Google designs the Global Forest Watch: Can a nation of Jungles use it?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 - 2:29pm IST | Place: Mumbai/ Pune | Agency: DNA
Using the power of Google cloud, Google has partnered with World Resource Institute (WRI) and 40 other partners to create a forest monitoring tool. The Global Forest Watch (GFW), the near real-time satellite powered tool was launched on Feb 20, 2014. Indian conservationists and NGOs talk to DNA to find out if this could help India save its forests.
  • (Clockwise) 1. A screen shot of the GFW tool showing the satellite imagery of forest depletion in the world. 2. Guests at the launch of GFW ( press release photo) 3. Biodiversity hot-spots shown as green overlays on the map of India Agencies WRI

Rudyard Kipling put the mysterious yet wondrous Jungles of India on the world map. Since then a lot has changed; on one hand entire forests have disappeared and water bodies have been sucked dry to quench the thirst of urban populace while on the other hand efforts of environmentalists have seen forests regenerating and populations of wild animals inhabiting a new ecosystem. In India we pride ourselves for our wildlife and forests but are we doing enough to protect it? Protecting aside are we being vigilant about monitoring it?

Google partnered with the World Resources Institute(WRI) and 40 other partners to create a tool that could potentially turn every ‘thud’ of a falling tree into an echo.; Global Forest Watch (GFW). Staying true to its motto of bringing all the information of the world together and making it available everyone with an internet connection, Google powers the website with real time info-graphs and satellite data. This website tracks forest cover world over and gives insightful data accurate to 30 metres all in real time.

“Businesses, governments and communities desperately want better information about forests. Now, they have it,” said Dr. Andrew Steer, President and CEO, WRI in the press release.

Indian conservationists and NGOs are required to shell out huge sums of money to get satellite images and by the time they arrive the purpose is often defeated. Google offers this at the click of a button.

Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Asia perceives it as a great tool to expose government cover ups especially when they show sugar cane fields as forest cover in reports. “This tool is a gift to conservationists and a pain in the neck for the government and industrialists,” added Sahgal.

The aim of the tool is show where the forests are disappearing and where they are growing back in order to give a full global perspective on environmental concerns of the world. To facilitate this, the newly launched website has a large canvas of the world map, akin the Google maps, except this one shows a plethora of forest related data. By selecting simple options you can choose what data you want to layer onto the map like green cover, new forests, depletion rates, conserved forests and so on, making it extremely insightful and user friendly.

Kedar Champhekar, of Centre for Environment Education (CEE) expresses his skepticism about how practical it could be, “Forest departments have their own patrolling systems and they need to keep a watch at a much micro levels which may not be possible from Satellite maps.”

Kiran Rahalkar of Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) said, “Information will be of little or no use if it is not processed in a proper manner.  Especially in India lack of prolonged policy intervention has always been an issue when it comes to managing our resources.” The GFW could prove to be a useful tool for planners, managers and guardians of natural resources especially for framing policies on a pragmatic scale. “Officials should use this tool more for prognosis than diagnosis.

The website uses state of the art algorithms to look for sudden changes in forest covers in satellite imagery and intelligently determine its cause. If forests are being wiped out because of fires, disease & logging or are growing back this tool will capture it all in real-time and even approximate its cause.

Champhekar who researches on Biodiversity adds, “For researchers it can be very useful to look at change in land-use patterns, rates of deforestation and to find out how much CO2 is not being absorbed because of the forest cover lost and hence what are the implications for global warming.”

Adding the social angle to it, is the option of joining an online community to get email alerts about activity in a certain region of interest and share your stories. A tiny pin on the map shows stories related to forests in that area, others can have a conversation on stories, call attention to it and make your voice heard. The tool gives researches environmentalists a platform to connect and track every minute change in the earth’s forests, all in real time. NGO’s, forest product suppliers, forest industries and concerned Citizens can use this tool to upload pictures and keep a watch on local forests.

Pooja Bhale, Conservation Biologist who encourages participative approaches to conservation said "Data collection and data display methods are great free share resources for people to authenticate their findings. Also it is a wonderful resource platform that will come handy for education and awareness."

Kedar Gore, Director of The Corbett Foundation believes that this tool is fantastic for citizens who want to join the movement of forest conservation; they can alert the world about illegal activities with the click of a mouse. “Corporates can save a lot of manpower and money that they otherwise invest in getting sites approved for setting up an industry. Now they can use this tool to select a site that does not violate environmental regulations in the first place,” said Gore.

Govt. forest department office and Center for science and education were unavailable for comment when contacted.

GFW Is not just a website but an entire suite of integrated services offered free to the internet user and so has the potential of far reaching implications. Prima facie the tool might appear to be useful mostly for conservationists however the press release points out; financial institutions can better evaluate if the companies they invest in adequately assess forest-related risks. Buyers of major commodities such as palm oil, soy, timber, and beef can better monitor compliance with laws, sustainability commitments, and standards. And suppliers can credibly demonstrate that their products are “deforestation free” and legally produced. Often the environment and forests take a back seat when it comes to city dwellers; with Indian cities becoming bigger by the second having this tool at the finger tips could draw attention to a grave and very real problem. Now will the Indian urbane’ take this forward, only time can tell. 

About World Resources Institute
WRI is a global research organization that spans more than 50 countries, with offices in the United States, China, India, Brazil, and more. Our more than 300 experts and staff work closely with leaders to turn big ideas into action to sustain our natural resources—the foundation of economic opportunity and human well-being. (www.wri.org)

About Global Forest Watch
Global Forest Watch (GFW) is a dynamic online forest monitoring and alert system empowering people everywhere to better manage forests. For the first time, GFW unites satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests. Armed with the latest information from GFW, governments, businesses, and communities can halt forest loss. (www.globalforestwatch.org)


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