Apps, Satellites and Sensors To Catch Polluters

The American nongovernmental organization Conservation International has installed 1,000 cameras with motion sensors in 17 rainforests around the world.

These flora and fauna spies attached to trees have already taken 2 million snapshots since their installment. “We can only monitor global threats if we have studies running at the global scale,” explains Jorge Ahumada, executive director of the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring Network.*

From these images, the experts draw precious information on the evolution of animals and vegetation species, which they cross-check with data from their weather stations — precipitation, humidity, temperature — requiring a lot, sometimes several months, of work.

But since 2013, the processing time has been reduced to just a few hours. By what miracle? The same technology that has for years allowed brands to bring you personalized ads on the Internet or your banker to detect fraud. In two words: big data.

Indeed, in December 2014, Conservation International formed a partnership with the computing company Hewlett-Packard Co., which gives them access to Vertica, HP’s big data analysis platform, allowing them to process three terabytes of biodiversity data each year.

Like Conservation International, more and more nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are resorting to big data to support their battles. Elise Rebut, senior manager at Conservation International, based in Brussels, explains: “Often, we lack data to show the people we talk with — governments, international institutions, foundations — how well-founded our worries are. Today, we have the tools to put precise numbers on our fears.”

Thus the American NGO put all of the data from its TEAM program online on the data visualization site, HP Earth insights, so that the public and governments can get a hold of it. The NGOs have access to a new tool for raising people’s awareness.

Satellite Images for Watching Over Earth

Deluge of Images

Perched a few hundred miles above our heads, metal boxes full of technology watch over the planet. “The satellites play a major role in the protection of the environment,” assures Jean-Pierre Gleyzes, assistant manager of information system management at CNES, the agency that is piloting the French space program. “We have been scrutinizing earth for 30 years, which allows us to precisely measure phenomena like ice melting, deserts progressing or water rising.” The means available to countries and their partners are improving. Last year, for example, the European Union, by the way of its space agency, the European Space Agency, started deploying a flotilla of seven satellites called “Sentinel,” meant to watch over soils, oceans or even the atmosphere’s composition. It is, for example, thanks to them that the European Maritime Safety Agency identifies, in less than an hour, ships guilty of illegal oil dumping. The numbers from these Sentinels make you dizzy: “From now until the end of 2016, they will have transmitted seven petabytes of data, or seven times all the data collected by the CNES in the last 30 years,” says Gleyzes. In addition, these data will be accessible to everyone, “which will allow any scientist or start-up with an innovative idea to use them,” he specifies.

In the United States, the small NGO SkyTruth has gone on a crusade against affronts to the environment. Its weapon? Satellites — Landstat, MODIS, Suomi NPP, COSMO-SkyMed, in particular — from which it decrypts images and data to expose to everyone what used to be difficult to show: the damage to the landscape caused by mining and oil drilling or illegal fishing. Its founder, John Amos, assured a Washington Post journalist in 2013: “You can track anything in the world from anywhere in the world.”

The former geologist creates mini-documentaries from his observations that are evidence against manufacturers, mixing satellite images and infographics, which are having great success on the Internet.

Big data can also be a precious tool to fight against environmental crime. In India, time is ticking for the tiger — there are barely more than 2,000 of them — because of poaching, as their bones are valued by certain traditional Chinese medicines. Hunters, knowledgeable about the terrain and the feline’s habits, have long been several steps ahead of the tiger’s defenders.

But the sheriff has a new weapon: computers. Like banks and insurance companies, NGOs are moving toward predictive analysis. Supported by the Snow Leopard Trust and the Indian nonprofit organization Nature Conservation Foundation, the enviro-geek Koustubh Sharma has devised a sophisticated algorithm to anticipate the wrongdoing of poachers.

Analysis of the 25,000 pieces of information collected in the last four decades, from the natural habitat of tigers to the poachers’ transportation and commerce habits, has shed light on 73 sensitive zones where the means of prevention should be concentrated. Another step toward the protection of the animal.

In Indonesia, it’s illegal deforestation by palm oil producers that the World Wildlife Fund chose to attack. For that, the organization created a series of interactive maps cataloging the flora, fauna and carbon reserves on the island of Sumatra, where the level of deforestation is one of the highest in the world. They are broadcast on the “Eyes on the Forest” website.

Help from Companies and Individuals

But big data isn’t free. “To take advantage of it, serious financial means and human capital are necessary,” recognizes Ahumada of Conservation International. The services of statisticians and data scientists who give meaning to the data are necessary. That makes it often inaccessible to nonprofit organizations.

As a result, they result to ploys. Sometimes, they ally themselves with private partners, like Conservation International did with Hewlett-Packard, or WWF did, benefiting from the support of Google to launch its project “Eyes on the Forest.” A public Google Earth actions grant allowed them to hire the developer who created the site, and the Google Maps engine itself provided a platform to save the cost of a server.

NGOs can also count on individuals to innovate in the ways they use big data. Thus, at the last South by Southwest festival, the WWF organized a hackathon, bringing together environmentalists, developers and designers. In uniting their gray matter, they created a mobile app in 24 hours dedicated to the preservation of Monarch butterflies, which are very endangered.

To follow the evolution of the Monarch butterfly population, the Monarchy app is fed by its users’ data, and scans social networks to find photos of orange and black butterflies, which reveal their geolocation. Pierre Cannet, head of the Climate and Energy program at WWF France, observes, “Big data is an incredible opportunity to mobilize communities via social networks and smart phones.”

Data Centers that Pollute

But the relationship between environmental organizations and big data is ambiguous. “The massive deployment of data, while it helps us measure the climate’s evolution, also increases energy consumption. A big part of the data gathered is never used, so consumption must stay rational,” points out Cannet.

In the last few years, Greenpeace even launched a campaign for clean big data: #clickclean. The target of its wrath? Data centers, the giant hangars where data about the planet locked in information servers crackles: They emit as much carbon as the aviation sector.

To encourage the giants of the Internet to green their calculation centers, Greenpeace puts them in competition. In 2014, the “teacher’s pets” were Apple, Facebook and Google, with respectively 100 percent, 49 percent, and 46 percent of electricity coming from renewable energy sources. The dunce cap goes to Amazon, with only 15 percent clean energy in its data centers.

Big Data Goes to the UN

The trend of putting big data at the service of the planet is making its way to the United Nations. In fact, last year, the U.N. organized the Big Data Climate Challenge, an open competition around the world for projects using big data and analysis in the service of the fight against climate change. Among its prize-winners: Global Forest Watch, supported by 40-some partners, including NASA and the World Resources Institute. This tool, which relies on thousands of satellite images, public data and crowd-sourced information, offers a map that is accessible to everyone and indicates almost in real time the state of forests around the world, in order to help governments and NGOs fight against deforestation. This year, the U.N. is organizing Data for Climate Action, an innovation challenge centered around data shared by public and private actors — banks, telecommunications agencies, energy providers, distributors, media, insurers, transporters … Results to be seen at the COP21.

*Editor’s note: This quote is actually attributed to Badru Magerwa, also a member of TEAM.

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