CRS Impact

Myanmar Cyclone Relief and Coral Reef Monitoring

Figure 1

Satellite-based damage assessment for an affected unnamed village north of Tunggale village, Ngapudaw Township, Myanmar. Attributes created by GISCorps volunteers on 50-cm WorldView-1 satellite imagery (DigitalGlobe) acquired May 23, 2008 after cyclone Nargis impacted the region. Pre-cyclone Quickbird imagery (also DigitalGlobe) in Google Earth from Jan. 17, 2005 was also used for change detection. Processing by Pacific Disaster Center. Image courtesy of GISCorps, NGA, Respond/Keyobs.

Figure 2

Overview of 18 villages affected by Myanmar cyclone, a final online deliverable made available to relief workers using a combination of remote sensing sources and attributes generated by GISCorps volunteers as a Landat Mosaic (Esri-MDC). Damaged buildings have been identified with WorldView-1 satellite imagery (DigitalGlobe) acquired on May 6, 8, 10, 23 and 27, 2008 at a spatial resolution of 50 cm. Pre-cyclone Quickbird imagery from 2005 was also used for change detection. Processing by Pacific Disaster Center. Image courtesy of GISCorps, NGA, Respond/Keyobs.

Figure 3

A scuba diver collects digital imagery of coral reefs with a GPS unit buoyed to the surface.

Figure 4

Researchers performing field survey to monitor health of coral reef habitat.

Figure 5

Kubulau Reef in Fiji, image taken by IKONOS in 2006, provided by Wildlife Conservation Society – Fij, and processed by University of Queensland.

Figure 6

Heron Island and Reef, Southern Great Barrier Reef, Australia. This image is from QuickBird-2, taken July 1, 2007. It is pan-sharpened multispectral. Copyright and courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Processed image data from the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Science, School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, University of Queensland.

By Natalie Cutsforth
Writer and Geospatial Consultant
Denver, Colo.

Community Remote Sensing (CRS) is an emerging movement made possible by technology advancement, public access to satellite imagery and the growing mass of technology-savvy citizens. It combines software, data and server-based systems to link experts and volunteers who contribute to collection of information for large-scale project areas. A priority watch activity of 2010 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS), CRS is characterized by application of location technology that “. . . combines remote sensing with citizen science, social networks, and crowd-sourcing to enhance the data obtained from traditional sources. It includes the collection, calibration, analysis, communication, or application of remotely sensed information by these community means.” One form of CRS, crowd-sourcing is the use of cellular text messaging, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Twitter (San Francisco, Calif.) technology to report ground-level activities real-time and near-time for use in analysis.

Easy-to-access web-based collaboration tools have made possible a new era of distributed processing. This translates into the capacity to “…harness thousands of people around the world to do a tiny bit, a tiny little area each…,” and to provide critical information in a useful timeframe, says Scott Madry, who is associate research professor of archaeology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a member of the faculty of the International Space University (Strasbourg, France), and president of Informatics International Incorporated, a Chapel Hill consulting firm. CRS is being used to acquire real-time weather data on private vehicles, ground-level data in agricultural settings and for disaster response, for local ecological and marine habitat monitoring, human rights watch information, and rapid peer-review of remote sensing work, and to advance the contributions of indigenous communities.

Editor’s Note: Another article about coral reef mapping appears here

GISCorps Volunteerism

One of the leading programs to apply CRS to large-scale international projects is GISCorps. They are a volunteer-based group formed in 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia, by Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) (Des Plaines, Ill.) GISCorps was formed with the intention of applying Geographic Information System (GIS) skills to make a positive impact on the world. The group mission supports humanitarian aid, community planning and development, health and education activities, human rights relief, environmental analysis, and economic development, as well as works to strengthen the local capacity to adopt and use information technology in disadvantaged areas. GISCorps relies on four types of supporters to complete their mission: committee members, volunt-eers, partner agencies and donors. They provide assistance with GIS projects in the form of:

  • Short-term onsite deployment of personnel who offer technology transfer and training or
  • Remote project team data creation from participants in locations around the world.

Cyclone Nargis Hits Myanmar

A specific incident that proved the impact of harnessing volunteers to collect massive amounts of data quickly was the response to cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar (Burma) beginning May 2, 2008. GISCorps was approached by UNOSAT, the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program, to coordinate volunteers with GIS and imagery analysis skills. A request was sent to GIS list serves for volunteers willing to provide immediate expertise to attribute features on pre- and post-cyclone imagery. GISCorps provided team members simple project area instructions and a Google Earth (Mountain View, Calif.) web mapping interface via a wiki, an interactive internet site that is not hierarchical and is easy to manipulate by all levels of project participants.

An understanding of local culture played a critical role in choosing the focus of data collection. The team collected typical features such as roads, bridges and towns, but also Buddhist monasteries. Monasteries are the heart of the Burmese communities, and therefore are the natural sites where people congregate in time of crisis. The first round of feature attribution used pre-disaster data and the second round used post-disaster data.

Citizen-Distributed Data Processing

All GISCorps volunteers worked from home and collaborated virtually via the online wiki community to receive assignments and produce as much data as possible outside of their normal working hours. Google Earth was used to attribute single points, lines and polygons on the satellite imagery backdrop. As team members completed assigned areas, they sent information to the project coordinator for review (Figure 1). The data were quality checked, then converted to an Esri ArcGIS (Redlands, Calif.) software environment to add the power of a relational database. Attributes were then sent to UNOSAT, who completed the final cartographic product, providing it to relief workers through a web portal.

The government of Myanmar was initially not willing to allow international aid into the country, causing a delay in critical lifesaving efforts. This didn’t stop the GISCorps project team of 33 volunteers from producing 1300 hours of work to identify 60,000 attributes on the map from May 9-21, 2008. When relief workers were finally allowed into the country, they had online access to the data they needed to prioritize response (Figure 2).

Widespread access to remotely sensed data has taken censorship out of the equation, so citizen organizations can proceed even when there is government resistance.


Widespread access to remotely sensed data has taken censorship out of the equation, so citizen organizations can proceed even when there is government resistance. Madry, who volunteered on the Myanmar cyclone GISCorps team, indicated, “The whole idea was speed and distributed processing in a very standardized way… Using a remote project team model reduces costs and increases the turnaround time on time-critical projects. Technologies such as Skype (Luxemburg), Google Earth and high-bandwidth internet have opened up a new way for volunteers to be effective from their own locations around the world.”

Incidents such as the Myanmar cyclone have provided the opportunity to apply CRS and discover efficiencies that are being implemented in future projects. For example, the GISCorps team learned that attributes could have been collected in a shorter period of time by identifying which regions had more dense data and assigning smaller areas to volunteers based on this knowledge. Madry suggested another route to improve response time would be to “…move datasets between volunteers around the planet based on waking/working time zones.” Typically in emergency response scenarios, there is a high degree of volunteer burnout with people on the ground working 24/7 to reach victims. The power of CRS to distribute processing of critical data in manageable chunks relieves pressure on relief teams and reduces the situations when the data shows up too late to save human lives.

Coral Reef Monitoring

A less time-critical application of CRS is monitoring coral reef habitat in coastal regions. Historically, management of marine ecosystems has been localized and limited to specific study areas with rare species or economic value. Government, educational institutions and conservation groups employ experts to collect, compile and analyze the data used in management of coral reef benthic communities, organisms that live in and on the ocean floor. In an effort to expand human understanding of healthy coral reef habitat, a team led by the University of Queens-land, Australia, school of Geography, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission and University of South Pacific, all located in Suava, Fiji, has developed a toolset that local communities can easily use to collect and monitor coral reef habitat.

Regional participants in projects of this scale bring to bear critical first-hand knowledge and expand the reach of traditional research environments. The Remote Sensing Working Group of Coral Reef Targeted Research (CRTR) and Capacity Building for Management Program created the Coastal Remote Sensing Toolkit (CRST) ( to monitor the health of benthic communities with remote sensing. In the process, they have developed coast-specific change detection methodologies that are applied for observation and management of biodiversity.

In the water, anyone with a GPS unit and underwater digital camera can collect data of a coral reef using the group’s simple methodology. The GPS unit must be kept afloat with a buoy on the surface directly above the digital camera, and the data post-processed to provide accurate location of the photographs for use in a GIS. Participants swim transects of the coral reef in order to collect the necessary sampling of data. Once the data is in the hands of researchers, it is studied using satellite imagery, CRTR’s unique coastal spect-ral signature library, and underwater plant database (Figures 3-4). The intent is to identify causes and provide solutions for coral bleaching and pollutants that may negatively affect the local habitat. More recently the data are also being used to monitor climate change.

A lead researcher on the CRTR project discussed how CRS is applied in the field with coral reef monitoring. “Locals can assist with gathering, calibration and validation of data; on top of that, they can help in creating maps. I worked together with local fisherman to create maps of reefs in Fiji,” says Chris Roelfsema, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biophysical Remote Sensing Group, Centre for Spatial Environmental Research in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Coastal ecosystems support local communities with tourism, food sources and recreation activities. Healthy coral reef ecosystems contribute to protection of the coastline from natural erosion. “The most powerful part of my work is turning a bird’s eye view of a coral reef gathered by high tech sensor on a satellite, [combined] with basic skills and knowledge of local communities, into meaningful spatial information to manage these biologically and economically important resources,” says Roelfsema.

Water clarity in tidal areas varies, limiting exclusive use of remote sensing data for analysis of coral reef health. Integration of satellite imagery sources with field survey data collected during the same time period results in further defining the spectral signatures for healthy benthic communities (Figures 5-6). The underwater imagery collected with measurably accurate position helps validate features derived from satellite imagery. Remote sensing has been the only feasible way to measure significant large-scale change in coral reefs. By coupling science with the knowledge and broader participation of CRS in data collection, we take a leap in the direction of greater sustainability of global coastal resources.

The Future

CRS is an emerging application of earth observation technology with unlimited potential. Because it is nascent, we have a very limited understanding of the possible future evolution of this marriage between technology, humanity and the environment. Distributed processing, the leading edge of CRS, may be utilized to engage individuals around the world to contribute to our understanding of ecology, archeology, natural disasters and human behavior. As access to inform-ation expands, citizens are educated about the earth and shown more avenues for meaningful participation in society, whether through volunteerism, eco-tourism or conservation of resources in their local communities.

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Comments [ 1 ]

  1. July 9, 2011 4:36am MST
    by Bayle
    Cool! That's a clveer way of looking at it!
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