Skybox for Good Initiative Combines Imagery and Ideals

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SAN FRANCISCO — For more than a decade, the environmental monitoring organization SkyTruth has used aerial and satellite imagery to document changes to natural landscapes and habitats caused by human activity including coal mining and oil drilling. Through a new program called Skybox for Good, SkyTruth has found an additional source of Earth imagery that may help the nonprofit group document coal mining in West Virginia, offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean and land subsidence in Mexico, said David Manthos, communications director for Shepherdstown, West Virginia-based SkyTruth.

“Skybox for Good offers more frequent, high-resolution monitoring at potentially a much more reasonable rate for groups that want to regularly image change over time,” Manthos said.

Skybox for Good is an initiative announced Oct. 23 by Julian Mann, Skybox Imaging co-founder. In June, Google paid $500 million to acquire Mountain View, California-based Skybox, which plans to launch a constellation of at least 15 small satellites to provide frequently updated, high-resolution still and video Earth imagery.

“From the beginning when we started Skybox, we knew that part of our mission was going to be providing imagery for organizations that could do good with it,” Mann said. “We’ve been partnered with such organizations for a couple of years now. Even before we had the satellites in orbit, we were figuring out how we would shape that type of program and who we could work with.”

Becoming a part of Google has bolstered those efforts because the search giant already had valuable relationships with nonprofits and public benefit organizations through Google Earth Outreach, which provides those groups with maps and Earth imagery. The Skybox for Good initiative was unveiled during the Oct. 21-24 Geo for Good User Summit, a workshop held annually by the Google Earth Outreach team to share tools designed to help organizations collect, analyze and publish information.

The Geo for Good User Summit was the perfect opportunity to extend Skybox for Good beyond a few ad hoc partnerships, Mann said. “We wanted to begin it early in our integration so it was a cornerstone of the new Skybox plus Google relationship,” he added.

SkyTruth is one of a handful of organizations participating in initial trials of Skybox for Good. In addition, Skybox is providing imagery and support to groups including: Halo Trust, an organization based in Scotland working to find and clear land mines; Save the Elephants of Nairobi, which seeks to prevent poaching and the ivory trade; Appalachian Voices, an environmental group in Boone, North Carolina, focused on protecting the land, water and air of the Appalachian Mountains region; and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program on Human Security and Technology of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Since its 2013 publication of “Sudan: Anatomy of a Conflict,” an extensive report that coupled geospatial imagery with field reports to document the many humanitarian crises in Sudan, Signal Program officials have focused on projects designed to resolve problems they encountered while focused on Sudan.

While tracking that conflict, for example, Signal Program officials learned how difficult it was for researchers, geographic information system professionals and volunteers to use satellite imagery to observe and monitor camps established to house people displaced within their own nations and refugees who crossed borders fleeing famine or violence. Signal Program leaders plan to produce by the end of the year a reference guide to help groups more quickly and accurately identify objects found in the camps. In support of that effort, Skybox provided the Signal Program with imagery related to camps located in East Africa, Sudan, South Sudan and Jordan.

Organizations are relying increasingly on satellite imagery to detect and document changes at these camps in support of humanitarian operations, said Nathaniel Raymond, Signal Program director. Although producing a reference guide may seem esoteric, it is important because it will help all the groups assisting humanitarian efforts obtain accurate information more efficiently, he said. “People won’t have to guess, dig through other data or make measurements to the same degree,” Raymond added.

One unique feature of the Skybox for Good project is the way the company is sharing the images. During this trial phase of the initiative, Skybox is making the images it collects for partners available under a license known as Creative Commons By Attribution.

“In our work over the last couple of years with these types of organizations, we’ve heard the license by which data is made available to them oftentimes has as much of an impact on the utility of the data as just getting it,” Mann said. “A lot of times, organizations get access to imagery but the on-the-ground first responders can’t access the data due to licensing restrictions.”

Under the Creative Commons By Attribution license, the images can be shared freely, combined with additional data and republished, Mann said.

“It is incredibly generous,” SkyTruth’s Manthos said. “If Appalachian Voices collects an image of a coal mine in Appalachia that also happens to be near a gas drilling site we are interested in, we can also use and republish that image as long as we credit Skybox.”

In the past, some nonprofit organizations either were prevented from sharing the space-based imagery they acquired or were required to pay additional fees to obtain the type of license that would allow them to share specific datasets, Manthos said.

In contrast, Skybox wants to encourage the free flow of satellite imagery. “Groups want to share data with partners and other organizations,” Mann said. “Especially in a crisis scenario, the last thing you want people to have to think about is, ‘Wait, which organization are you from and am I allowed to share data with you?’”