The role of no-code geospatial software in the fight against climate change
Nature-Based Solutions (NbS) were high on the agenda at COP27 last month, with the Presidency urging collective action and financing from governments and organisations. In what is expected to be a defining decade for the climate, we explore the role of no-code geospatial software in helping to scale NbS for the mitigation of climate change.
What are Nature-Based Solutions?
Nature-Based Solutions (NbS) is an umbrella term coined by the World Bank in 2008 to stress the importance of habitat conservation in the fight against climate change. NbS are defined by the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) as "actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits.
Investment into NbS is expected to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 in order to meet global climate change, biodiversity and land degradation targets. A recent report, Decent Work in Nature-based Solutions, by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates 75 million people work in the sector today with the potential to grow to almost 100 million by the end of the decade if this investment is secured.
From monitoring, reporting, and verification of projects, to quantifying and evidencing their impact, geospatial data has a vital role to play in supporting and scaling NbS. The European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) reported that the Earth observation (EO) value-added services market is projected to grow from £1.86bn in 2021 to £3.97bn by 2031. Many of the top sectors projected for growth, such as agriculture, climate services, energy and raw materials, have an interest in NbS.
In order to support the scaling of NbS there are three key requirements for geospatial technology - easy access to big Earth data, affordable and user-friendly software, and education to train the future workforce. Let's explore them here.
Access to big Earth data
In 2010, Google launched Earth Engine at COP15, marking the entry of the tech giants into the big Earth data market. Microsoft and Amazon Web Services would later follow. Today, all three provide access to extensive Earth observation and satellite imagery databases, including Landsat and Sentinel-2 data, along with the cloud's computational power needed to process and analyse the images.
Open access is typically given to academics and NGOs for environmental and research purposes. However, earlier this year, Google announced its commercial offering for Earth Engine through Google Cloud in response to demand from businesses and governments for access. Earth Engine's public data archive comprises over 900 datasets and contains over forty years of historical imagery and scientific datasets that are continuously updated.
Access to big Earth data was a crucial driver in the development of the Strata, a climate risk analysis platform designed to assist over 130 United Nations (UN) country teams to bring together data from diverse sources and give them greater clarity on where climate stresses are at their highest. The project was delivered through a collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the University of Edinburgh, Google Earth Engine, the Group on Earth Observations, and Earth Blox.
Strata supports the UN in determining where environmental and climate stresses are converging and contributing to increased risk of maladaptation, fragility, migration, and conflict. Strata integrates environment and climate stressors whose outputs can be analysed on Earth Blox, encompassing precipitation, flooding, fires, tree loss, and land productivity, among others.
Today, the Strata Climate Risk Analysis platform is used by over 300 UN staff and enables international collaboration. Complex analysis of Earth Engine and other datasets can be rapidly implemented and customised at the click of a button, allowing them to become more efficient with satellite and other geospatial data and spend more time delivering high-quality project outcomes.
David Jensen, Head of the United Nations Environmental Peacebuilding Programme, described Strata as "version 4+++ of what's available on the market." Adding that it "could deliver a significant impact for climate and environment risk management."
Affordable and user-friendly software
These restrictions led a team of remote sensing scientists and academics to build Earth Blox. They understood the only way to accelerate the adoption of Earth observation insights in the fight for our planet was to make it more accessible. The team developed the no-code software for Earth data analysis and launched it in 2019. Earth Blox provides access to the entire Earth Engine catalogue and can add additional data sources as needed.
No-code software has experienced significant growth in recent years. The no-code movement empowers people to create without code. It offers non-technical professionals such as project managers and analysts the tools to build custom applications without needing to understand computer programming languages. They provide a low barrier to entry and allow users to iterate quickly. They are also flexible and can be tailored to fit specific workflow needs. The global no/low-code platform market is forecast to reach USD 65 billion by 2027.
Increasingly businesses and enterprises are turning to no-code solutions to address operational inefficiencies. One such example is a major oil and gas provider that is working to scale its NbS investments as they strive for net-zero. Their in-house NbS team is tasked with assessing project viability for investment. They found many of the questions asked of the geomatics adviser in the early stages of an assessment were repetitive and relatively basic, for example, "Can you look at the land cover and land cover change history over the last ten years?" This was fast becoming a blocker, with commercial leads sometimes having to wait up to four weeks to get an answer to a basic question in the initial stages of an assessment.
After thoroughly assessing alternative solutions, including geospatial software providers and consultants, the customer selected Earth Blox for its intuitive, drag-and-drop interface and pre-built workflows.
Through Earth Blox, the customer can access the entire Earth Engine data catalogue. And unlike other solutions that focus on single datasets, such as forests or land cover, Earth Blox allows users to layer multiple, diverse datasets to build comprehensive insights into how different environmental factors, such as fire, flood, land cover change, forest, mangroves, combine to provide the most accurate picture of what's on the ground.
Today, the NbS commercial leads can conduct initial assessments in 30 minutes rather than waiting up to four weeks for the information from the geomatics adviser. As the team grows, so too does the number of assessments, and Earth Blox unblocks this funnel by enabling commercial leads to conduct initial assessments. Without a solution for non-geospatial experts, the client would need to grow their geomatics team or hire external consultants to support the increasing workload. Using Earth Blox, a commercial lead can assess ten opportunities in the time it would take for the geomatics adviser to respond to one query within an ever growing workload.
Geospatial education for the future workforce
Until recently, geospatial data and insights have traditionally only been accessible to domain experts. Equipping tomorrow's NbS workforce with the skills to use this data without having to have a PhD in remote sensing is critical to growing the workforce. The ILO's Decent Work in Nature-based Solutions report calls for universities to integrate NbS into their mainstream curricula.
In response to the Covid pandemic, Earth Blox worked with the University of Edinburgh, the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency to develop Earth Blox Education so that students could continue learning from home. The no-code software gives universities a hands-on web tool for teaching practical geospatial data handling and interpretation without having to learn how to code.
Dr Anna Hogg, Associate Professor, EO of polar regions, at the University of Leeds, says, "With cross-faculty modules, students come with different levels of programming expertise. The aim of my course is not to teach programming but to teach them to understand, interpret and process satellite data. Earth Blox enabled me to make sure that there was no 'programming block' on achieving that objective."
When conservation and biodiversity scientist Alice Peace was studying for a Master of Science in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, she collaborated with the International Conifer Conservation Society (ICCP) to investigate the threats to the Serbian spruce (Picea omorika).
She designed a research project that combined novel satellite remote sensing data, species occurrence records, and present and future climate data to map and quantify the threats to the conifer across Europe. Alice planned to carry out most of the analysis in R, using Maximum Entropy Modelling for future climate projections and visualising results using QGIS. However, with a limited coding background, she found learning how to write and adapt code time-consuming. "I didn't have the skills to understand where my code wasn't working or the time to commit to learning this within the three months that were allocated to this project," she says.
"After several weeks of struggling with R, I was introduced to Earth Blox through my supervisor as an alternative. Earth Blox allowed me to work with data, run analyses, and visualise results in a way that was easy for me to understand with a limited coding background. I was able to access Google Earth Engine datasets to calculate annual forest loss and fire damage for Picea omorika over the last twenty years using the inbuilt workflows, which were easy to edit. The ability to import occurrence data, run analyses and visualise results on the map, then export these as graphs and charts saved a lot of time and provided a series of excellent figures for my thesis," says Alice.
With today's primary school students learning to code in the classroom using Scratch, a high-level block-based visual programming language, we can expect an increased expectation of no-code tools from future generations as they progress through university and into the workforce.
No-code geospatial software is a viable way for businesses to scale their activities in NbS. It removes barriers like coding and the need for specialist skills in Earth observation or remote sensing, enabling a wider range of users to work faster and more efficiently. Cloud processing and software-as-a-service subscriptions allow businesses to control costs and only increase usage when necessary. In the current climate, no-code tools offer hope as we face one of the biggest challenges of our time.
Cassie Anderson is Head of Marketing at Earth Blox. She brings over 15 years of experience in marketing management and consultancy positions, building global tech startups in IT, identity, AI, and fintech.
This article was first published in GIS Resources magazine - Issue 4, December 2022.