Hey, Google, Find Some Water for My Cows
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 15, 2021
Earth Engine, a data analysis service, is helping people around the world in ways simple satellite imaging can’t
Leslie Kaufman

In the Ferlo region of Senegal, climate change is making it harder for herders to find water for their cattle. In the Peruvian Amazon, indigenous tribes must remain alert at all times to chase off illegal loggers. In Los Angeles, city planners are struggling to figure out how best to plant 90,000 trees to help cool the hottest neighborhoods. To solve these problems, all three groups rely on a little-known arm of Google that works closely with environmental advocates around the world.

Google Earth Engine has created a vast trove of open source satellite imagery and augmented it with data-analysis software that makes it relatively easy for skilled outsiders to draw up their own interactive maps. More important, its team of staff scientists (Google won’t say how many) wrangles massive data sets to answer critical questions for a constellation of pro bono “clients” that includes conservation groups, city agencies, community advocates, and researchers.

The 20,000 image files added to the Earth Engine team’s collection each day are more than just static photos. Satellites gather, for example, detailed information on the soil composition more than a foot underground and the amount of water vapor rising from farmland. Staffers help clients distill relevant information and relay it to the field. Via radio, the nomads in Senegal learn where to find a drink for their cows; bright pink dots on interactive maps inform the indigenous Peruvians of the locations of logging activity; and a shared website targets the spots in LA where trees will likely do the most good.

“The raw data is not enough. Government officials now tell us, ‘We’re drowning in data, but we’re thirsty for insights,’ ” says Rebecca Moore, who runs the team. “We invented Google Earth Engine to allow scientists to easily analyze data and ask questions about how the climate is changing and answer in seconds or minutes instead of years.”

Other companies, including Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp., have technical services with capabilities comparable to Earth Engine, but experts in the field say the sheer number of work-hours Moore’s staff dedicates to volunteer efforts sets it apart. “It’s just a remarkable level of transparency and information that wasn’t available before,” says Mikaela Weisse, project manager for Global Forest Watch, an open-source online tool that monitors deforestation. Joe Morrison, a vice president at satellite imaging company Umbra, who writes a newsletter about the industry, calls Earth Engine the most important contribution to climate science in 50 years.

Of course, Google being Google, Earth Engine’s developers have also been working on commercial applications. In October the company announced a for-profit version of the service, with customers so far including Unilever Plc and Swiss Re AG. Moore says she sees these efforts as a way to multiply the impact of her team’s conservation work and “build on each other’s best practices.”

The corporate boosterism is a bit out of character for Moore, a software engineer who owes her almost two decades at Google to a penchant for advocacy. The company hired her in 2005, shortly after it acquired the underpinnings of Google Earth by buying a satellite mapping company called Keyhole. Moore had recently made national news for using Keyhole to scuttle a proposed logging project near her property in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco. The local utility was trying to clear 1,000 acres of forest and, as Moore’s 3D map showed, might well have damaged a protected watershed and the habitats of endangered species.

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