The data science of forest monitoring | Green City Watch
CEO and Co-Founder of Green City Watch
High-functioning forest ecosystems, grounded in high quality soil, are precious assets that are here to help us combat climate change. But they are in poor health.
In our quest to heal them, we wonder, how technology can be applied to help these natural systems achieve their highest potential?
To explore this, Net Impact Amsterdam President, Andrea Palmer, interviewed Nadina Galle, Co-Founder and CEO of Green City Watch, an Amsterdam-based geoAI firm that uses the rapid advances in machine learning and cloud computing to draw actionable insights about green spaces from satellites, sensors, and drones, in near real-time.
Nadina, Where does solving our land problems start for you?
Well, we all know we need to ‘add green’. But we often forget or neglect the fact that all green starts with brown. Soil is the fundamental enabler of all land, plant, and forest health, so everything we do, all of our plans, must include mechanisms to protect and feed our soil.
How can technology play a role in monitoring the health of soil and land?
There are two major categories of technologies that are used to monitor the health of land and green space: top down and bottom up.
Top down technology includes all of the latest advancements in remote sensing, for example satellite imagery. Some satellites focus on high spatial resolution, some on image refresh frequency and others on deeper analysis in non-human interpretable spectral bands, signaling important insights about the actual qualities of the natural environment here on earth.
These insights—for instance—can be used to track deforestation. As the processing of images moves away from human interpretation to cloud computing, we are able to start the analysis immediately when the data streams come in. Also, with the miniaturisation of the satellite equipment, we are now moving towards daily updates. When I started in this field, we were analysing photographs taken years ago, but we’re now approaching the possibility of daily monitoring.
Another top down technology for monitoring land health is called LIght Detection and Ranging or better known as LiDAR, or 3D laser scanning. This technology shoots a laser down from a plane or drone and detects the surface using different light wavelengths. LiDAR yields very high-resolution output and is helpful for tracking emergency responses and surveying forest stock. It is also possible to merge these two datasets together using LiDAR.
On the bottom up side, land monitoring functions can be performed using Wireless Sensor Networks. For example, park rangers used to need to bring a soil probe on-site, manually take a sample, write down the data in their notebooks, and bring this back to the lab to record in a computer. Now, soil probes can be installed and hooked up to wireless networks to deliver instant, high quality data on soil biology, including information about symbiotic partnerships with fungi and bacteria. You can configure the probes to send readings as often as you’d like. LoRaWAN, a low power wide area network (LPWAN), has been a particular game changer in this field, as it’s been developed to connect to the Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors for mass deployment.
In the south of the Netherlands, where a severe drought caused significant tree loss in summer 2018, TreeMania’s sensors collected data on soil moisture content in real-time and sent notifications to tree managers and workers so they knew exactly where they needed additional water.
These sensors play a huge role in what’s possible. They are becoming incredibly sensitive, and are also enabling lower cost of materials.
Does this technological revolution mean forest services and park personnel need a different skill set? Are we approaching the time of Forest Ranger 2.0?
Good question. I recently gave a Tedx talk called “Cities and the Internet of Nature”. The Forest Ranger 2.0 is at the center of this “IoN”. It’s the idea that ecosystems can be described and represented through digital entities, and these can be stored and analysed within cloud-based platforms. The forest ranger should be at the heart of this digital revolution. For too long ecology has been left behind by the digital revolution. In practice, I see it happening through teams – that this data brings so much value to ecosystems, that an entire team of people is deployed to use it to monitor the health of forests. Green City Watch can outsource this work.
What kind of work does Green City Watch do and how do you see this evolving? What is your long-term vision?
Green City Watch works in three distinct ways, using several different technologies. We visualise the current quantity and quality of urban green space through our award-winning Green City Watch Index. This Index is the result of a comprehensive literature review to score the ecological, social, and economic quality of urban green space. Clients receive a scorecard with improvement suggestions, we call this our #UrbanGreenprints. We also know nature (and people) are dynamic, so the platform to manage them should be too. We deploy our Index quarterly or biannually to track the impact of interventions and ecological change. #UrbanGreenprint measurements from different moments in time.
Lastly, nature in cities are novel ecosystems, and as such, specific and niche problems have arisen. We work directly with clients to develop customized solutions. When successful, we scale these up as new products on our platform.
Our longer term vision is to combine all of these products and lessons learned into the world’s leading platform for Ecosystem Intelligence, in near real-time. The creation of an IoN, along with the ecosystem intelligence it provides, is an opportunity to elicit and understand urban ecosystem dynamics, promote self-sufficiency and resilience in ecosystem management, and enhance connections between urban social and ecological systems. These insights are sorely needed to drive evidence-based action, especially as our Earth’s systems are—quite literally—on fire.
Hailing from evolutionary biology and earth sciences, Nadina now works at the nexus of cities, ecology, and technology. As a Joint-PhD Candidate in Ecological Engineering, she experiments with emerging technologies to apply the #InternetofNature; a novel pursuit she’ll continue in 2019-2020 as a Fulbright Scholar at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. In 2018, Nadina co-founded Green City Watch, the award-winning geoAI platform for nature in cities. Green City Watch takes nature online by drawing actionable insights from satellites, sensors, and drones, in near real-time. To engage and inspire, Nadina has delivered over 50 talks and keynotes across Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia: nothing gets her more excited than telling powerful stories to drive sustainable action. Connect with her on LinkedIn.