s social systems? Humanitarian crises? Armed conflicts? This has been one of the main drivers of the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) which I co-direct at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) with Dr. Jennifer Leaning. Indeed, we had a meeting with the Google Earth team earlier this year to discuss the development of a computational platform to analyze satellite imagery of humanitarian crises for the purposes of early detection and early response.

In particular, we were interested in determining whether certain spatial patterns could be identified and if so whether we could develop a taxonomy of different spatial patterns of humanitarian crises; something like a library of “crisis finger prints.” As we noted to Google in writing following the conversations,

It is our view that the work of interpretation will be powerfully enhanced by the development of valid patterns relating to issues of importance in specific sets of circumstances that can be reproducibly recognized in satellite imagery. To be sure, the geo-spatial analysis of humanitarian crisis can serve as an important control mechanism for Google’s efforts in extending the functionality of Google Earth and Google’s analytical expertise.

This is something that a consortium of organizations including HHI can get engaged in. Population movement and settlement, shelter options and conditions, environmental threats, access to food and water, are discernible from various elements and resolution levels of satellite imagery.  But much more could be apprehended from these images were patterns assembled and then tested against other information sources and empirical field assessments. For an excellent presentation on this, see my colleague Jennifer Leaning’s excellent Keynote address at ICCM 2009:

The military uses of satellite imagery are far more developed than the humanitarian capacities because the interpretive link between what can be seen in the image and what is actually happening on the ground has been made, in great iterative detail, over a period of many years, encompassing a wide span of geographies and technological deployments. We need to develop a process to explore and validate what can be understood from satellite imagery about key humanitarian concerns by augmenting standard satellite analytics with time-specific and informed assessments of what was concurrently taking place in the location being photographed.

The potential for such applications has just begun to surface in humanitarian circles.  The Darfur Google initiative has demonstrated the force of vivid images of destruction tethered to actual locations of villages across the span of Darfur.  Little further detail is available from the actual images, however, and much of the associated information depicted by clicking on the image is static derived from other sources, somewhat laboriously acquired.  The full power of what might be gleaned simply from the satellite image remains to be explored.

Because systematic and empirical analysis of what a series of satellite images might reveal about humanitarian issues has not yet been undertaken, any effort to draw inferences from current images does not lead far.  The recent coverage of the war in Sri Lanka included satellite photos of the same contested terrain in the northeast, for two time frames, a month apart.  The attempt to determine what had transpired in that interim, relating to population movement, shelter de-construction and reconstruction, and land bombardment, was a matter of conjecture.

Bridging this gap from image to insight will not only be a matter of technological enhancement of satellite imaging. It will require interrogating the satellite images through the filter of questions and concerns that are relevant to humanitarian action and then infusing other kinds of information, gathered through a range of methods, to create visual metrics for understanding what the images project.

There is a lot of exciting work to be done in this space and I do hope that Google will seek to partner with humanitarian organizations and applied research institutes to develop an Earth Engine for Humanitarian Crises. While the technological and analytical breakthroughs are path breaking, let us remember that they can be even more breathtaking by applying them to save lives in humanitarian crises.

Patrick Philippe Meier

One response to “Google’s New Earth Engine for Satellite Imagery Analysis: Applications to Humanitarian Crises

  1. Pingback: links. | Siena Anstis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s