Shaping the future of mobile field data collection with TerraBio and Ecam

By Wendy Francesconi, Ecosystem Services and Environmental Impact Theme Lead at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
Gino Miceli, Ground Open-Source Project Lead
Vasco M. van Roosmalen, Founder and Executive Director of Ecam

Google teamed up with CAL-PSE, SERVIR-Amazonia, Ecam, and other partners on a grassroots effort to develop new tools to democratize offline mapping and data collection through the Ground open-source project. The project aims to empower local communities and the organizations that support them by building a platform tailored to their unique needs. The Ground team worked with partners to pilot two projects in Brazil focused on improving livelihoods and combating climate change.

In one of Brazil’s most verdant regions, the northern state of Amapá, Joaquina dos Santos makes her daily trek to tend to her community’s farm plot. But unlike in traditional agriculture, this plot is tucked away inside the Amazon rainforest in a practice known as agroforestry. In it, Joaquina and her community grow fruits, vegetables, and trees like shade-grown cacao. Dependent on small-scale regenerative agriculture for income, her community provides an important source of organic food for urban centers while protecting the forests on their traditional lands. This mix of productive agriculture and forest protection supports both the increasing demand for healthy food and the need to reduce and offset carbon emissions.

Joaquina is one of nearly 16 million Quilombola, descendants of African peoples who were forcibly brought to Brazil, escaped slavery, and established their own communities. Since the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, these communities and their regenerative agriculture practices have been mostly invisible to the rest of the world.

With support from Brazilian NGO Ecam, Quilombola communities are working to change this. Together, they regularly map out the boundaries of their farms and collect data needed to estimate biomass, carbon, forested area, and other indicators. This data is then used to quantify the impact of their contributions, gaining visibility in climate change policy and related financial mechanisms that affect their livelihoods.

Quilombola community members Joaquina dos Santos (right) and Lavoisier Ferreira (center) use Ground to map their community plot with Ecam field coordinator Arlison Kléber (left)

Meanwhile, 500 miles (800 km) away among shade-grown cacao and cattle grazing farms in the state of Pará, local partners of the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are in the field collecting data and samples needed to test a new approach to assess the impact of private sector investments in landscape restoration and biodiversity conservation named “TerraBio.”

While the private sector has extensive influence on natural resources, and many companies have pledged to adopt sustainable practices, most organizations lack strategic approaches for environmental compliance and impact evaluation. Traditional forest and biodiversity monitoring methods can be expensive, time consuming, and difficult to standardize — meaning they are generally not utilized by small- and medium-sized businesses, and are often only partially implemented by larger corporations. TerraBio aims to make compliance and evaluation at scale easy for businesses of all sizes.

The TerraBio methodology combines satellite data with environmental DNA (eDNA) extracted from soil samples. Data about land use and land management practices is also collected in the field. This data is then used to interpret the eDNA results and to validate land cover and land use maps produced for a business project. The methodology provides a cost-effective and reliable way to implement biodiversity-focused corporate accountability. TerraBio is an assessment approach within the Catalyzing and Learning through Private Sector Engagement for Biodiversity Conservation (CAL-PSE) program, a strategic partnership between USAID/Brazil and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. The tool is being developed in collaboration with SERVIR-Amazonia, Spatial Informatics Group (SIG), and the Instituto de Manejo e Certificação Florestal e Agrícola (Imaflora).

What the Quilombola and TerraBio efforts have in common is that the success of their endeavors depends in large part on their ability to scale the collection of field data in digital format to other communities and private companies. Reliable data collection in rural and forested areas, however, is notoriously difficult. Recognizing the need for a mapping and data collection software platform that caters to the needs of local communities and small-scale farmers, a group of Google employees and community contributors teamed up to create an experimental open-source project called Ground. Their goal: to understand the ideal set of technological capabilities needed to empower individuals and the institutions that support them to take ownership of their mapping and data collection efforts in a way that would be both sustainable and scalable. After completing several user studies and immersion research in Sumatra, Indonesia, they hypothesized that a map-first, free, open-source platform that works offline and seamlessly integrates with existing technologies would address most of these needs. The TerraBio team and the Quilombola communities supported by Ecam recently helped validate these key hypotheses through a series of pilots using working prototypes of the platform.

The Ground prototype used for testing consisted of a web app and a native Android app. The web app was used by survey organizers to create new projects, define map layers, import points and polygons, design basic data collection forms, and set permissions and sharing settings. The Android app was then used by data collectors to add points and polygons to the map, take photos, and fill out the forms specified by the organizers. Data was entered mostly offline, and automatically synced to the cloud when an internet connection became available. Survey organizers then exported data from the web app for further analysis in powerful cloud-based tools such as Google Earth Engine.

The prototype web app used to define layers and forms (left) and the Android app used to map farms and collect data (right)

The Quilombola experience with Ground and Google Earth Engine has shown how inclusive technology can empower communities to fully integrate data on their land management and regenerative agricultural practices into global discussions around climate change. Using Ground, data collection and analysis that a few years ago would have required a team of highly trained specialists and proprietary software could be put into the hands of communities almost anywhere with minimal resources. During the pilot, two of the small traditional communities who only recently put themselves on the map using Google Earth were already able to identify over 80,000 tons of carbon stock under their protection.

Accurately and transparently measuring the contributions of each community and quantifying their regional, national, and global impact remains a challenge. There are more than 500 million people practicing regenerative agriculture in the global south, comprising up to 45% of the world’s food production. They often lack access to technical assistance, credit, and shared markets. There is now a tremendous opportunity to include these vital producers and protectors of the world’s ecosystems in global platforms fighting climate change. Ecam intends to work with Google Earth Outreach and long-term partners such as USAID and SERVIR to further streamline these data processes and to continue to democratize access to marginalized communities for climate change action.

Many lessons were also learned during the TerraBio pilot which are now being used to improve the methodology. The Amazon Biodiversity Fund, the first biodiversity-focused impact investment fund in the Amazon biome, will be promoting the application of TerraBio as its environmental monitoring approach of choice. Using Ground, businesses in the Amazon could be engaged in the environmental assessment of their operations, entrepreneurs could measure how their activities are influencing biodiversity, and larger private companies could provide accountability for their impacts on natural resources. Together, TerraBio and Ground are expected to advance global efforts on the use of technology for biodiversity conservation.

As the Ground community continues to iterate on the existing prototype, they welcome contributions from developers around the globe through the GitHub repositories for the prototype web app and Android app. To receive updates on latest developments, be sure to join the Ground announcements mailing list. Stay tuned!



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