Using AI to find where the wild things are

Dec 17, 2019

3 min read

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Tanya Birch

Program Manager, Google Earth Outreach

Jorge Ahumada

Senior Wildlife Conservation Scientist, Conservation International

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According to the World Wildlife Fund, vertebrate populations have shrunk an average of 60 percent since the 1970s. And a recent UN global assessment found that we’re at risk of losing one million species to extinction, many of which may become extinct within the next decade. 

To better protect wildlife, seven organizations, led by Conservation International, and Google have mapped more than 4.5 million animals in the wild using photos taken from motion-activated cameras known as camera traps. The photos are all part of Wildlife Insights, an AI-enabled, Google Cloud-based platform that streamlines conservation monitoring by speeding up camera trap photo analysis.

With photos and aggregated data available for the world to see, people can change the way protected areas are managed, empower local communities in conservation, and bring the best data closer to conservationists and decision makers.

Ferreting out insights from mountains of data

Camera traps help researchers assess the health of wildlife species, especially those that are reclusive and rare. Worldwide, biologists and land managers place motion-triggered cameras in forests and wilderness areas to monitor species, snapping millions of photos a year. 

But what do you do when you have millions of wildlife selfies to sort through? On top of that, how do you quickly process photos where animals are difficult to find, like when an animal is in the dark or hiding behind a bush? And how do you quickly sort through up to 80 percent of photos that have no wildlife at all because the camera trap was triggered by the elements, like grass blowing in the wind?

Processing all these photos isn’t only time consuming and painstaking. For decades, one of the biggest challenges has been simply collecting them. Today, millions of camera trap photos languish on the hard drives and discs of individuals and organizations worldwide.

Illuminating the natural world with AI

With Wildlife Insights, conservation scientists with camera trap photos can now upload their images to Google Cloud and run Google’s species identification AI models over the images, collaborate with others, visualize wildlife on a map and develop insights on species population health.

It’s the largest and most diverse public camera-trap database in the world that allows people to explore millions of camera-trap images, and filter images by species, country and year.

Wildlife Insights

Seven leading conservation organizations and Google released Wildlife Insights to better protect wildlife.

On average, human experts can label 300 to 1,000 images per hour. With the help of Google AI Platform Predictions, Wildlife Insights can classify the same images up to 3,000 times faster, analyzing 3.6 million photos an hour. To make this possible, we trained an AI model to automatically classify species in an image using Google’s open source TensorFlow framework. 

Even though species identification can be a challenging task for AI, across the 614 species that Google’s AI models have been trained on, species like jaguars, white-lipped peccaries and African elephants have between an 80 to 98.6 percent probability of being correctly predicted. Most importantly, images detected to contain no animals with a very high confidence are removed automatically, freeing biologists to do science instead of looking at empty images of blowing grass. 

With this data, managers of protected areas or anti-poaching programs can gauge the health of specific species, and local governments can use data to inform policies and create conservation measures. 

Wildlife Insights Animal Classifier

The Wildlife Insights Animal Classifier tool helps researchers classify 614 species.

Acting before it’s too late

Thanks to the combination of advanced technology, data sharing, partnerships and science-based analytics, we have a chance to bend the curve of species decline.

While we’re just at the beginning of applying AI to better understand wildlife from sensors in the field, solutions like Wildlife Insights can help us protect our planet so that future generations can live in a world teeming with wildlife. 

Learn more about Wildlife Insights and watch the documentary film Eyes in the Forest: Saving Wildlife In Colombia Using Camera Traps and AI. The film tells the story of a camera trapper who uses Wildlife Insights to document and preserve the biological diversity in Caño Cristales, a reserve in Colombia’s remote upper Amazon region. 

Wildlife Insights is a collaboration between Conservation International, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Map of Life, World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zoological Society of London, Google Earth Outreach,  built by Vizzuality, and supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Lyda Hill Philanthropies.

Space out with Google Earth on mobile

Earthtopomaps

Jan 30, 2020

1 min read

Jonathan Cohen

Software Engineer, Google Earth

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Stars are magical. Van Gogh painted them. Shakespeare wrote about them. We make wishes on them. 

On the Google Earth team, we understand people’s desire to see stars just as much as they want to see Planet Earth. The Google Earth mobile app now offers wide views of our starry universe, just as Earth for the web and Earth Pro have done for some time.

As smartphones and tablets have become more powerful, we’ve been able to bring the quality of Earth’s web and Pro versions to most smartphones. You can now see a view of the stars as you zoom out from Earth on your phone. Rotate the globe and you’ll see images of the beautiful Milky Way, collected from the European Southern Observatory, depicting the stars as they’d appear to a space explorer at a point some 30,000 miles above the planet. 

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Before we added the star imagery, the sky around the “big blue marble” view in Google Earth was simply black, which wasn’t very realistic. Realism is important to us—we want people using Google Earth to see our planet in context with our place in the universe. 

That’s also why we recently added animated clouds that show weather patterns around the globe, and feature space themes, like Scenes from Space and Visit the International Space Station, in our guided tours on Google Earth’s storytelling platform, Voyager.

All kinds of people use Google Earth: scientists, environmentalists, government and nonprofit workers, and global citizens who simply love exploring the planet. Whether they want to zoom in and explore Earth close-up or zoom out and see the big picture, we hope people using the Google Earth app will enjoy this new opportunity to stargaze. 

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Oldest island in the world

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For almost 88 million years, the island of Madagascar has stood off the coast of Southeast Africa. From the tropical humid and dry forests of the interior, home to ring-tailed lemurs, to the mangrove ecosystems along the coast, the island is home to some of the most unusual and delicate ecosystems on Earth. Now for the first time, through our Trekker Loan partnership with conservation organization Blue Ventures and the Department of Water and Forests: University of Antananarivo, the Madagascar Ministry of Culture, and Madagascar National Parks, you can take a virtual journey to Madagascar with Street View in Google Maps.

 

Walking along the avenues of Western Madagascar, you’ll notice a stand of Baobab trees. Against the clear skies, these unusual trees look almost unfinished, with thick trunks and sparse canopies.

Avenue of Baobabs in Madagascar
For a bird’s-eye view of the island, stand along the edge of the Karambony cliffs. Looking out at the vast, wild landscape, you can see how many different worlds exist on this one island—from the vast mountain peaks to the streaming rivers flowing out into the Indian Ocean.

The cliffs of Karambony


Though beautiful scenery abounds in Madagascar, the country is also facing real challenges due to the increased demand placed on natural resources. While much of the plant and animal life has remained abundant over the centuries, this incredibly rare biodiversity is increasingly being fragmented by human activities. To shine a spotlight on ongoing conservation efforts, Blue Ventures collected imagery of some of the island’s most compelling scenery, including areas where effective conservation is increasingly critical to community livelihoods, climate change preparedness and for safeguarding biodiversity. 

Now you can visit the Mangrove ecosystems along the North coast as well as go sailing on a pirogue 40km into the Mozambique Channel to see the remote Barren Isles archipelago, the largest community-managed marine conservation area in the Indian Ocean.
Mangrove ecosystems along the North Coast


Whether you want to explore the wild terrain of the island’s landscape or drift down the Sambirano river in a dug-out canoe, we invite you to virtually explore Madagascar’s spectacular biodiversity on Google Maps in clear resolution and detail.
 

And if this Street View tour has inspired you to set foot on the the world’s oldest island in person, take a peek at Camp Catta adventure resort, where it seems paradise awaits you beneath the rainbow; or take a look at Velondriake, where you can help make meaningful contributions towards c
onservation in Madagascar through a Blue Ventures expedition.
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