Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Say "Hello, world!" with Google Earth Engine

See what I did there? For those of you who may not have taken a programming course before, you might not be familiar with “hello, world” – it’s the first program that essentially all coders learn how to write. It’s also how I felt while attending the Google Earth Engine User Summit at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA, after discovering that the world (in the form of satellite imagery) is at my fingertips!
Engineers, scientists, researchers, and practitioners from all over the globe congregated in Mountain View, CA, for the 2016 Google Earth Engine User Summit.

Access to satellite data has historically been limited due to the tremendous computational power needed for data download and processing. But the tide is turning. For the past few years, the Google Earth team has been uploading massive amounts of satellite data to the cloud. Google engineers created an online platform, called Google Earth Engine, to give researchers, engineers, geographers, and earth scientists a way to work with these cloud-based data.

Check out this video on "A Planetary Perspective: With Landsat and Google Earth Engine" for a visual overview of Google Earth Engine.


Making sense of satellite data
In addition to providing quick and easy access to decades of satellite data, the Google Earth Engine platform includes a suite of tools for data processing. In this case, “processing” means “writing simple code” for the purpose of extracting useful information from the historical record of satellite images. In true Google fashion, the tools are openly available to non-commercial users.
Just a few lines of code in the Earth Engine platform allows users to calculate the "Normalized Difference Vegetation Index" (NDVI), which serves as a measure of vegetation "greenness." Above, NDVI across Florida for January-March, 2016. 

Case studies: from Antarctic sea ice to cropland
Researchers and practitioners are using Google Earth Engine to address a wide variety of important issues. For example, researchers at the European Commission Joint Research Centre are using Google Earth Engine for large-scale crop monitoring to identify fallow land and farms with failed crops. These observations can be coupled with on-the-ground measurements to evaluate the efficacy of management practices, such as those related to irrigation. Imagine the possibilities! 

Beyond big data
The User Summit not only afforded me the opportunity to learn about the utility and potential of Google Earth Engine, but also gave me a glimpse into the future of satellite image collection. Luc Vincent, Director of Google Geo Imagery, discussed Google's “Terra Bella” division, which designs and manufactures low-cost satellites. Google will be sending enough of these cost-efficient satellites to capture global snapshots 2-3 times per day! At the moment, attaining global coverage with satellite imagery takes approximately 16 days, making Google's vision for satellite data collection particularly impressive (a 3200% improvement in temporal resolution!).

So you want to learn more about Earth Engine? Here are some resources:
  • Google Earth Engine documentation, tutorials, and videos
  • Alice Alonso, PhD Candidate in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department at UF, recently had an article accepted for publication in Transactions of ASABE that highlights the potential of Google Earth Engine as a tool for Agricultural and Biological Engineers. It's currently in press, but will be published soon! 
    • Alonso, A., R. Muñoz-Carpena, K. Robert and C. Murcia. 2016. Wetland landscape spatio-temporal degradation dynamics using the new Google Earth Engine cloud-based platform: opportunities for non-specialists in remote sensing. Trans. ASABE
  • In partnership with Science, an educational lab assignment based in Google Earth Engine was created, which also makes for a fun and easy introduction to the platform.
  • There are also a lot of web apps that use Google Earth Engine to highlight specific issues, such as deforestation, climate, wildlife conservation, and more!
If you're interested in learning more about Google Earth Engine or the User Summit, reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Until next time!

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