14 September 2022
How Digital Innovation Has Accelerated Monitoring of the World’s Forests
Felton, California, US / Casey Horner
story highlights

More than 35,000 people in 180 countries now use Open Foris – an open-source initiative to collect, analyze, and report critical forest and land data.

By enabling countries to report accurately the emission reductions they achieve, the tools help them secure results-based climate finance to accelerate the protection and sustainable management of forests.

By Julian Fox and Anssi Pekkarinen, Senior Forestry Officers, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

The way that we monitor the world’s forests has changed dramatically in recent years. Fifteen years ago, many countries still made maps and recorded information about their forests and land manually on paper. Forest monitoring involved considerable investment for developing countries, often through an initial international assistance project. Special facilities were needed to house powerful computers, digitizing boards, scanners and plotters, and analysis required expensive software which only trained individuals could use.

It could take years to set this all up, and even then, it would still take weeks to digitize data and download images and (with occasional interruptions due to power outages) months to process them. In some cases, the facilities were abandoned at the end of the project, software licenses were not renewed, and data was lost.  

Fast forward to today, and there is no longer a need for expensive facilities, computers, or software. Anyone can map and monitor forests and land and collect data using a mobile phone or laptop, to efficiently produce better data at a fraction of the cost.

This is not just because mobile devices and networks have improved. As the climate crisis grew, it became clear that a critical mass of accurate and timely information on deforestation and land degradation and restoration was fundamental to protecting ecosystems and fulfilling UN commitments for action for sustainable development.

A quantum leap was needed to allow countries to gather and share data autonomously on the scale needed and without financial, legal, or logistical constraints.

In 2011, the Forestry Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) launched an initiative called Open Foris, based on the idea that software supporting monitoring should be open-source, easily accessible, and free for anyone to use from anywhere, at any time.

Within years, the initial concerns that “open software” might not be reliable or safe were allayed, as its exciting potential became clear. This led to increased transparency: countries overcame a long-standing habit of keeping methodologies and raw data to themselves, with some sharing forest data internationally for the first time.

Global collaboration on open software and data rapidly evolved, and in 2015, FAO launched a new land monitoring platform called SEPAL and teamed up with Google to expand its power for accessing, processing, and analyzing satellite data.

Work with NASA’s SERVIR programme has produced a platform called Collect Earth Online, where scientists and citizens can collaborate and crowd-source information in real time to calibrate and validate satellite images. Cloud storage and open software also “future proofed” a country’s work, ensuring that data and methods are no longer lost if a project ends and instead can be developed and improved indefinitely.

More than 35,000 people in 180 countries now use Open Foris to collect, analyze, and report critical forest and land data. Not only are countries and scientists able to keep a far closer eye on the state of their forests, but the tools allow countries to report accurately the emission reductions they achieve. This, in turn, helps them secure results-based climate finance to accelerate the protection and sustainable management of forests.

Open Foris is just one of many open-source initiatives that, in little over a decade, have become mainstream in forestry, and across much of FAO’s work. In May 2022, FAO became a member of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to accelerate achieving the SDGs in low and middle-income countries, by working to make open-source software, open data, and open artificial intelligence (AI) models accessible.

Open-source initiatives have advanced our ability to track progress towards SDG 15 (Life on Land) and 13 (Climate Action).

In agriculture and climate change work, digital public goods have democratized information and are empowering young farmers, women, students, and entrepreneurs, who may previously have been excluded by technical, financial, and social barriers. This data explosion and democratization is what the world needs to stand a chance of understanding and responding to climate change. 

FAO’s work on open data and technical innovation will inform many of the deliberations at this autumn’s Committee on Forestry (COFO), where heads of national forest services and other government officials discuss emerging policy and technical issues and their solutions.

FAO will continue to innovate and develop new tools for information gathering and sharing, and to train people to use them. We urge countries and foresters at all levels to share their knowledge, the data they collect, and the tools they use more and more. The planet depends on it.

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