One of the ideas with this blog was to share good practices and inspire. At least my generation who grew up during the economic crisis has a sometimes very dark perspective on where the world is going to end up. Even though a lot that happens in connection to the digital world today (or in the world in general) indeed is negative for development, democracy and human rights – that is not the whole picture.
An example where big data can be of help is combating deforestation. I’ve interviewed my friend Felicia Line who is the consultant for the coordination of the Forests 2020 project in Mexico & Colombia for Ecometrica, an Edinburgh based software-as-a service company. Ecometrica provides satellite-derived big earth data and turns it into strategic, digital, geoanalytical insights for use by businesses, civil society organizations and governments worldwide.
The past couple of years Felicia has been working with the Ecometrica-project Forests 2020 which is sponsored by the UK Space Agency. Forests 2020 uses advanced mapping technologies, satellite data and other insight to help protect and restore up to 300 million hectares of tropical forests by improving forest monitoring in six partner countries; Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Kenya, Ghana and Indonesia. The work has been focused on three technical streams: improving detection of forest change, improving deforestation and fire risk mapping and improving digital infrastructure.
– Tropical forests are vital carbon sinks to mitigate climate change, and are also providing vital ecosystem services such as water and climate regulation, biodiversity and primary materials such as wood for many local communities, Felicia explains.
According to her, in order to succeed with the project and combat deforestation big data is needed.
– Satellite data is now rapidly becoming the go to resource for countries to effectively monitor their forests. There simply is not enough capacity, time or money to monitor forests solely using traditional methods such as field monitoring any more. New tools are needed to effectively manage, process and deliver this data to the institutions on the ground in a timely manner with high certainty, at a low cost and over extensive areas. This way country institutions can take action on the ground to combat deforestation and incentivise sustainable forest management.
One example of this is the support Forests 2020 has provided to the Mexico National Forestry Commission to improve land use change mapping in six Mexican states and calculation of the national deforestation trends. According to Felicia, this has helped the Mexican government report their greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and the World Bank which will help them access payments for reducing deforestation.
Another achievement is mapping avocado plantations in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, which have been the cause of deforestation in recent years due to their growing demand.
How do you make sure that civil society get access to the information that you are retrieving?
– We have encouraged our project partners to make the information that they have produced publicly available where it is not sensitive as we want it to be used as widely as possible.
– Our partners are making their mapping products available through Ecometrica’s Earth Observation Laboratories, which is a cloud-based platform that stores and publishes large amounts of data and facilitates its analysis. The platform will automatically generate reports from an area of interest, such as a municipality, natural protected area, or farm, using the information extracted from the map layers in the form of graphs and tables, which saves a lot of time and make the maps easier to understand and analyse.
But what if the data ends up in the wrong hands, what could happen?
– In the worst case scenario, sensitive information could be used by competitors for commercial advantage, or if information is erroneous, it could be falsely acted on. In countries where early deforestation warnings are generated, such as in Colombia or Kenya, the government might decide to send the military or environmental prosecutors to areas where there is an early deforestation warning, which can be costly if there is a false alert.
– We leave it up to the jurisdictions to decide how to act in light of the information that we produce. But we have been monitoring to ensure that there are no human rights violations associated as a result of the information that has been generated through the project. We also work with a diverse range of stakeholders such as NGOs, private companies, associations and academic institutions which give us a range of insights into the activities in our partner countries.
I ask Felicia if they have encountered any difficulties along the way.
– Of course, as with any development project! In my point of view the biggest challenge has been to understand and effectively respond to the needs of our partners in the countries, rather than try to impose a technology or particular solution. Also ensure that the innovations that we have supported are effectively used and valued by decision makers in government at the national and state level and by communities so that they can make informed decisions about their natural resources.
– Building effective and collaborative working relationships from the start of the project is vital, through academic exchanges, site visits, training workshops, meetings, events, joint publications, and online collaboration tools such as video conferences, project management tools etc.
What are your hopes for the future regarding the project?
– We hope to implement a Forest 2030 in the near future to continue to improve forest monitoring tools in our partner countries, to help governments and NGOs on the ground to identify priority forest sinks that need to be protected to reach net zero deforestation targets that we need by 2030 to minimise global climate change.
Some final reflections: Big data and mapping to combat deforestation seems to be a fruitful practice and the negative consequences of it are clearly not the same as big data concerning humans. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the future and what other uses it can have in the work to combat climate change.
Photo credits: Carlos Herrera