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Global Forest Watch tracks deforestation in near-real time. What’s not to like?

Last week, the World Resources Institute, Google and more than 40 partners launched an online forest monitoring system. It’s called Global Forest Watch. It’s free and available to anyone with an internet connection.

The amount of information contained in the maps is extraordinary. The data shows deforestation, protected areas, biodiversity hotspots, mining, logging, palm oil and wood-fibre plantations. You can download the data by country.

Global Forest Watch monitors forests on a monthly basis. It’s even possible to set up an alert to receive an email whenever there are signs of deforestation in a specific area.

Global Forest Watch uses NASA satellite data – almost 700,000 Landsat images – fed through Google’s computers. Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager at Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine, explains that,

[W]e applied one million CPU hours on 10,000 computers in parallel in order to run Dr. Hansen’s models to characterize forest cover and change. It would have taken a single computer 15 years to perform this analysis that we completed in a matter of days using the Google Earth Engine technology.”

Global Forest Watch is based on the work carried out by a team led by Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland and published in Science magazine in November 2013. The University of Maryland is one of the partners in Global Forest Watch.

Global Forest Watch is a two way process. It allows anyone with an internet connection to submit images, videos and stories about forests and deforestation. The stories will be available on the Global Forest Watch website.

Global Forest Watch is a huge improvement on the forest cover statistics produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. It is more accessible (to anyone with an internet connection) and the data is updated way more frequently. The most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment is dated 2010, and the next will come in 2015.

So what’s not to like? I think there are three areas of concern:

1. Plantations are not forests

Global Forest Watch and the Global Forest Resources Assessments share a problem. FAO’s definition of “forests” includes industrial tree plantations and logged over areas.

Global Forest Watch defines “tree cover”, rather than “forests” and the definition includes plantations:

For the purpose of this study, “tree cover” was defined as all vegetation taller than 5 meters in height. “Tree cover” is the biophysical presence of trees and may take the form of natural forests or plantations existing over a range of canopy densities. “Loss” indicates the removal or mortality of tree canopy cover and can be due to a variety of factors, including mechanical harvesting, fire, disease, or storm damage. As such, “loss” does not equate to deforestation.

Including plantations has potentially serious implications, especially if Global Forest Watch’s data is used for REDD. Elfian Effendi of Greenomics Indonesia has pointed out that oil palm plantations in Indonesia are included as “forest” under the University of Maryland data.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that in one of the REDD decisions taken at the UN climate meeting in Warsaw last year, national forest monitoring systems should, “Enable the assessment of different types of forest in the country, including natural forest, as defined by the Party” (emphasis added). If governments don’t like the deforestation data produced by Global Forest Watch, the decision taken in Warsaw appears to allow them to cook the books and come up with imaginary figures for deforestation.

2. Unilever and Global Forest Watch[*]

At the launch of Global Forest Watch in Washington DC, Andrew Steer, WRI’s President, said,

“Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognised for their stewardship.”

But Global Forest Watch does not tell us who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. What it does is shows where forests have been cleared. The fact that industrial tree plantations are included means that an oil palm plantation company can appear as the “good guys”.

Unilever is one of the world’s largest palm oil buyers. The monoculture oil palm plantations that feed the industry are a major cause of deforestation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, but increasingly in Africa and Latin America.

In November 2013, Unilever committed that “by the end of 2014, all of the palm oil Unilever buys globally will be traceable to known sources.” This commitment comes ten long years after Unilever, together with WWF, formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The commitment is a long way from a commitment to remove deforestation from Unilever’s supply chain.

Unilever recently entered into a more than £1 million deal with The Guardian under which the newspaper will run a public relations campaign with Unilever, pretending that its journalism. The Guardian’s “Sustainable Business partner zone” is one huge advert for Unilever:

As Andrew Sullivan points out, this deal is even worse than just advertising. It’s the first deal under the new “Guardian Labs” division. Here’s how Anna Watkins, managing director of Guardian Labs, describes The Guardian‘s colossal sell out:

“Our partnership with Unilever is a fantastic example of collaboration based on our shared values. Right from the start we brainstormed ideas, working across the whole of the Guardian, and built the campaign together. It represents a truly original way of working.”

How on earth anyone at The Guardian thought that it was acceptable to build a “campaign together” with Unilever is beyond me. But if Unilever can manage to pay off The Guardian, imagine what an opportunity Global Forest Watch presents.

And the chances of Andrew Steer telling us that Unilever are the “bad guys” are infinitesimally small.

3. Google’s role

Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil”. At the same time, it’s a business that exists to make a profit. The conflict between the motto and the profit motive is clear. Google doesn’t pay much in tax. It collects a huge amount of information about the people who use its products. In December 2013, papers released by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA and GCHQ used Google’s proprietary cookie technology to track suspects.

Meanwhile, Google is moving into areas that used to be the role of governments. In a 2013 article on Slate, Mya Frazer writes,

Today, Google is arguably one of the most influential nonstate actors in international affairs, operating in security domains long the purview of nation-states: It tracks the global arms trade, spends millions creating crisis-alert tools to inform the public about looming natural disasters, monitors the spread of the flu, and acts as a global censor to protect American interests abroad.

Neither the technology nor Google is neutral. In the case of the Surui indigenous people in Brazil, Google is siding with “the good guys”:

Google has even intervened into land disputes, one of the most fraught and universal security issues facing states today, siding with an indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon to help the tribe document and post evidence about intrusions on its land through Google Earth.

But what if Google decided to side with, say, Unilever and against small-scale farmers?

UPDATE – 3 March 2014: See the comment from James Anderson, below.

This subheading originally read, “2. Unilever is a partner in Global Forest Watch”. As James Anderson points out that “Unilever is not a Global Forest Watch partner”. I apologise for the mistake. In my defence, WRI posted a video on YouTube with the description “Key partners share their support for Global Forest Watch”. First up was Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO. WRI has now corrected this.

Here’s the discussion on twitter:

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  1. Good post Chris, but my understanding is that technology does not yet exist to differentiate plantations from natural forests in these types of maps, and that Google (and possibly other companies) are working on it. Am I wrong? If not, isn’t it a little misleading to fault a program for not doing something that isn’t possible?

  2. also, I believe you meant the University of Maryland, not Michigan.

  3. Hello Chris and the REDD-Monitor team,

    Thanks for your thoughtful critique of Global Forest Watch, and for your supportive statements too. Critical feedback is the most useful kind! On behalf of the GFW team, I’d like to offer a few responses.

    1. Plantations are not forests

    We agree that this is a vital distinction with important implications for REDD+ among other policy issues. Rather than reject these datasets because they do not distinguish plantations from forests, we are currently developing a map layer that identifies tree plantations, so users can “filter out” plantations from data on tree cover change. We will be releasing this data for a select number of countries on the GFW site in the coming months, with additional countries to follow.

    We also have an open data policy, and aim to be transparent about the limitations and caveats of the data available on GFW:

    2. Unilever is a partner in Global Forest Watch

    A friendly correction: Unilever is not a Global Forest Watch partner. You can see a full list of our partners here:

    Unilever is a user of Global Forest Watch. We hope that our tools will help them, their suppliers, and other companies achieve their sustainability targets. The data on GFW provides transparency into corporate operations in and around forests- this will benefit companies who help protect forests and penalize those who harm them.

    Independence is one of our core values- GFW is not funded by corporate money, nor do we allow companies to influence the data or direction of our research.

    3. Google’s role

    Google is a core partner in GFW, and we are happy to talk about their role in the initiative.

    Google donates cloud-computing capacity and programming expertise, while Google Earth Engine provides the technology platform for several tree cover change datasets on GFW. As you note in a quotation above, it would have taken 15 years to run the ground-breaking University of Maryland analysis on a single computer. With Google’s help, it took a matter of days.

    We are uncompromising on the independence and integrity of the data. The algorithms that detect tree cover change are led by independent partners (such as the University of Maryland) or the Global Forest Watch team itself. The data are developed independent of any political or business interests. Nor does Google provide any monetary donations to Global Forest Watch.

    I hope this answers some of your questions and helps address your concerns. We appreciate the critical eye, and hope you continue to share feedback on how to make this platform better serve forests and people everywhere!

    -James Anderson
    Communications Officer
    Global Forest Watch and the World Resources Institute

  4. @James Anderson – Thanks for these comments and the friendly way in which you made them. I think they do go quite a long way to addressing my concerns. Maybe Global Forest Watch should feature in a success story on REDD-Monitor (the first ever!).

  5. Interesting article. Thank you Chirs, good to see big corps act responsibly. Google new mapping technology Global Forest Watch allows organizations and everyday people to monitor deforestation around the world. This tracks the gain and loss of tree cover around the world using a combination of satellite data, crowd sourcing and open data to show the state of the world’s forests in near real-time.
    Its about 1.5 acres of rainforest are lost every second. This deforestation affects the plants, animals the environment and even humans, who are the main culprit behind such efforts. As deforestation continues to occur, so have movements to raise awareness of its harms and encourage people to think beyond. Everyone should understand we will be nothing without nature.
    This is truly ground breaking environmental work and many will be pleased to see an internet giant like Google getting involved with this wide scale green project. This is a very interesting project! I would love to spread the post!!

  6. Hi Chris
    For hot spot information, is the data realtime? if not how long the delay?

  7. Hi Ginanjar,

    Great question. Some data are refreshed daily (NASA fire alerts) or evenly even few hours (wind data on GFW fires). Other data on tree cover loss is refreshed every month or year, but we are working on getting that down to 16 days or less.

    You can find the refresh rate and many other data details here:

    Thanks for asking!

    -James and the Global Forest Watch team