Getting things done

There is a growing number of examples that prove the benefits of Earth observation, often explored through research projects. In Italy, for example, a team of researchers succeeded in detecting illegal waste dumps and landfills, and monitored their extension and persistence over a period of time by using optical satellite image data and a multi-feature detection algorithm. This is an excellent example of how satellite data can make practical law enforcement more efficient and potentially provide evidence with which to pursue legal action.

Also in Italy, researchers tested a methodology for locating illegal and potentially hazardous cattle-breeding facilities, with promising results. The methodology was based on satellite images and an algorithm that locates certain features, such as typical buildings and pens and crosschecks the findings against the official database of registered facilities. 27% of the identified farms were unregistered, proving that Earth observation can provide in-situ inspectors with science-based improved targeting of possible violations of environmental law, as well as evidence to support their case in a court of law.

Satellite imagery was used in California to monitor water quality in multiple lakes, in addition to in-situ measurements. The data obtained showed lake-wide maps indicating chlorophyll-a and turbidity levels, with an option to also include cyanotoxins. This contributed to measurements of total maximum nutrient loads and the compliance with the targets decided by managing authorities with a goal of stabilising deteriorating lake ecosystems and ensuring the quality of drinking water for which the lakes serve as reservoirs.  

In 2017, Young and Onoda shared other success stories. A collaborative project between the International Cooperation Agency of Japan (JICA) and the Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources of Brazil (IBAMA) used satellite images to assess deforestation and support law enforcement agencies to control illegal activities, to great effect. Similar efforts were made at the border of Mexico and Guatemala back in 1990, discovering severe deforestation and successfully leading to the establishment of the transboundary Maya Biosphere reserve.

Meanwhile, monitoring of oil pollution with satellites has become a routine procedure. Developed in Norway, a near-real-time monitoring system detects surface slicks and helps deduce responsibility. In 2010, similar mechanisms where used to track the spread of the oil slick originating from the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform, for use by emergency response personnel to help assess and plan clean-up efforts.

Remote sensing and Earth observation have been put to use in the insurance industry. This technology can verify claims concerning insurance of farmers’ crops, for example. Suspicious claims can be tried against historical images that can reveal whether the lost crop was truly planted to the claimed extent.  In this scenario Earth observation data functions as ‘historic evidence’. When it comes to the insurance industry this technology has the potential to be a source of information and evidence for a variety of scenarios, including crop damage and disaster risk and damage assessments. Furthermore, researchers agree that it could help reach new markets for index insurance, allowing insurance to reach remote areas they could not otherwise obtain reliable evidence for.

All of the examples above prove that the potential for use of Earth observation and its services is increasing. To help realise this potential, enviroLENS is striving to develop services to reduce the need for user expertise as well as to increase awareness of their potential.

Environment and Earth observation today

Most of times potential uses of Earth observation (EO) are narrowed down to three, such as regulation and enforcement of specific laws, monitoring of compliance with environmental laws in previously targeted sites, and provision of historic evidence. EO is unlikely to replace ground-based monitoring, but in the right circumstances, it can provide valuable supplementary data and court evidence and increase the efficiency of monitoring by narrowing or pre-selecting areas for ground-based investigation.

Earth observation technology is both ‘invisible’ and virtually omnipresent. As such, it will provide a strong deterrent effect once widely used. It may not be able to continuously monitor a location but this could be the general perception and as such, it might be seen as a credible ‘threat’. Ray Purdy agrees in his article from 2009 and explains that the EO services could therefore decrease the resources required for monitoring and improve overall law enforcement. More efficient use of resources would mean better handling of an increasing volume of environmental laws with the same or smaller teams.

As a number of authors argued in 2010, Earth observation could significantly support environmental policy development, contributing required up-to-date spatial information on the state of the environment and the impacts of policies over larger areas. According to this article, satellite-derived information can help:

a) formulate policies by verifying and quantifying issues that have been recognized on the ground;

b) implement policies, e.g. through retrospective baselines to clarify changes over time in cases where these where not establishes prior to developments, e.g. oilfields;

c) with policy control, including enforcement and compliance with regulations, e.g. land use impacts on protected areas, illegal logging, and urban sprawl; and

d) provide data for evaluation of policies and thus inform their further development.

At present, the legal sector does not regularly use satellite-derived information for environmental law enforcement. enviroLENS aims to bridge this gap and showcase the use of Earth observation data as ready-to-access evidence and scenario information on environmental situations.

Earth observation and the legal community, a missing link

The idea of using satellite images for environmental law enforcement has been around for more than 20 years. An article written on the subject in 1997 complained, already than, that even twenty-five years after the first release of satellite data to the non-military sector, the technology remains greatly under-utilized by the legal community.” Discussing some of the obstacles that the technology faced at the time, Hodge mentioned reliability, accuracy, reproducibility, and cost.   

Sentinel-3 (c) ESA/ATG medialab

Several authors have recognized the potential of Earth observation (EO) for environmental law enforcement since the late 90s. The expectations were high. The global monitoring was opening the doors leading to more effective environmental management. New avenues for civil society participation were becoming possible, as continuous and unbiased satellite observations could now provide measuring sticks with which to hold international actors accountable.

Davies, Hoban and Penhoet saw the importance of supplying satellite data and images to civil society groups and NGOs, as they could use these in their awareness raising and monitoring activities, for education and lobbying purposes, as well as to identify and prosecute violators of environmental law.

Moving forward, this aspect has again been underlined by Ray Purdy who claimed that “disclosure of pictures taken from EO technologies, showing environmental offences, could be a new cornerstone in contemporary rights to information and public participation”. Interestingly enough, he continues listing similar obstacles to the use of EO for environmental law enforcement to Hodge’s 22 years younger article. As the technical capabilities have improved and costs have fallen, he focuses on the obstacle that has perhaps changed the least: the lack of cooperation and awareness that would allow the technology to spread within the legal sector. He further emphasises the need for environmental lawyers to engage with experts in the EO field to ensure integration of the technologies.

These ambitions from the past 20+ years have unfortunately not come to full fruition and today there is still a lack of use of EO services for environmental law enforcement. “Being an innovation project, enviroLENS will work to tackle the remaining obstacle,” says Peter Langdahl, Ecosystem Management Project Officer at IUCN’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “By working in the field we will prove how beneficial EO services can be for environmental law enforcement. We aim to showcase ways in which EO images can be used as direct evidence, including in a court of law and in related contractual negotiations,” he announces.

Stay tuned!

Introducing enviroLENS to the European, North and Central Asian Conservation Community

Reliable, cost-effective and easy-to-use data for monitoring of environmental compliance is becoming more and more pertinent. Innovative solutions and technologies, such as Earth observation tools, can fill critical data and information gaps, especially where human and financial resources are scarce. Uniting Earth observation tools with the environmental law and legal domain provides novel and unique types of services that enable a number of actors to promote and advocate for legal compliance.  

Learning about Earth observation and the potential its tools offer © BLINKfotografie

Two representatives from the enviroLENS team were present at the IUCN Regional Conservation Forum for Europe, North and Central Asia that took place in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 1 – 3 July 2019, and put on display our new informative project poster. The interest shown throughout the event demonstrated that the project is particularly relevant for the conservation community. More than 320 participants, arriving from all corners of Europe as well as from North and Central Asia, had the chance to learn about the powerful tools that enviroLENS is currently developing.

“As an NGO engaged with nature conservation in Albania for the last 20 years, we see a great potential of the eLENS portal,” said Genti Kromidha, President of the Institute for Nature Conservation in Albania. “It could impact our on-the-ground action significantly and empower civil society organizations, by providing the tools that could be used for advocacy and lobbying to end any illegal activities observed,” he added.

Genti Kromidha introducing several activities in Albania © INCA

Participants of the Forum called for bold action to achieve transformative change. This goes hand-in-hand with technological innovations that can be applied across sectors. enviroLENS, thus, offers a unique opportunity to bring the potential of European satellites – Copernicus – to the environmental legal domain. In this way, the conservation community can benefit from access to relevant, easy-to-use Earth observation tools, to achieve legal compliance in support of the protection of biodiversity and vital ecosystems – for instance in relation to activities in and/or around protected areas.   

IUCN Regional Conservation Forum, Rotterdam © BLINKfotograife

Algorithms, methods, flows and services… building the eLENS Portal

enviroLENS is responding to the demands of the jurisdictional sector for ready-to-access evidence and scenario information on environmental situations. Its main technological innovation will be the eLENS Portal, an advanced information system uniting Earth Observation (EO) with the environmental law and legal domain. It will create novel and unique types of services, by:

  • providing public information on environmental violations for citizens and authorities;
  • facilitating evidence collection within the legal sector; and
  • offering an interface for EO-based services that monitor past and current environmental incidences. Furthermore, an alert service will notify immediately about violations.

Technical partners have designed a roadmap for the development of the eLENS Portal, supposing the contribution from each in their area of excellence. Under the coordination of GeoVille, these technical wizards have agreed on the next steps during a meeting at Sinergise HQ in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 17-18 June 2019.

JSI will continue to work on data semantics. Sinergise will focus on EO-Toolset while AUTH dives into EO modelling and essential variables algorithms. “We have started to work on eLENS Miner, and the challenge there for us is to find ways to combine databases of statutory documents from all over the world and put them to work. Our aim is to semantically analyse legal texts and use them to access, reuse, and create knowledge, which is interconnected with the available solution in the EO domain. Exciting times ahead!” says Florian Girtler (GeoVille), Software developer and technical coordinator for enviroLENS.