From 0 to 2 million in 4 years.

Four years of detecting deforestation.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) recently passed a major milestone: its two millionth user! Two million people have visited this collection of maps, graphs and data in four and a half years. That means two million people planning patrols in a protected area, searching for information about forest loss, and feeding their curiosity after reading a news article on deforestation. That’s two million people looking at near real-time data about what’s happening to the world’s forests.

I joined Vizzuality four years ago, and have spent a lot of my time reviewing who uses GFW and how they use it. To celebrate this milestone I want to take you on a journey through the last few years of GFW, showing you how the platform and its audience has grown in that time.

Four years of people looking at GFW…

2014: A big welcome.

Global Forest Watch got a huge welcome into the world. Within just one month we had over 250,000 people looking at the site. A lot of them came from news articles and had a cursory look over the site; the average user spent just 90 seconds on the site. But that was all it took to plant the seed that open forest data could change the way the world conserves and manages forests.

This was what GFW looked like when it launched in 2014.

After the excitement of the launch, the rest of 2014 had more steady usage: around 23,000 visits a month. While we reached our first 250,000 in just two weeks, our second 250,000 took 10 more months.

In September 2014, we released several new datasets and small features to extend the ability to analyse and customise data, prompting another big surge in interest. September 2014 remains one of the biggest months for use of GFW to this day.

“Now with GFW, we have a very clear picture. We can confirm gold mining operations on the map, discover unknown operations, or reject places we thought mining was occurring.” Rudo Kemper.

2015: Growing our core audience.

We launched a new version of the map in early 2015, delivering a number of significant improvements to performance and speed — and a host of new data too!

In response, we saw the rate of usage increasing throughout 2015, up to around 31,000 users a month. These people were also spending much more time interrogating all the data on the site. Instead of 90-second visits, we saw people staying for nearly four minutes.

You can see here how many more people came to GFW in 2015, compared to 2014.

It was during this time that the Commodities, Fires and Climate apps were also launched, to provide a focussed view of curated data to fill some specific needs around those three issues.

See more from Lisa here.
“With GFW, you don’t have to create an account or even download the data to find the information you’re looking for or perform the analyses you need — although you can download data easily if you want to.” Lisa Kelley.

2016: The first million and higher quality satellite imagery.

Global Forest Watch’s primary datasets — the UMD layers showing tree cover loss and gain — come from an analysis of satellite imagery. In the first few years of GFW, you had to access Landsat images if you wanted to try and take a closer look at what the Earth really looks like beneath those blue and pink pixels. But those images have quite a low resolution. If you squint really hard, you can just about make out the difference between a patch of green forest and a patch of brown dirt.

Adding high quality satellite images made a huge difference for those people going deep into the dynamics of land change around the world. The feature first launched in 2016 with images provided by UrtheCast, before changing to Sentinel. Around 22,000 people have used this feature over the last few years — a small but significant part of our audience.

Earlier this year we revamped this feature to better serve this large core group of users. We hope you’re enjoying it, wherever you are!

Twenty-eight months after the launch, we reached a total of one million unique users to the platform. This was a big milestone that we celebrated in our offices with a glass of bubbles!

“The burn season starts in June so it’ll be interesting to use GFW to monitor the impact of our project this next dry season. As a bonus, because the tool is free, it gives us a cheap and reliable way to check on our work.” Craig Leisher.

2017: Game changing GLAD alerts.

Throughout 2016 and 2017 we continued making small additions and adjustments to the platform. Chief among them was the higher resolution weekly deforestation alerts — GLAD alerts — that became available for select tropical countries. Users investigating these countries enjoyed a major improvement in the quality of data available to show where forests were being lost. But we also added country-specific data; again, enhancing the range and quality of data available for people in a number of countries.

“The recent deforestation increases in Brazil and Indonesia are important insights for implementing specific policies and actions. This shows the value of a tool like GFW that is continuously updated (which is improved with the GLAD alert system).” David Torres.

In response to all that, and all the people WRI reached out to in that time, we saw a 20% increase in the number of users coming to the site in an average month in 2017, compared to 2016. We now had around 39,000 people viewing all that data every month. Unfortunately some of those people were coming to the site because of the largely publicised fires season that affected Spain, Portugal and many other countries in 2017: you can see this in the gif below.

Each square is the sum of all the time spent looking at that part of the world on the GFW map. Yellow squares have more people spending more time looking at them.

2018: A record summer.

When GFW launched, the country pages were a place for people to get an overview of key statistics about forests in a given country or a state/region in a country. Drawing on tonnes of user reflections and feedback, we redesigned and redeveloped these country pages to provide more detailed answers to key questions.

We were delighted to see that the response to this redevelopment has been really positive! We’ve seen an increase in the number of people customising and interacting with the data on these pages, people exploring more country pages, and fewer people leaving the site from the country pages. Having seen the success of this page in Google Analytics and our feedback responses, we’re hoping to include this approach in other parts of the site, including the analysis results you see on the map and for your areas of interest.

“And can I just say, the new GFW country pages: wow”

During the summer of 2018 we notched up two record months for the number of users coming to the site. The audience size in July, and then August 2018, was the largest we’ve seen since the opening month. Again, a large global interest in fires over the summer is driving a lot more people to the site, but we’re also seeing increased use of the embedded pages, where people have taken a visualisation from GFW and placed it on their own site. As an open data platform, where every piece of data and every visualisation is there for you to take and spread across the web, it’s always great to see our reach expanding.

What’s next?

It took 28 months to reach the first million, and 26 months to reach the second million. With a whole new map on the way later this year, and GLAD deforestation alerts soon to be available for the entire tropics, we’re confident we can reach our next million in record time. Why not help us get there? Here’s how:

Have ideas for how we can get a million more users? Let us know — we’d love to hear from you.

A view of Global Forest Watch today.