Google@Yale: Using Google Earth Engine for Research

Google@Yale: Using Google Earth Engine for Research

­A few weeks back, Yale F&ES hosted a team from Google to discuss opportunities for partnerships in advancing geo-technology. The event allowed attendees to work with Google Maps Engine and Google Earth Engine, and to get a first-hand view of the current state and future of Google’s leadership in spatial data analysis. 

 An outstanding Master of Environmental Science student, Beth Tellman, shares her experience with this event, and how it relates to her own research.

My research focuses on scenario mapping of how urbanization and deforestation affect flooding in one small watershed in El Salvador. The amount of time I will put into processing remotely sensed satellite imagery to detect land use changes for just this 40 km2 watershed is one reason my research is on such a small scale. While this small project is important for the communities affected and the Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment, the Google workshops inspired me to think about possibilities with broadening scale, and with dynamic, Internet-based mapping. For example, I thought about remotely sensing land use changes for the entire country (powered by Google Earth Engine) to feed into a hydrologic/hydraulic flood model (which I would then code into the Google Earth Engine programming interface). I could then develop a website where NGOs, communities, and government choose a watershed of interest, anywhere in the country, “draw” potential areas of urbanization/deforestation, and see a map of the flood risk. Thinking about my research on the “Google” scale made me dream about scaling my project up, both geographically and temporally. Interactive computing in the cloud could make this possible!  This technology could make hydrologic modeling more participatory and accessible for decision-makers and for everyday citizens, allowing them to do their own scenario mapping. I hope to use this kind of work in my ongoing research and education.

I plan to go on to a PhD to explore socio-ecological resilience.  Participatory mapping that links science and communities like this is fascinating, and it’s a powerful and promising tool to bring the worlds of science and community development closer together. These are the kinds of tools I felt were lacking in my experience with disaster risk reduction work in El Salvador. In the rare but real cases of having NGO or government funding, communities do not have accessible science to make good decisions about land use.

I am so excited to interact with, and learn more about, these tools! I am also inspired to pursue development of an advanced geospatial course. After the Google workshops, several other students and I developed a proposal to explore Java/Python coding for GIS in order to make the Google Earth API more accessible, and we brought it to Professor Dana Tomlin. He approved the course and one of the modules will be Google Earth programming interface when he teaches it this Fall! Understanding computer code and building our own models in Google, and elsewhere, enables us to become “platformless;” that is, not attached to ESRI’s ArcMap program which could cost thousands of dollars to obtain once we leave Yale. We have to begin thinking geospatially outside of ArcMap–the Google workshops have inspired me, and many others, to do this!

Mini-bio:
My name is Beth Tellman. I hail from Indianapolis, Indiana, and hold a B.S in Sustainable Globalization and Environmental Studies from Santa Clara University.  I focused my undergraduate research on the barriers to Fair Trade coffee production in El Salvador, culminating in a publication in Latin American Geography in Fall 2011, “Not Fair Enough: Historic and Institutional Barriers to Fair Trade Coffee in El Salvador.”

I briefly worked for the Nature Conservancy evaluating ecosystem services projects, and then moved to El Salvador on a Fulbright Scholarship.  My research explored the keys to community resilience to disasters after major landslides pummeled El Salvador after Hurricane Ida in 2009. This was published as “Community Resilience and Hurricane Ida: How Marginalized Salvadorans Lacking NGO and Governmental Support Cope with Climate Shock,” in the United Nations publication Source 15/2011. This year, I won the “Dimensions of Political Ecology” Graduate Student Paper Competition with this work.  I put this research to action and co-founded an NGO, the CEIBA Foundation, to facilitate rural Salvadoran communities in attaining disaster resilience from 2009-2012.

I am currently a candidate for a Master’s of Environmental Science at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. My research measures and maps the impacts of deforestation on flooding in El Salvador.