Tropical forests provide habitat for most of the world’s known terrestrial plant and animal species. These ecosystems are under increasing threat worldwide. During the last decades, several millions of hectares of humid tropical forest were lost each year. Despite the proliferation of new remote sensing technologies, information about the status of world’s forest is limited and unevenly distributed.
The immense task of protecting for future generations and adequate share of world’s remaining forest is outside the reach of traditional conservation strategies alone. It calls for collective action to complement existing initiatives.
We propose a new paradigm in conservationism based on the convergence of volunteer computing with free (or donated) catalogues of high-resolution Earth imagery.
This citizen science project aims at making possible to anyone (locals, volunteers, NGOs, governments, etc), anywhere in the world, to monitor selected patches of forest across the globe, almost in real-time, using a notebook, a tablet or a smart phone connected to the Internet.
Citizen science is a term used for projects in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation.
Volunteer computing is a type of distributed computing in which computer owners donate their computing resources to one or more projects. It emerged in the mid-1990s from the realization that the world’s computing power was primarily distributed in hundreds of millions of PCs connected by the Internet. Projects like ClimatePrediction.net for simulating the future of the Earth’s climate and MalariaControl.net for predicting the impact of anti-malarial vaccines on disease burden are supported by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Volunteer thinking uses the same distributed approach, but relies on the brainpower of the owner of the PC for a range of tasks. For example, GalaxyZoo invites volunteers to classify images of galaxies taken automatically by a telescope, while OldWeather relies on volunteers to digitize information from archived naval logbooks.
The concepts of volunteer computing and volunteer thinking can be easily applied to the goals of the ForestWatchers project. The original screensaver of SETI@home is replaced by the latest remote sensing image of a forested area. It might be an indigenous reserve in the Amazon, a national forest in Borneo or a park in Queensland.
Images are then classified into forest or non-forest with a suitable automated classification algorithm and the accuracy of the resulting map can be further improved by volunteer observation on the Web, or even by addition information provided by volunteers in the field.
Errors and even fraud are naturally handled by the inherent redundancy of the system. For this, it is crucial to attract and retain a large number of volunteers. One hundred thousand volunteers watching over an area of 100,000 hectares each, with a redundancy factor of 20, can survey an area of 500 million hectares, roughly 40 to 50% of the estimated area of world’s tropical forests.