Tomnod's Crowdsourcing will let Amateurs Fight Indonesian Fires... from Space

I've written before about the way activists are using space-based images to make the world a better place. (See my Feature on the Satellite Sentinel Project and an update here) The latest group, Global Forest Watch Fires, will use near real-time satellite images of Indonesian forests to spot illegal and out-of-control forest fires. With the Tomnod crowdsourcing service, amateur fire-spotters around the world will help assess the damage.

Expand the image to see the March 2014 fires in Indonesia outlined in red. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, Lance/EOSDIS Modis Rapid Response Team at Nasa GSFC Source:Nasa Earth Observatory

Expand the image to see the March 2014 fires in Indonesia outlined in red. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, Lance/EOSDIS Modis Rapid Response Team at Nasa GSFC Source:Nasa Earth Observatory

Every year a combination of intentional and accidental forest fires in Indonesia blanket Southeast Asia with smoke affecting health and economies across the region. In this Guardian report about the effects of an Indonesian fire in March:

  • Smoke spread across Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand
  • Schools, airports, and roads closed
  • Hospitals in Sumatra treated 50,000 people

The article goes on to review the broader impact of fires - 2.1 million premature deaths, intensification of storms, and economic damage - which climate change will only make worse.

Many of these fires happen on or near large corporate palm oil plantations. Whether illegally set by the plantation owners or local small farmers, the flames quickly burn the trees to the ground. But the fires don’t stop there. Much of the region is covered in peat, thick layers of vegetation built up over thousands of years. The fires dry out and ignite the peat which can smolder on for weeks.

In the past a combination of limited firefighting resources, Indonesia’s large geographic area, and collusion by local officials and agricultural interests kept the government from quickly responding to the fires and arresting the arsonists. A group of technology companies, non-governmental organizations, and the Indonesian government hope to change that as they joined forces this week to launch Global Forest Watch Fires.

Satellites have long held the promise of solving many of the issues that let arsonists go unpunished. Space-based images provide the wide field of view and high resolution needed to scan Indonesia’s large landscape for fires, but the only ones with access to their data have been intelligence agencies. A new generation of commercial imaging satellites has changed that.

High resolution images from DigitalGlobe’s fleet of satellites will give Global Forest Watch Fires and Indonesian officials an unprecedented view almost as soon as fires start. The images will arrive in near realtime, letting Indonesian firefighters identify and respond before fires can spread.

The satellite images will let Indonesia’s government assess the damage and track down the people who set the fires. And that’s where the public comes in. The Tomnod crowdsourcing service uses DigitalGlobe images to assess damage in the wake of natural disasters. The general public with no experience in satellite image analysis mark damaged areas, collaborating to create reliable maps of damage for emergency responders. Tomnod’s amateur fire-spotters will help analyze Indonesia’s burned forests to give Indonesian officials an assessment of the extent that the fires damaged the landscape.

Clicking on pictures from space may seem like a small step to take, but combining clicks from thousands of amateurs around the world through Tomnod's crowdsourcing will, step-by-step, help the professionals clear the smoky skies of Southeast Asia.