by Wynet Smith, Executive Director, Global Forest Watch Canada

I recently participated in the Public Policy Forum’s Future of Forestry event held on March 27, 2015 in Ottawa. I was on a panel that focused on accountability and transparency in the forestry sector in Canada. The discussion paper for that event noted both that it is increasingly necessary to engage environmentalists, First Nations and consumers on resource development and sustainable practices to ensure public confidence and that “open data and big data are revolutionizing the way forests are monitored and managed.”  I completely agree on both accounts!

As we all know, Canada is a huge country with extensive wilderness areas, important biological diversity, and forest resources that have played an important role in our country’s economic development. Global Forest Watch Canada (GFWC) was established fifteen years ago with a mission to support the stewardship and conservation of Canada’s remaining forests by providing decision makers and civil society with timely, accurate information about the location, state, and change of Canada’s forests. In particular, this mission includes monitoring development activities occurring within and around Canada’s forests, which influence the current and future conditions of these ecosystems as well as the people who live within them. We aim to contribute to a shift toward greater ecological sustainability in the management of our natural capital by creating a compelling visual picture and analysis of current conditions, historical changes and future trends.

GFWC is convinced that better information about Canada’s forests will lead to more informed government and corporate policies, and the preservation of our nation’s forests for current and future generations. To this end, we have been creating, and making available online, national datasets of development activities in Canada and analyzing impacts on forest landscapes. We make many of these products available for free via our website at http://www.globalforestwatch.org/. We work as an independent organization within the broader Global Forest Watch network.

Since our creation in 2000, things have evolved rapidly and remarkably. We are in a new era of big data and open data. Rapidly evolving technologies can help all of us analyze, monitor, and understand better how our activities affect forest landscapes. They can also help government agencies, the forest industry, and civil society inform and engage the public. Data and information sources are becoming increasingly detailed and sophisticated. They are also often increasingly accessible in terms of costs. Anyone with a computer and access to the internet can now explore how Canada looks from space. The on-going developments in data and technology can be summarized in three main areas.

  • Gathering data is easier:  The availability of satellite data has greatly expanded in recent years. Data streams such as MODIS give us frequent updates on crucial earth systems. Long term series like Landsat help use tell a story over decades. Landsat 8 images the entire earth every sixteen days and the images are available for free! New micro-satellites will provide high-resolution imagery at greater frequencies than ever before.
  • Analyzing data is easier: Satellite imagery requires expertise to interpret, and it can take long periods of time to analyze large areas at high resolution. However, there are advances such as cloud computing power from Google Earth Engine that enable people to analyze huge datasets in short periods of times. It is also much easier to display analysis through a non-technical interface.
  • Sharing data is easier: The spread of high-speed internet, mobile phones, and social media means that the imagery, analytical results, and maps can be shared faster than ever before.  GFWC puts its report and datasets on line; users can download our datasets for use in other analysis. Beyond Canada, initiatives such as the international Global Forest Watch platform are helping to provide access to data and information on a global scale. The GFW website itself hosts an interactive map, country pages, blog, user stories, a discussion group, and videos. The GFW map offers a wide variety of layers, all of which are highly relevant to contemporary forest issues. Users can use an interactive map and analyze various data layers. GFWC is sharing many of its layers on this platform, reaching an audience much broader than possible just through our own website.

All of these developments are both exciting and sometimes overwhelming. However, satellite imagery and other data are only part of the picture. Improving our stewardship of Canada’s forest requires not only the sharing of data and analytical products but the involvement of – and engagement between – many actors. It requires a willingness to collaborate and share perspectives, to listen to others, to engage in the area between the circles, what Anne Giardini has called “the space between us”.

As the new Executive Director of Global Forest Watch Canada, I want to explore that space, to figure out how we can use improvements in technology and data to address the challenges that face all of us (including climate change, which has major implications for Canada). None of us have the complete picture, just as a satellite image does not tell us everything about the area on the earth that it captures at one point in time. Working together for a sustainable future is crucial. Government agencies, forestry companies and civil society groups all have something unique to bring to the table. So let’s collaborate and share data, knowledge, and points of view. Our future depends upon it!