Where Can You Make the World a Better Place?

Google assembled people who use spatial tools to do good. MEASURE Evaluation produced this video to show how these tools can help improve health services.

John Spencer at the Google Earth Outreach, Geo4Good summit.
By John Spencer, Senior Research Associate, MEASURE Evaluation

As a geographer, I believe it’s necessary to understand where things happen if you want to change the world. Are health facilities near the people who need them? Do diseases cluster in a specific place? Where should we direct resources after crises such as floods or refugee movement? These days, knowing the geography of virtually any human or physical phenomenon is easy. But, while the data is available, the tools to unlock what the data mean have largely been in the hands of experts. Now, that is changing.

The opportunities arising from this development are considerable. To help visualize the potential, we have created a video that shows three examples of what is possible with freely available data and geospatial tools: understanding health facility accessibility by considering geographic factors such as road networks and elevation, disaster risk modeling to predict impacts on populations and health systems, spread of infectious disease in urban, high density environments.

I was inspired to create the video after attending the Google Earth Outreach, Geo4Good summit in early October as part of my work with the MEASURE Evaluation global health project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

This meeting on Google’s campus brought together more than 100 people from around the world who are trying to make the world a better place using geography. Google Earth Outreach ostensibly exists to help provide learning materials, tools, and other support around the use of Google’s suite of geo-tools, such as Google Earth, Open Data Kit, Google Earth Engine, and Google Maps. However, Google also supports the summit as a chance for people doing this type of work to meet and hear how others are using geographic tools. And, occasionally, there’s a glimpse of what’s in the Google pipeline.

Google Earth is perhaps the most familiar tool. Another that is much more powerful but perhaps less well known is Google Earth Engine. Earth Engine unlocks access to a stunning amount of satellite images. It requires a user account (free), programming knowledge, and some knowledge of the fundamentals of remote sensing. For people who do have those skills, it’s almost magical what you can do with a few lines of code.

You can stitch together satellite images, create cloud-free mosaics, and classify in seconds what normally would take hours, if not days, to script and run using traditional software or a GIS package. This speed and ease of use opens a new world for global health investigation using remote sensing products.

But, go slowly. As valuable as many of these tools are, public health professionals should approach with eyes open. Some tools require uploading data to Google servers. This may not be appropriate for sensitive data with personal identifying information. And, even though it’s tempting to skip over the terms of service, with health data it is especially important to review these to make sure the data is handled appropriately.

Another consideration is whether these tools will be maintained. Google is a for-profit enterprise and shareholders want to see returns on their investment. The VP for Geo Platform, Luiz André Barroso, told attendees that he sees these products as an opportunity for Google to develop tools that can help people. He went on to say the company views these tools as being in line with their core values and that the tools would be supported and improved. Based on the Google employees I met, there does seem to be a commitment to the tools and a genuine interest in seeing them used. Listening to the lead coders of Earth Engine and Google Earth, I felt they were personally invested in their work and took pride in the fact the tools were being applied to resolve some of the planet’s challenges such as illegal animal poaching, deforestation, climate change and disease outbreaks.

That said, Google and its parent corporation, Alphabet, have shown willingness to abandon products when they’ve determined it is no longer in the company’s strategic interest. That’s always a risk. Perhaps the best way to make sure tool development continues is to use them, as appropriate, and show Google even more ways that geographic tools are helping make the world a better place.

Watch the video at https://vimeo.com/239244128.

Presentations can be found at https://sites.google.com/earthoutreach.org/geoforgood2017/.

For more information on MEASURE Evaluation’s work in geospatial analysis and its range of GIS tools and training materials, visit https://www.measureevaluation.org/our-work/gis

Republished with permission from Science Speaks