Bringing the Power of Google to Scientists in the Lower Mekong

Landscapes on Earth of changing at unprecedented levels. For scientists, practitioners and environmental decision makers, tracking these changes efficiently and accurately is critical to protecting lives and livelihoods.

While there are many ways to learn about the dynamic nature of the Earth, satellite technology provides a unique perspective in observing our land, rivers, atmosphere and many other elements of the environment.

Photo credit: NASA

For decades, access to this technology for effective decision making has been a strenuous endeavor for scientists and development practitioners across the world. Previously, only those who with significant resources and access to high computing processing, images and algorithm development could take advantage of this technology.

Now, through a unique partnership with Google, SERVIR-Mekong, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is changing this reality for scientists and development practitioners. This is being done by leveraging Google's high computing platform called Google Earth Engine (GEE).

Google Earth Engine Overview

Google Earth Engine combines a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities and makes it available for scientists, researchers, and developers to detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth's surface.

  • GEE has an extensive public archive of historical satellite imagery and datasets spanning more than 30 years
  • GEE leverages high processing computational power from servers in Google’s headquarters equivalent to 60,000 computers
  • Using a cloud-based platform, GEE brings the power of Google to any part of the world, even areas with low bandwidth

Photo credit: Google Earth

"The fundamental idea here is to move the question to the data instead of the other way around. Earth Engine provides access to petabytes of satellite imagery and a powerful cloud-based tool. This mean that you can do advanced, big-data analysis of satellite imagery with a slow computer. That's what is revolutionary."

-- Nicholas Clinton, GEE Development

With GEE, people can get their questions answered virtually instantly. Work that usually takes months is now processed in seconds. Financial resources that would have been spent on large servers and high computing processors are extraneous and can instead be re-allocated for other strategic purposes.

For a region like the Lower Mekong, where scientists and development practitioners are thirsty for access to public satellite imagery, high processing computing, and cloud based algorithm development for decision making in near real time settings, GEE is changing the GIS world.

As a demand driven program, SERVIR-Mekong crafts its activities around the needs expressed by decision makers in the region. Chansopheaktra Sovann, lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and part of SERVIR-Mekong's University Partner Network, was the driving force behind a series of GEE training the program has delivered across the region.

"I was first introduced to GEE during an event I attended in 2015 and realized it would be a very suitable mapping tool for developing countries like Cambodia. There is no need for high performance hardware, or big storage; and it is very fast which is perfect for people like me."

-- Chansopheaktra Sovann, lecturer at Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Through a technical request mechanism provided on the SERVIR-Mekong website, Sovann submitted his interest in receiving training on applied Python and JavaScript for GEE. Perfectly aligned with broader program objectives, the SERVIR-Mekong team began designing a curriculum for a training. This was the beginning of what has now become a GEE 'roadshow' training for the region.

Photo Credit: SERVIR-Mekong

In partnership with the University of San Francisco, SERVIR-Mekong developed and tested a GEE curriculum that served as the backbone for a regional training event in Bangkok in July 2016. This training was delivered in close partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and SilvaCarbon, bringing in 38 scientists from the region.

In this two-day training, participants were introduced to and practiced working in the Earth Engine Code Editor Platform; learned how to access, process and analyze data from the public data catalogue; and learned how to write their own programming for mapping purposes.

"Now that I have been introduced to Google Earth Engine, I can see that is is much easier and faster to use than the platform I currently have. My thesis is related to forest mapping for the Mekong region and when I return to my university, I plan to change my analysis tool to Earth Engine."

-- Nguyen Thein Hoa, PhD student and researcher at Can Tho University, Vietnam

With high demand, SERVIR-Mekong has taken the GEE training on the road with additional events in Cambodia and Vietnam. Through this training 'roadshow' SERVIR-Mekong has expanded and deepened partnerships with key stakeholders such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Asia Foundation. In Cambodia, WCS is playing an important role in supporting the Government in revising its Environmental Code. "Remote sensing on the GEE platform will be critical for setting environmental baselines and monitoring efficacy of the new Code" says Dr. David Ganz, SERVIR-Mekong's former Chief of Party. "The Asia Foundation supported us to train its civil society partners in environmental monitoring" he added.

"The best way for me to learn is to teach"

-- Dr. Do Minh Phuong, Hanoi co-trainer and Senior Researcher at the National Institute for Agriculture Planning and Projection, Vietnam

In the last half of 2016, additional GEE trainings were completed in Vietnam with training materials translated into Vietnamese with support from the USAID Vietnam Forest and Deltas activity. In order to sustain these training programs, SERVIR-Mekong has employed a trainer of trainer approach. Two Vietnamese participants from the Bangkok training are now serving as co-trainers, bringing the power of GEE to more scientists in Vietnam. As a result of this approach, Vietnam has become the 4th largest in terms of number of users visiting and using Google Earth Engine.

"GEE is useful for my daily work, especially for land changes and environment monitoring, soil erosion and so on. GEE is particularly useful for developing countries as you do not need to use expensive or complicated image processing tools. We can get nice results from GEE where we can get thousands of images at the same time at country, regional and global level."

-- Ms. Ha, Senior Researcher in GIS for Disaster Risk Assessment

The GEE training is not a one-off event; it is an opportunity for SERVIR-Mekong to expand partnerships with stakeholders in the Lower Mekong. After receiving the GEE training, the Vietnam Academy of Water Resources (VAWR) and the Institute of Water Resources Planning (IWRP) have requested more advanced courses to further strengthen capacity in using this technology.

"In terms of future collaboration, we would like to further develop and co-develop tools and datasets with SERVIR-Mekong along with curriculum for further training of people, such as those at the provincial level, and universities, like PhD and Masters students. That is the future we would like to see with SERVIR-Mekong."

-- Dr. Trinh, Head of International Cooperation, VAWR

In addition, SERVIR-Mekong is now working with VAWR and IWRP in the co-development of tools that will add value to decision making on water resource planning for Vietnam. This engagement began with GEE but is now moving towards a more dynamic and sustained partnership that will create meaningful tools and services for practitioners in Vietnam.

Photo Credit: SERVIR-Mekong

With over 140 scientists trained across the region, the demand for GEE and SERVIR-Mekong is clear. There has been expressed interest in having more GEE trainings tailored for advanced users to strengthen the skill sets of environmental decision makers in the region.

"SERVIR's tagline is 'space to village'. That's exactly what Earth Engine does. It brings remote sensing capability to anyone with an internet connection and helps people with limited capacities answer environmental questions."

-- Nicholas Clinton, GEE Developer

Google is keen to continue this partnership with SERVIR-Mekong and expand the reach of its services to all corners of the world. As demand for SERVIR-Mekong products and services expand in the region, utilizing the power of GEE will be a key contributor to better decision making for climate change adaptation and sustainable development.

SERVIR-Mekong is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and implemented by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) in consortium with Spatial Informatics Group (SIG), Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and Deltares

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