The plucky nonprofit, whose founder’s once dismissed warnings about offshore drilling foretold the BP oil spill, enlists help from Google and Oceana to create a website for tracking illegal fishing.
No one knows how much illegal fishing goes on in the oceans. They’re too vast to patrol. But a small nonprofit is helping governments track down seafood pirates by using powerful software, digital maps and publicly available data.
That nonprofit, SkyTruth, is led by a 52-year-old geologist named John Amos. It has fewer than a dozen employees and operates out of rural Shepherdstown, West Virginia – population: 2,140. Yet last spring, SkyTruth used its data to help the government of the Pacific island nation Palau track down a Taiwanese fishing ship whose holds were filled with illegally caught tuna and shark fins.
“Busting the bad guys is sexy,” says Amos, but he has bigger things in mind. In partnership with Google and Oceana, an international conservation and advocacy group, SkyTruth is building Global Fishing Watch, a website that allows the public to track fishing activities and outlaws and enable seafood purveyors to assure that the fish they are buying comes from sustainable fisheries. It also plans to provide data to researchers.
Meantime, SkyTruth does pathbreaking work around oil spills, mountaintop coal mining and hydraulic fracturing – for example, tracking pollution from unconventional oil and gas drilling, and using crowdsourcing to track the growth of fracking.
SkyTruth was among the nonprofits and companies showcased 18 November atWired in the Wild: Can technology save the planet?, a daylong conference in Washington DC organized by World Wildlife Fund to highlight ways in which technology can support conservation. Participants heard about deploying drones to survey wildlife, attaching sensors to rhinos to help identify poachers and using submersibles to take marine biologists deep below the surface of the oceans to study coral.
SkyTruth relies on other people’s technology – images and other data captured by satellites and aircraft and geographic information systems for capturing, analyzing and displaying geographical data. The public could monitor the movement of each fishing boat. No surprise that the company’s motto is: “If you can see it, you can change it”.
Its most powerful ally is Google, whose Google Earth Outreach unit has donated money, cloud computing and storage to SkyTruth. It also has gotten help from several Google software engineers who specialize in geographic information systems and programming computers to recognize patterns and use data to make predictions.
Rebecca Moore, a computer scientist who leads Google Earth Engine, calls Amos “a hero”. She says: “From the beginning, when Google Earth was launched, he was finding things in the imagery and creating overlays of information that were highlighting egregious environmental practices.”
As a former consultant to the oil, gas and mining industries, Amos knows first-hand that such extractive companies – if not properly monitored and regulated – can degrade or even destroy landscapes and habitats. He formed SkyTruth in 2001 with $15,000 from the conservation-minded Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation to monitor those businesses, using the knowledge of geology and satellite imagery that he had gained from the industries that consulted him.
For the next nine years, Amos worked alone. Gradually, he attracted attention by showcasing the impact of fossil fuel exploration on landscapes in Wyoming and the destruction caused by mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia, a region that stretches from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi. In 2009, during US Senate testimony, he talked about the dangers of offshore oil drilling, citing SkyTruth investigations of oil leaks caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and a spill in the Timor Sea off Australia. His warnings were dismissed by Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, who lectured him: “You do a great disservice – you and your organization – in not telling the American people the truth about what happens in domestic drilling, on shore and off, and putting it in the perspective that it deserves.”
Five months later, the BP oil spill made Amos’ reputation. BP and the US Coast Guard estimated that the spill was leaking 1,000 barrels of oil a day. Amos knew that figure was too low; he and Ian McDonald, a Florida State University oceanography professor, blogged that it was at least five times as much. Later, they argued in a New York Times op-ed that the spill was at least 40,000 barrels a day.
“The disaster proved pivotal for SkyTruth,” Amos says. It brought media attention, and grant money, and, most importantly, demonstrated that remote sensing could expose environmental problems and contribute to the understanding of their scope. SkyTruth added staff, notably Paul Woods, a longtime software entrepreneur who is its chief technology officer. It now has the equivalent of about 10 full-time employees, and the nonprofit generated about $650,000 in revenue last year. Its biggest donors are Google, Oceana and the Walton Family Foundation.
The Global Fishing Watch project, announced a year ago, is expected to launch in 2016. It will combine satellite imaging and data extracted from an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that all ships use to report their locations to generate an online, real-time picture of global fishing activities.
The broader goal, according to Amos, is to “nurture a global movement of local watchdogs” and make troves of data collected by governments and other organizations useful and accessible by the public. “Democratization (of data) is proceeding at a breakneck pace,” he says.