Tag Archives: Google Earth

Mountaineering to Maps: Rebecca Moore’s fight for the planet

Rebecca Moore lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a series of peaks in Northern California where the ocean and redwoods collide. Living there, amongst the trees, she turned to mapping as a way to protect the planet.

When a logging project was proposed in her community, she used Google Earth to show everyone how the plans would affect their daily lives and, more importantly, endanger the precious ecosystem surrounding them.  The logging plan was denied and that redwood forest is now being considered for permanent protection as public open space.

“In a way, technology and digital mapping can give nature a voice — it puts it on the map and helps it defend itself,” Rebecca says. “Seeing facts on a map quickly squashes debate and dispels misconceptions.”

For the past 15 years, Rebecca has led the Google Earth, Earth Engine and Outreach team. Their goal is to create a digital replica of the planet and put it into hands everywhere. They’ve mapped everything from endangered animal populations and fisheries to CO2 emissions and wildfires. We talked with Rebecca about why she thinks maps are so powerful and how she finds it in herself to tackle hard problems, like climate change. 


What does your team at Google do? 

Our goal is to organize all of the planet’s information and make it accessible, understandable and actionable. For example, Google Earth Engine helps us take the flood of environmental information from things like satellite imagery and weather data, and turn it into something that anyone can understand and take action on. And our Google Earth Outreach program helps nonprofits, communities and indigenous peoples around the world use our mapping tools to solve whatever problems they’re tackling. 


What makes maps so powerful when it comes to protecting the planet? 

The world is changing, but it’s hard to visualize it. If we can create a dynamic, digital replica of the real world and extract meaningful insights from it, then we can put it into the hands of people who can help protect and conserve the planet for generations to come. 

For example, we’ve seen how putting this information into the hands of indigenous communities can help protect land that’s under threat. We worked with the Suruí, a tribe in the Amazon, to use Google Earth‘s mapping tools to stop illegal logging in their region. 

Now, with Timelapse in Google Earth, anybody can fly over any region in the world and see decades of planetary change. When you see these changes with your own eyes, there’s what I call the digital overview effect — you become more emotional and more engaged. 


How do you identify areas where Google can have the biggest impact?

I look for the hard problems that Google can make a dent in. Climate change is at the top of that list. It’s an existential threat, and we’re all experiencing the effects of rising temperatures: from droughts to wildfires to islands disappearing. There’s a sense of urgency that we have to act now. 

Then I look for patterns. I've read voraciously over the past few years to understand what the world's best thinkers have identified as potential pathways to solving climate change. I look at how Google can uniquely contribute to those solutions. 


When taking on big challenges, how do you stay motivated? 

I was a rock climber and mountaineer for years — I even climbed in the Himalayas. When you climb a mountain, you don't actually see the summit from where you start. But you know if you head in a positive direction, eventually you’ll see it, and get there. And along the way, the little breakthroughs will motivate you. Same goes for making meaningful change to protect the planet. 

Sometimes the best thing is to make a choice, commit and go forward. Stay attentive and mindful to what's happening along the way, and be prepared to make mid-course corrections. And stay patient, taking on big challenges — whether it’s climbing or climate change — is hard work and it takes time. Even when the summit (or your goal) feels far away, don’t forget to turn around and look back to appreciate how far you have come. That can be super-motivating, and applies to my work today.

You didn’t always work at the intersection of environment and technology. What put you on this path? 

I studied computer science, and after school I just wanted a job that was intellectually challenging. It didn’t matter so much what it was for and what I worked on. That changed after my father, who was an attorney and argued a landmark civil rights case, and my brother, who was an artist and an activist, died within five months of each other. It hit me that we don’t live forever. It seems cliche, but I didn’t want to look back and think I frittered away with stuff that didn’t matter.  

I needed that sense of urgency to stop what I was doing, leave my job and reinvent myself. I didn’t know what my next move was, and it took me three years to figure it out, but I was determined to find a way to bring my own talents to bear and work on things I cared about. I started small, helping protect the nature that surrounds my community in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and went from there.

3 ways Liza Goldberg uses Timelapse to explore the planet

Liza Goldberg has a big-picture view of climate change — and it all started with satellite imagery. In high school she started an internship at NASA, where she built a program that used satellite imagery and Google Earth Engine, a platform for geospatial analysis, to monitor the loss of mangrove forests. This gave her a whole new perspective of planetary changes. 

“I was seeing the world through a different lens,” Liza says. “Without images, it’s hard to visualize what things like urbanization, deforestation, wildfires and rise in temperatures mean to our planet — just using statistics and data doesn’t get the message across. I wanted to bring a new perspective to others.” Liza is now a freshman at Stanford University and runs Cloud to Classroom, a program that uses satellite imagery to help teach students around the world about climate change. 

Today, that birds-eye view of the planet is available to even more people with the launch of Timelapse in Google Earth. For the first time, 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years have been embedded directly into Google Earth, creating an explorable view of our planet over time. Now anyone can watch time across the globe. And that perspective can be enough to inspire anyone to take action — just like it inspired Liza. 

“If we want to solve climate challenges, the bottom line is we need to take this information out of scientific papers and put it into the hands of the public so they can make positive change in their local areas,” Liza adds. 

As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at satellite imagery of the Earth, Liza has a few pointers for how to explore the planet with Timelapse and put these changes into context. She shares some of her tips here: 

Zoom in on your community

If you're a teacher, reporter, student or just someone exploring Timelapse, start looking at the places you care about. Use the search bar function to zero in on a region you know really well — whether it’s the city you grew up in, the place your grandparents are from or where you spent your summers growing up. Seeing the changes at a more personal level contextualizes what global environmental change actually means right now and what it could mean in the future of your local community. 

An animated GIF of satellite imagery showing how Cape Code has changed over time.

Take a look at how Cape Cod, Massachusetts has changed from above. 

Look for the patterns

The patterns are everywhere. You can see how the same trends — like rapid changes from wildfires — are taking place on the West Coast of the U.S. and across the world in Australia. Start with the curated videos from Google that show the story of change related to forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures and more. Then start to look for other trends you see happening across the world. It can be an exercise in unity to see what communities are experiencing here and elsewhere, and see how these changes transcend communities and ecosystems.  

An animated image showing how satellite imagery of how urbanization changes the landscape.

See how urbanization changes the landscape. 

Soak up the fragile beauty of it all 

The Timelapse videos are like vignettes of art — enjoy them. Take a step back and remember that this is our planet and it's worth protecting. For me, videos like the meandering rivers are captivating. The ability to watch the planet change over time is now in the hands of everyone, and that makes me optimistic. 

A Google Earth Timelapse of a meandering river over time.

A Google Earth Timelapse of a meandering river over time.

From Liza’s perspective, technology like this can help affect change. In fact, she’s even started to focus more on studying computer science and plans to use those skills to tackle the big issues she cares most about, like climate change. 

Time flies in Google Earth’s biggest update in years

For the past 15 years, billions of people have turned to Google Earth to explore our planet from endless vantage points. You might have peeked at Mount Everest or flown through your hometown. Since launching Google Earth, we've focused on creating a 3D replica of the world that reflects our planet in magnificent detail with features that both entertain and empower everyone to create positive change.

In the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, you can now see our planet in an entirely new dimension — time. With Timelapse in Google Earth, 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years have been compiled into an interactive 4D experience. Now anyone can watch time unfold and witness nearly four decades of planetary change. 

Our planet has seen rapid environmental change in the past half-century — more than any other point in human history. Many of us have experienced these changes in our own communities; I myself was among the thousands of Californians evacuated from their homes during the state’s wildfires last year. For other people, the effects of climate change feel abstract and far away, like melting ice caps and receding glaciers. With Timelapse in Google Earth, we have a clearer picture of our changing planet right at our fingertips — one that shows not just problems but also solutions, as well as mesmerizingly beautiful natural phenomena that unfold over decades.

To explore Timelapse in Google Earth, go to g.co/Timelapse — you can use the handy search bar to choose any place on the planet where you want to see time in motion. 

Or open Google Earth and click on the ship’s wheel to find Timelapse in our storytelling platform, Voyager, to see interactive guided tours. We’ve also uploaded more than 800 Timelapse videos in both 2D and 3D for public use at g.co/TimelapseVideos. You can select any video you want as a ready-to-use MP4 video or sit back and watch the videos on YouTube. From governments and researchers to publishers, teachers and advocates, we’re excited to see how people will use Timelapse in Google Earth to shine a light on our planet. 


Understand the causes of Earth’s change 

We worked with experts at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab to create the technology behind Timelapse, and we worked with them again to make sense of what we were seeing. 
As we looked at what was happening, five themes emerged: forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, sources of energy, and our world’s fragile beauty. Google Earth takes you on a guided tour of each topic to better understand them. 

A phone and computer screen with a Timelapse showing the Columbia Glacier in Alaska retreat over time.

Timelapse in Google Earth shows the rapid change on our planet in context through five thematic stories. For example, the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska is captured in the "Warming Planet" tour.

Putting time on Earth in the palm of our hand

Making a planet-sized timelapse video required a significant amount of what we call “pixel crunching” in Earth Engine, Google's cloud platform for geospatial analysis. To add animated Timelapse imagery to Google Earth, we gathered more than 24 million satellite images from 1984 to 2020, representing quadrillions of pixels. It took more than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic — that’s the equivalent of 530,000 videos in 4K resolution! And all this computing was done inside our carbon-neutral, 100% renewable energy-matched data centers, which are part of our commitments to help build a carbon-free future. 

As far as we know, Timelapse in Google Earth is the largest video on the planet, of our planet. And creating it required out-of-this-world collaboration. This work was possible because of the U.S. government and European Union’s commitments to open and accessible data. Not to mention their herculean efforts to launch rockets, rovers, satellites and astronauts into space in the spirit of knowledge and exploration. Timelapse in Google Earth simply wouldn’t have been possible without NASA and the United States Geological Survey’s Landsat program, the world’s first (and longest-running) civilian Earth observation program, and the European Union’s Copernicusprogram with its Sentinel satellites.

What will you do with Timelapse?

We invite anyone to take Timelapse into their own hands and share it with others — whether you’re marveling at changing coastlines, following the growth of megacities, or tracking deforestation. Timelapse in Google Earth is about zooming out to assess the health and well-being of our only home, and is a tool that can educate and inspire action. 

Visual evidence can cut to the core of the debate in a way that words cannot and communicate complex issues to everyone. Take, for example, the work of Liza Goldberg who plans to use Timelapse imagery to teach climate change. Or the 2020 award-winning documentary “Nature Now” that uses satellite imagery to show humanity’s growing footprint on the planet.

Timelapse for the next decade to come

In collaboration with our partners, we’ll update Google Earth annually with new Timelapse imagery throughout the next decade. We hope that this perspective of the planet will ground debates, encourage discovery and shift perspectives about some of our most pressing global issues.

Rachel Malarich is planting a better future, tree by tree

Everyone has a tree story, Rachel Malarich says—and one of hers takes place on the limbs of a eucalyptus tree. Rachel and her cousins spent summers in central California climbing the 100-foot tall trees and hanging out between the waxy blue leaves—an experience she remembers as awe-inspiring. 

Now, as Los Angeles first-ever City Forest Officer, Rachel’s work is shaping the tree stories that Angelenos will tell. “I want our communities to go to public spaces and feel that sense of awe,” she says. “That feeling that something was there before them, and it will be there after them...we have to bring that to our cities.”

Part of Rachel’s job is to help the City of Los Angeles reach an ambitious goal: to plant and maintain 90,000 trees by the end of 2021 and to keep planting trees at a rate of 20,000 per year after that. This goal is about more than planting trees, though: It’s about planting the seeds for social, economic and environmental equity. These trees, Rachel says, will help advance citywide sustainability and climate goals, beautify neighborhoods, improve air quality and create shade to combat rising street-level temperatures. 

To make sure every tree has the most impact, Rachel and the City of Los Angeles use Tree Canopy Lab, a tool they helped build with Google that uses AI and aerial imagery to understand current tree cover density, also known as “tree canopy,” right down to street-level data. Tree inventory data, which is typically collected through on-site assessments, helps city officials know where to invest resources for maintaining, preserving and planting trees. It also helps pinpoint where new trees should be planted. In the case of LA, there was a strong correlation between a lack of tree coverage and the city's underserved communities. 

With Tree Canopy Lab, Rachel and her team overlay data, such as population density and land use data, to understand what’s happening within the 500 square miles of the city and understand where new trees will have the biggest impact on a community. It helps them answer questions like: Where are highly populated residential areas with low tree coverage? Which thoroughfares that people commute along every day have no shade? 

And it also helps Rachel do what she has focused her career on: creating community-led programs. After more than a decade of working at nonprofits, she’s learned that resilient communities are connected communities. 

“This data helps us go beyond assumptions and see where the actual need is,” Rachel says. “And it frees me up to focus on what I know best: listening to the people of LA, local policy and urban forestry.” 

After working with Google on Tree Canopy Lab, she’s found that data gives her a chance to connect with the public. She now has a tool that quickly pools together data and creates a visual to show community leaders what’s happening in specific neighborhoods, what the city is doing and why it’s important. She can also demonstrate ways communities can better manage resources they already have to achieve local goals. And that’s something she thinks every city can benefit from. 

“My entrance into urban forestry was through the lens of social justice and economic inequity. For me, it’s about improving the quality of life for Angelenos,” Rachel says. “I’m excited to work with others to create that impact on a bigger level, and build toward the potential for a better environment in the future.”

And in this case, building a better future starts with one well planned tree at a time.

Source: Google LatLong


Creating new tree shade with the power of AI and aerial imagery

Most of us have heard the timeless proverb, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Worldwide, there is growing discussion in cities about planting more trees as policymakers and neighbors look to increase shade on warming city streets.

Extreme temperatures are becoming more common in cities where concrete and infrastructure are now creating heat islands—areas that experience higher temperatures, leading to poor air quality, dehydration and other public health concerns. Trees are increasingly seen as a solution to both lowering street-level temperatures while improving quality of life. Yet many cities may not have the budget or resources to locate where every tree in town is, or where new tree-planting efforts are most needed.

With our new Tree Canopy Lab we are combining AI and aerial imagery to help cities see their current tree canopy coverage and plan future tree planting projects, starting with the City of Los Angeles. 

With the Tree Canopy Lab you can see Los Angeles’s trees with local context, like what percentage of a neighborhood has leafy cover, an area’s population density, what areas are vulnerable to extreme heat, and which neighborhood councils can help get new roots in the ground.

Tree Canopy lab is in our Environmental Insights Explorer platform, a tool that makes it easier for cities to measure, plan and reduce carbon emissions and pollution. It’s also one step forward in part our commitment to help hundreds of local governments fight climate change.


Tree Canopy Lab on a desktop device

Anyone can access the Tree Canopy Lab from a tablet or personal computer

Mapping tree cover to seed new urban forestry efforts

With aerial imagery collected from planes during the spring, summer and fall seasons, as well as Google AI and Google Earth Engine’s data analysis capabilities, we can now pinpoint all the trees in a city and measure their density. The imagery we use for these calculations includes color photos that closely represent how we would see a city from the sky. To get even more detailed information about the city’s canopy cover, near-infrared photos detect colors and details that human eyes can’t see and compare images from different angles to create a height map.

See tree cover in Los Angeles with Tree Canopy Lab

See tree cover in Los Angeles with Tree Canopy Lab

We then use a specialized tree-detection AI that automatically scans the images, detects the presence of trees and then produces a map that shows the density of tree cover, also known as “tree canopy.” 

With this tool, the City of Los Angeles doesn’t have to rely on expensive and time-intensive manual tree studies which can involve block-by-block tree surveys, outdated records, or incomplete studies which only count trees in public spaces.

From policymakers to neighbors, anyone can explore Los Angeles in the Tree Canopy Lab and glean insights. For example, the lab can help anyone identify residential blocks with high tree planting potential and locate sidewalks that are vulnerable to higher temperatures due to low canopy coverage.

Tree Canopy Lab's AI scans aerial images, detects the presence of trees and then produces a map that shows the density of tree cover

Tree Canopy Lab's AI scans aerial images, detects the presence of trees and then produces a map that shows the density of tree cover

With Tree Canopy Lab we’ve found that more than 50 percent of Angelenos live in areas with less than 10 percent tree canopy coverage and 44 percent of Angelenos live in areas with extreme heat risk. We also see a correlation that shows parts of Los Angeles with the lowest heat risk also have the highest tree canopy coverage — these areas are also the lowest population density of Angelenos.


Connecting cities with new environmental insights

Los Angeles has been on the forefront of cities using urban forestry to not only advance sustainability goals, but to beautify neighborhoods, improve air quality and bring down street-level temperatures as the region gets hotter due to climate change.

With a near-term goal of planting and maintaining 90,000 trees by 2021 and continuing to plant trees at a rate of 20,000 per year across a city of more than 503 square miles, the Tree Canopy Lab is already helping people across the city reach this goal. From neighbors and community organizations to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s first-ever forestry officer, Rachel Malarich, they all have access to a birds-eye view of where the city’s existing trees are and which areas need more greenery. 


“Every tree we plant can help stem the tide of the climate crisis, and when we expand our urban forest, we can sow the seeds of a healthier, more sustainable and equitable future for communities hit hardest by rising temperatures and intensifying heat waves. Google’s technology will help us bring the power of trees to families and households across Los Angeles -- adding greenery to our public spaces, injecting beauty into our city, and bringing cooler temperatures to our neighborhoods.” 

-Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti


More tree insights for more cities on the horizon

We’ll be making the insights in Tree Canopy Lab available to hundreds of more cities in the year to come as we continue to support the ambitious work cities like Los Angeles are doing to embark on tree planting and maintenance initiatives. 


We invite city planners and policymakers to reach out to kickstart a conversation with us sharing their interest through this form.

Source: Google LatLong


Ask a Techspert: How do satellite images work?

When flying, I am firmly a window seat person. (And I can’t wait to start flying again… or at least get out of my apartment.) Not because I’m annoyed by the beverage cart hitting my elbows (though I am), or because I like to blankly stare out at the endless sky (which I do), but because I enjoy looking down at the streets, buildings and skyline of my destination as we land. It’s thrilling to watch cars move, see skyscrapers cast shadows on the street or check out the reflection of the sun in a body of water. For most of human history, it was impossible to even imagine what Earth looked like from above, and only in the past century have we been able to capture it. 

Today, satellite imagery is one of the most popular features on Google Maps. Capturing the world from above is a huge undertaking, matching millions of images to precise locations. But how does satellite imagery actually work? How often are images updated? What are some of the biggest challenges to bringing satellite imagery to more than 1 billion users?

To answer these questions, I reached out to our satellite imagery techspert, Matt Manolides. Matt is Google’s Geo Data Strategist. He’s worked at Google for over 14 years and he gave me an aerial view (pun intended) of how satellite imagery works.

How do we accumulate the images used in Google Maps? Do we actually use satellites? 

The mosaic of satellite and aerial photographs you can see in Google Maps and Google Earth is sourced from many different providers, including state agencies, geological survey organizations and commercial imagery providers. These images are taken on different dates and under different lighting and weather conditions.

In fact, there’s an entire industry around doing aerial surveys. Companies cut holes in the bottom of planes, and cameras take pictures as they fly overhead. In many areas around the world, this is happening constantly. In parts of the world where there isn’t an established aerial survey market, we rely on satellites. With aerial surveys, we get very high-quality images that are sharp enough to create detailed maps. Satellites produce lower-quality imagery, but are still helpful because they provide global coverage. 

Today, you can explore 36 million square miles of high-resolution satellite images in Google Maps and Google Earth, which covers more than 98 percent of the entire population.

When do the images meet the map? 

“Google obtains commercially-available satellite imagery from a range of third parties, and our team stitches the images together to create a seamless map,” Matt tells me. This is a process called photogrammetry and, according to Matt, we’re increasingly able to automate our photogrammetry process using machine learning to help accurately place images and improve resolution. 

For aerial data, the images are delivered on hard disks and we upload them into Google Cloud. For satellite imagery, the data is uploaded directly from our providers to Google Cloud. The imagery is delivered in a raw format, meaning it’s not yet positioned on the ground and is separated into red, blue and green photos, as well as panchromatic images, which includes finer details. We then combine the jumble of images so they all line up and have an accurate placement in the real world, and generally look beautiful.  

Hard drives with satellite imagery in a room

Rooms full of hard drives, each one jam-packed with aerial images.

How often do you update satellite images? 

“We aim to update satellite imagery of the places that are changing the most,” Matt says. For instance, because big cities are always evolving, we try to update our satellite images every year. For medium-sized cities, we try to update images every two years, and it goes up to every three years for smaller cities. Overall our goal is to keep densely populated places refreshed on a regular basis and to keep up with a changing world, so we will refresh areas more frequently when we think there’s lots of building or road construction going on.

Why do we sometimes see mysterious objects on Maps? What are they? 

Matt explains that sometimes the way the images are collected can create optical illusions. One of the most common instances of this are “sunken ships,” which are actually regular, operating ships that might appear underwater due to the way the satellite imagery gets layered together. Other times, sunlight can reflect off something shiny, and it will look like a strange white object that some believe are haunted houses or other such spookiness.

sinking_ship.png

A spooky "sunken ship" illusion in London. 

Because the satellite cameras take multiple pictures at the same time, but in different color spectrums, a fast-moving object, like a plane, can look strange, like several identical but differently-colored planes flying over each other. 

"Rainbow" plane image

As for Matt, his favorite part is finding public events that are happening when the images are captured. From hydroplane races to car shows, it’s fascinating to see events in the overhead imagery. 


“When I was a kid growing up in Seattle, I always loved the hydroplane races that would happen each summer. It was a thrill to realize that we captured one from the air back in 2010,” Matt says. “The imagery isn’t visible in Google Maps anymore, but you can still see it using Google Earth Pro’s Historic Imagery feature, which lets you browse our full catalog of imagery.”

Hydroplane races

A hydroplane race on Lake Sammamish, Washington, on June 10, 2010. 

Source: Google LatLong


Ask a Techspert: How do satellite images work?

When flying, I am firmly a window seat person. (And I can’t wait to start flying again… or at least get out of my apartment.) Not because I’m annoyed by the beverage cart hitting my elbows (though I am), or because I like to blankly stare out at the endless sky (which I do), but because I enjoy looking down at the streets, buildings and skyline of my destination as we land. It’s thrilling to watch cars move, see skyscrapers cast shadows on the street or check out the reflection of the sun in a body of water. For most of human history, it was impossible to even imagine what Earth looked like from above, and only in the past century have we been able to capture it. 

Today, satellite imagery is one of the most popular features on Google Maps. Capturing the world from above is a huge undertaking, matching millions of images to precise locations. But how does satellite imagery actually work? How often are images updated? What are some of the biggest challenges to bringing satellite imagery to more than 1 billion users?

To answer these questions, I reached out to our satellite imagery techspert, Matt Manolides. Matt is Google’s Geo Data Strategist. He’s worked at Google for over 14 years and he gave me an aerial view (pun intended) of how satellite imagery works.

How do we accumulate the images used in Google Maps? Do we actually use satellites? 

The mosaic of satellite and aerial photographs you can see in Google Maps and Google Earth is sourced from many different providers, including state agencies, geological survey organizations and commercial imagery providers. These images are taken on different dates and under different lighting and weather conditions.

In fact, there’s an entire industry around doing aerial surveys. Companies cut holes in the bottom of planes, and cameras take pictures as they fly overhead. In many areas around the world, this is happening constantly. In parts of the world where there isn’t an established aerial survey market, we rely on satellites. With aerial surveys, we get very high-quality images that are sharp enough to create detailed maps. Satellites produce lower-quality imagery, but are still helpful because they provide global coverage. 

Today, you can explore 36 million square miles of high-resolution satellite images in Google Maps and Google Earth, which covers more than 98 percent of the entire population.

When do the images meet the map? 

“Google obtains commercially-available satellite imagery from a range of third parties, and our team stitches the images together to create a seamless map,” Matt tells me. This is a process called photogrammetry and, according to Matt, we’re increasingly able to automate our photogrammetry process using machine learning to help accurately place images and improve resolution. 

For aerial data, the images are delivered on hard disks and we upload them into Google Cloud. For satellite imagery, the data is uploaded directly from our providers to Google Cloud. The imagery is delivered in a raw format, meaning it’s not yet positioned on the ground and is separated into red, blue and green photos, as well as panchromatic images, which includes finer details. We then combine the jumble of images so they all line up and have an accurate placement in the real world, and generally look beautiful.  

Hard drives with satellite imagery in a room

Rooms full of hard drives, each one jam-packed with aerial images.

How often do you update satellite images? 

“We aim to update satellite imagery of the places that are changing the most,” Matt says. For instance, because big cities are always evolving, we try to update our satellite images every year. For medium-sized cities, we try to update images every two years, and it goes up to every three years for smaller cities. Overall our goal is to keep densely populated places refreshed on a regular basis and to keep up with a changing world, so we will refresh areas more frequently when we think there’s lots of building or road construction going on.

Why do we sometimes see mysterious objects on Maps? What are they? 

Matt explains that sometimes the way the images are collected can create optical illusions. One of the most common instances of this are “sunken ships,” which are actually regular, operating ships that might appear underwater due to the way the satellite imagery gets layered together. Other times, sunlight can reflect off something shiny, and it will look like a strange white object that some believe are haunted houses or other such spookiness.

sinking_ship.png

A spooky "sunken ship" illusion in London. 

Because the satellite cameras take multiple pictures at the same time, but in different color spectrums, a fast-moving object, like a plane, can look strange, like several identical but differently-colored planes flying over each other. 

"Rainbow" plane image

As for Matt, his favorite part is finding public events that are happening when the images are captured. From hydroplane races to car shows, it’s fascinating to see events in the overhead imagery. 


“When I was a kid growing up in Seattle, I always loved the hydroplane races that would happen each summer. It was a thrill to realize that we captured one from the air back in 2010,” Matt says. “The imagery isn’t visible in Google Maps anymore, but you can still see it using Google Earth Pro’s Historic Imagery feature, which lets you browse our full catalog of imagery.”

Hydroplane races

A hydroplane race on Lake Sammamish, Washington, on June 10, 2010. 

Source: Google LatLong


How we’re supporting climate action in European cities

Climate action can have the biggest impact in cities, which are responsible for 70 percent of the world's CO₂ emissions. That’s why we committed to helping more than 500 cities reduce 1 gigaton of carbon emissions annually by 2030 as part of our ambitious plan for climate action. To help reach that goal, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, with grant support from Google.org, is funding six projects. The projects will use actionable data to test new strategies that can reduce emissions and improve air quality in cities across Europe. 

ICLEI is a global network of more than 1,750 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. Last fall, we granted $4 million in funding to them to establish the ICLEI Action Fund and support nonprofits and academic institutions in Europe and Latin America that are leading data-driven climate action efforts. Here’s a look at the projects that have been funded and what we’ve learned so far. 

Projects selected for funding across Europe

 The Centre for Sustainable Energy plans to establish an open-source, city-wide energy dataset in Birmingham, England. The team will also develop analysis tools that can model decarbonisation options for buildings in the city, overlay and integrate public datasets, and aggregate granular socioeconomic data. 

With these tools, the Centre hopes to develop city-wide interventions and smaller community initiatives that will help the city reach its overall decarbonisation goals. “By combining emissions data for buildings, transport, and energy infrastructure with socioeconomic data, and distributing local community grants, we’ll be able to help residents deliver targeted carbon reduction projects, and support the City Council and Route to Zero Task Force to deliver their city-wide climate emergency ambitions,” said Rachel Coxcoon, Programme Director at the Centre for Sustainable Energy. 

In Hamburg, the CityScienceLab of the HafenCity University will develop a tool incorporating data from Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), Hamburg’s urban data platform and other sources. With this tool, they plan to help the city identify areas that can be used as “urban testbeds” for prototyping energy innovations in the Altona, Norg and Bergedorf districts. The prototyping process will help visualise and simulate projects to better understand their projected impact on the city. 

Other Action Fund grantees and their projects include: 

  • Deutsche Umwelthilfe in Berlin: To help the city reach its air quality and carbon-free transport goals, they plan to analyze data about air quality, noise levels and traffic, and use EIE to advocate for data-driven changes to cycling and other transportation infrastructure.
  • Carbon Co-Op in Greater Manchester: Working with local partners, they'll develop multi-sector energy plans for the regions and pilot three citizen-led projects focused on sustainable mobility and energy-efficient buildings. A newly developed urban energy dashboard will help them track impact. 
  • Miljopunkt Amager in Copenhagen: Using Google Air View, traffic data and community-collected data, they’ll test new urban space designs that may improve air quality. 
  • Air Pays de la Loire in Nantes: Using real-time air quality datasets that account for traffic conditions, they will provide citizens and local authorities with tools to make decisions about transportation management and traffic regulation systems.

The latest insights from cities taking data-driven climate action 

Through these projects, we’ve seen how cities are thinking about data-backed sustainability planning and action. So far, we’ve seen trends that can be applied globally.  

First, starting small can lead to a big impact—especially when it comes to data. City-level data can point decision-makers in the right direction, while neighborhood or district data can create the necessary community buy-in for more specific programs or interventions. Second, actionable data can help citizens make informed day-to-day decisions and take action. After all, informed citizens are a critical piece of the puzzle. Last, we saw a huge interest in cities looking to improve air quality through more efficient and low-carbon transportation options. 

To have a meaningful impact on climate change, data-driven approaches must be scaled across the globe. That’s why Google.org provided ICLEI’s Global Secretariat with additional funding to develop case studies so they can share best practices that emerge from the Action Fund with cities around the world that are looking to implement similar data-driven climate interventions. 

 One of our goals at Google is to unlock climate ambitions with data, insights, and innovation to overcome today’s climate crisis. We’re excited to continue supporting leading organizations, such as ICLEI, and cities that share that goal. 

Image Credit: Google Earth image of Paris, France 2019, Aerodata International Surveys, Maxar Technologies, The GeoInformation Group | InterAtlas

Source: Google LatLong


Environmental Insights Explorer Expands: 100 Australian councils and counting

Environmental Insights Explorer 

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a crucial step in fighting the climate crisis. And cities now account for more than 70 percent of global emissions. But measuring exactly which activities—whether it’s buildings, cars, or public transport—are contributing to emissions, and by how much, is complex. Without this information, cities can neither understand the challenges they face, nor the impact of their environmental policies. 

This is the problem we’re working to solve with Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), an online platform that provides building and transportation emissions, as well as solar potential analysis to make it easier for cities to measure progress against their climate action plans. Launched in 2018 for a handful of cities around the world including Melbourne, with Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide then added in 2019, EIE has helped councils accelerate GHG reduction efforts. Today, we’ve expanded EIE data access to thousands of cities worldwide, including 100+ Australian councils. 

To scale data access to local governments, policy makers and community groups, we’re also developing partnerships with leading Australian organisations, councils, and climate change experts. This includes a new partnership with Ironbark Sustainability and Beyond Zero Emissions to make EIE transportation data available for 100+ councils in Snapshot—a free tool that calculates major sources of carbon emissions, including stationary energy, transport, waste, agriculture, and land-use change. Snapshot allows municipalities to easily compare their sources of carbon emissions. This data integration will provide updated GHG profiles and enable local government policy decision-making for more than 86 percent of the country's population to put councils on a fast track for delivering commitments, building local resilience, and ensuring economic recovery. 
Accelerated city-wide analysis 
By analysing Google’s comprehensive global mapping data together with GHG emission factors, EIE estimates city-scale building and transportation carbon emissions data with the ability to drill down into more specific data such as vehicle-kilometres travelled by mode (automobiles, public transit, biking, etc.) and the percentage of emissions generated by residential or non-residential buildings. 
The insights that EIE provides have traditionally required many months of research, and a lot of resources for cities undertaking a climate action plan. Using Google’s proprietary data coupled with machine learning capabilities, we can produce a complete survey of a city that can be assessed very quickly. In this way, EIE allows cities to leapfrog tedious and costly data collection and analysis. 
EIE transport data now available in Snapshot for 100+ councils 

The next chapter 
Over the next few months, we’ll be working together to help Australian councils learn more about data insights from EIE and expand data coverage to more councils. We hope that by making EIE data accessible to more councils across Australia, we’ll help nurture an ecosystem that can bring climate action plans to life. 


Environmental Insights Explorer Expands: 100 Australian councils and counting

Environmental Insights Explorer 

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a crucial step in fighting the climate crisis. And cities now account for more than 70 percent of global emissions. But measuring exactly which activities—whether it’s buildings, cars, or public transport—are contributing to emissions, and by how much, is complex. Without this information, cities can neither understand the challenges they face, nor the impact of their environmental policies. 

This is the problem we’re working to solve with Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), an online platform that provides building and transportation emissions, as well as solar potential analysis to make it easier for cities to measure progress against their climate action plans. Launched in 2018 for a handful of cities around the world including Melbourne, with Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide then added in 2019, EIE has helped councils accelerate GHG reduction efforts. Today, we’ve expanded EIE data access to thousands of cities worldwide, including 100+ Australian councils. 

To scale data access to local governments, policy makers and community groups, we’re also developing partnerships with leading Australian organisations, councils, and climate change experts. This includes a new partnership with Ironbark Sustainability and Beyond Zero Emissions to make EIE transportation data available for 100+ councils in Snapshot—a free tool that calculates major sources of carbon emissions, including stationary energy, transport, waste, agriculture, and land-use change. Snapshot allows municipalities to easily compare their sources of carbon emissions. This data integration will provide updated GHG profiles and enable local government policy decision-making for more than 86 percent of the country's population to put councils on a fast track for delivering commitments, building local resilience, and ensuring economic recovery. 
Accelerated city-wide analysis 
By analysing Google’s comprehensive global mapping data together with GHG emission factors, EIE estimates city-scale building and transportation carbon emissions data with the ability to drill down into more specific data such as vehicle-kilometres travelled by mode (automobiles, public transit, biking, etc.) and the percentage of emissions generated by residential or non-residential buildings. 
The insights that EIE provides have traditionally required many months of research, and a lot of resources for cities undertaking a climate action plan. Using Google’s proprietary data coupled with machine learning capabilities, we can produce a complete survey of a city that can be assessed very quickly. In this way, EIE allows cities to leapfrog tedious and costly data collection and analysis. 
EIE transport data now available in Snapshot for 100+ councils 

The next chapter 
Over the next few months, we’ll be working together to help Australian councils learn more about data insights from EIE and expand data coverage to more councils. We hope that by making EIE data accessible to more councils across Australia, we’ll help nurture an ecosystem that can bring climate action plans to life.