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Getting Data From the Ground To the Cloud

(Cross-posted from the Google Public Sector Blog)

Last week, the Google Earth Outreach and teams, in collaboration with the Global Canopy Programme, hosted partners from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for the first gathering of the Community Forest Monitoring Working Group. The goals of the working group are to provide a platform for groups engaged in community forest monitoring activities - across continents - to share knowledge and experience. Equally important is for these groups to provide recommendations for the development of tools, methodologies, and common protocols. For example, the Surui tribe in the Brazilian Amazon is using modern technology to implement their community’s Surui Carbon Project.

This effort isn't isolated, as many NGOs and stakeholders support community-based approaches to forest monitoring for their efficiency, cultural relevance, and reliability. Community Forest Monitoring will play a role in the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) effort which aims to incentivize developing countries to adopt a low-emission path to development. In thinking about best methods for data collection, this working group is tackling a host of data collection issues including usability, security, accountability, cultural relevance, and scalability.

These are all concerns that the team at Open Data Kit (ODK), an open source suite of data collection tools, have fleshed out and iterated upon. ODK was born in 2008 as a Google sabbatical project of University of Washington computer science professor Gaetano Borriello. Borriello wanted to take advantage of Google’s data collection tools: maps, visualization, databases and has said that his team saw a gap in mobile data collection. Thus, Borriello’s team developed ODK Build, ODK Collect, and ODK Aggregate, mobile tools that have attracted thousands of users and dozens of active developers.

As ODK iterates and evolves, the Public Sector Engineering team is learning about the challenges and opportunities in mobile data collection and exploring how we can contribute to this space. ODK already gives users the option to visualize data in Google Earth and Google Fusion Tables, and we are exploring how to take advantage of some of Google’s other tools (what if photos collected on the ground could be easily posted to Picasa, or videos to YouTube?) It’s our goal to make sure that all meaningful data is effectively organized and made discoverable, accessible and usable.

Ultimately, community forest monitoring represents just one slice of the potential that effective data collection tools create. ODK was initially motivated by the needs of community health workers and has proven flexible enough to be used to track everything from human rights violations in the Central African Republic to water quality in Ghana. As the nature of scientific research diversifies and the volume of data collected increases, reliable, flexible, and lightweight tools will become more and more crucial.

What’s next? As the engineering teams continue to work on improving mobile data collection tools, this working group will convene policymakers at the next workshop to discuss standards and best practices. “The greatest barrier isn’t a technological one, but the challenge of leveraging this data so that communities can help ensure better governance for their forests,” says Niki Mardas, Head of Strategy and Communications for the Global Canopy Programme and As with many other public data collection efforts, it will become the job of advocates and analysts to shape meaningful narratives and press for the change the world needs. We're proud to be playing a part in this effort and we're committed to working with our partners to transform data collection from a passive, closed process into an active and empowering one.

Posted by Tanya Keen, Google Earth Outreach and Jenny Ye, Public Sector Engineering Intern

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