I Used To Think The Right Answer Was To Lead A Balanced Life
Lessons on living from a Googler who’s saving the world with maps.
Nico Pitney Senior Editor, The Huffington Post
Today we hear from Rebecca Moore, who founded and oversees Google Earth Outreach, which helps nonprofits use Google’s mapping technology to tackle issues like deforestation, climate change, and disease outbreaks.
What is a recent realization you’ve had about living a more rewarding/ fulfilling life?
When I was younger, I used to think that the right answer was to lead a balanced life. That’s what you hear. And I’m not balanced. Like, instead of doing exercise for this part of the day, and spiritual stuff for that part of the day, and work for this part of the day, I do things in epochs in my life. I was like an insane rock-climbing mountaineer for 10 years. And then I was insanely into academia and education. And now I’m insanely into saving the planet with maps through my work. My life has been really different in each of those phases. I’ve decided that’s fine.
I have a very dear friend, Victoria Sweet, she’s a physician, she’s a scholar, she’s an author, she recently published a book—very highly regarded, award-winning, called God’s Hotel. She runs two miles a day, she writes for four hours, and then she takes the rest of the day off. And she does this every day.
I used to aspire to that. But that’s not me. So, we admire each other, even though I do things very differently from the way she does it. I think what I’ve learned is: I don’t have to lead a balanced life every day. I just have to lead a life that works for me. It’s balanced in aggregate.
Relationships are part of that, too. You have relationships, and those are part of your daily existence. They’ve been part of my life, but not every day. And that’s fine.
What do you feel is the most helpful thing your parents did for you that many parents don’t do?
I really admired my parents. My dad was an attorney. He was quite intellectual—Harvard, Harvard Law. But he was also an activist. He argued a civil rights case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court and won. Then Greenpeace approached him and asked him if he would help, because there was kind of a similar case.
It seems odd that an environmental issue and a civil rights issue would need the same kind of legal remedy, but his approach was basically: Should the public have legal standing before federal regulatory agencies? In the 1960s, they didn’t. The public didn’t matter.
So in the civil rights case, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi was extremely discriminatory. Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, was assassinated, and it related to what was happening on this television station. The public rose up and said this television station needs to have their license revoked.
They put an argument together to the [Federal Communications Commission] that this broadcast license for this NBC station in Mississippi should be revoked. The FCC said: “You don’t have any standing. You don’t have any legal even right to express an opinion to us, because you’re just the public. Only those who have an economic stake in a broadcast license have any legal standing to present a brief to us.”
So my dad argued that the public, who had bought television sets within the radius of the NBC station’s transmitter, had spent more money on their TVs than the station owner was spending on operating the station. So they did have an economic stake in what was broadcast.
It eventually was appealed to the Supreme Court. My dad argued it and won.
So the public now had standing, had the right to express an opinion. So then Greenpeace approached him and said, “We’re trying to present some arguments to the Environmental Protection Agency, and they’re saying we don’t have standing because we’re just the public.” So he took that on—he did these for free—he took that on pro bono and won again.
Now it’s a precedent that they teach in law school, that the public has standing before federal regulatory agencies. The public has the right to have their opinions heard.
That was really influential on me. I learned that you can use your profession and make a difference. It’s not like you can either be an activist or you can be a lawyer. You can actually be both.
Then my older brother was a painter, an artist, Frank Moore. He was very influential. He would do paintings that The New Yorker described as Hieronymus Bosch meets the Hudson River School. They were allegorical paintings that wove together themes of environmental and human health. And he had AIDS, he lived with AIDS for 15 years. He was the person who conceived the red ribbon.
So again, I used to follow him around because he was just unbelievably creative, and could do anything, was very inspiring. He was an artist-activist.
Meanwhile, I’m this computer scientist, and I’m doing jobs in Silicon Valley, building Pascal compilers and voicemail systems and things like that. They were both huge fans of me, advisors of me, they were my heroes. They were like, “You could do more, Rebecca. You could do more with your talents, your gifts to make a difference.”
I always had this feeling that I was supposed to do something that mattered, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then my father died in 2001 and my brother died five months later. It rocked my world. Everything stopped, because they were gone now.
I felt like the baton was really being passed to me. What are you going to do? Time is short. What are you spending your time on? Is that what really matters? How can you make a difference with your gifts?
So I quit my job, and I spent three years trying to answer that question. I went back to school in bioinformatics, because the human genome had just been sequenced and there was this new era of personalized medicine, where based upon your genetic profile, using computer analysis and artificial intelligence and all this stuff that I was very good at, we would be able to give better diagnoses, better treatments.
I thought that’s it. Right? Obviously, right? Like who doesn’t want to cure cancer? So I threw myself into that for three years, and I got A+s and got a degree. It was intellectually interesting and there were all these opportunities. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t the right answer.
Meanwhile, while it’s going on, I live in the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s very different up there. It’s surprisingly rural even though we’re half an hour from Silicon Valley. The roads are all managed by the communities—we pave our own roads, we clear the brush; if trees fall down, the guys get the chainsaws out and clear the road. We have our own water systems that we manage.
We know when the next big earthquake happens, it’s going to be a long time before anybody comes to help us. But I love that, because it’s a surprisingly frontier feeling.
So there I am in school on bioinformatics, and suddenly I guess what happened is, everything got much simpler for me. Instead of figuring out, How am I going to cure cancer? How are you going to argue a case before the Supreme Court or invent the red ribbon? I thought, just do something small.
Just look out in your neighborhood. What can you do that’s small? Get rid of your ego about all this. It’s not about Rebecca Moore saving the world. If you really want to make a difference, start making a difference in a way that no one would consider to be important, but you know it’s helpful.
So I started looking for opportunities to do that. There was a case where one of my neighbors called 911 because her husband was having a medical emergency, and it took two hours for the ambulance to get to their house. There were no maps of our roads because they’re not managed by the county, they’re managed by us. It was crazy. The map of my road that the emergency responders had was shocking—hand-drawn in pencil from 1983. You’re like, this cannot be the map. It’s the map that was proudly used by the police, the sheriff, the fire department.
Forests of the Santa Cruz mountains in California.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Forests of the Santa Cruz mountains in California.
So I was kind of concerned. Meanwhile, there were new GPS devices and different mapping tools, and I was like, “What if I made a map of our road that had all the houses, and it was accurate, and I gave that to you. Would you guys use it?” And they were like, “Sure.”
So I started to look around for different mapping software and I stumbled on Keyhole. That’s what became Google Earth. I was like, this is unbelievable. You’ve got all the satellite imagery, you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the topography. All the roads were there, so all I have to do is overlay our house information and it can route for you. This is amazing.
I also organized to make a community network of hiking trails. My neighbors and I, we all have like 10 acres, with old logging roads and deer paths. But when people want to go hiking, they get in their car, and they drive 45 minutes to a state park. I’m like, that’s crazy! We live in this beautiful area with huge canyons—you should see it. Why don’t we organize ourselves and just connect my deer path to your logging trail? And people were like, “Okay.”
So again, I used mapping and so forth to do that. I ended up making this big map of our mountain region that had all of the fire departments and all of the emergency response and different features on it. The volunteer fire department said, “Oh, my God, where did you get that? We’ll pay you anything for that.” And I said how could this be? I’m just sort of self-taught in this. How is it that this is some major breakthrough?
This sounds like I’m bragging, but I began to realize that there was really a gap in our community around having information for emergency response, for recreation, for safety, that could be solved with modern digital maps. And with things like Keyhole and GPS devices, anyone could make a map. And I loved it, because my background was in hiking and nature, and I’ve always been a map geek.
So how did this lead you to Google?
Well, it’s funny. I was doing projects using three different mapping technologies that were out at that time. I learned a lot of lessons from that, and I thought Google might be interested in this, because Google had just bought one of them, Keyhole.
Meanwhile, I was continually breaking Keyhole. I would send bug reports in like, “I broke it in this way. I think there’s a condition between the client and the server. I can replicate it in the following way.” And I kept sending these in. They’re finally like, “Who are you and what are you doing?”
I said, “I’m happy to come in and talk to you about it.” So they invited me to come in, and now they were part of Google. Google Earth had not yet come out. But they had bought Keyhole, and they were moving it over to the Google infrastructure.
I came in and gave a tech talk about building community geoportals using these three different mapping technologies, and what I thought was the best one and why. And of course I ended up saying I thought Keyhole was the best. If Google just did these 10 things, it would just knock it out of the park. And they said, “Do you want a job?” And I said, “Yes. I do.” So that’s how it started.
In fact, when they interviewed me, they said, “We’re thinking of calling it Google Earth. What do you think about that?” I’m like, “It’s bold. Google Earth. It’s bold, but I think you could do it. I think you could pull it off.” And, of course, they did. We did.
You found a way to merge this work with activism.
Google Earth came out in June. I got the job offer in July, I was going to start in the end of August. And in August I got this map in the mail. You see that, black and white?
All my 2,000 neighbors and I, we get that map, we get that notice in the mail:“Notice of Intent to Harvest Timber” around our houses.
The CDF [California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection], they rubber-stamp timber harvest plants. If we were going to stop the logging, the citizens needed to rise up with factual data to prove that the plan was not only a bad idea, but it was illegal. And Google Earth was our secret weapon. Like David and Goliath, Google Earth was our slingshot.
So it was literally as I was starting at Google that I looked at that and said, you know what? In order to understand that better, I want to remap it on Google Earth in the full 3D satellite imagery with the terrain so we can actually see what’s at stake.
Now, I didn’t know, maybe it wasn’t anything to worry about. Maybe it was no big deal. But then when I did remap, and there it is above there, right, in the red? It was like, oh my God. It’s six miles long, it’s 1,000 acres, the logging’s going to go right up to the preschool, the daycare center, the churches. The helicopters are going to be carrying logs over the elementary school in perpetuity. The land was so steep, it’s a drinking watershed for 100,000 people in Silicon Valley, it’s where we get our water. It’s very well known that logging in steep slopes in watersheds causes sedimentation that harms water. And so many government-managed watersheds disallow logging in drinking watersheds. But this is privately owned, so they put in the proposal.
I made the visualization over the weekend. This is now September 2005, like two months after Google Earth had come out. We had this packed schoolroom — everyone was wondering, should we be worried or not? People were literally outside looking in the windows, it was so packed.
I said, “Look, there’s this new thing, Google Earth. I put the data, the plan in Google Earth. So I’ll show you…” and the visual starts in outer space and flies in. Now it’s almost a cliché, but then it had never been done before. So it flies in, I turn on the plan, and everyone is shocked, right? There’s this gasp in the room. Oh, my God, that’s what they’re going to do? Yeah, that’s what they’re going to do.
So then we spent 20 minutes. People are like, “Go here, go there, let me see my house, oh my God.” People got so much more of a perspective. Some of them said later, that motivated us to get organized, because now we really understood what was proposed. Seeing was believing. And that became a theme of Google Earth Outreach, which is really showing people what’s at stake in a way they can understand in a second, as opposed to giving them charts and graphs or crummy maps that they don’t understand.
Do you have any unique hobbies or ways that you spend your downtime that many people don’t do?
My unusual hobby is making trails, building trails in the mountains in my community. We now have a 1-mile loop, a 3-mile loop, a 5-mile loop, they’re all communally created.
First I look in Google Earth so that I can get the lay of the land digitally before we go out. I understand where it’s steep, there’s a creek and a waterfall by us. Then I go out and wander. There’s an aesthetic about making a trail. You don’t want to make it too steep, you want nice landmarks along the way. Like, within a mile, let’s get to the waterfall, and then let’s have the good-view spot.
I would buy these little flags you can get from a hardware store, a tiny little metal stake with a little flag on it, and I would go and flag a route. Then I would go re-walk it and keep moving the flags around until it felt right.
When I was a mountaineer, I used to bushwhack all the time. I would never go on trails — trails were for ordinary people. So we would go cross-country. You would just use map and compass and navigate off landmarks. I learned that at National Outdoor Leadership School, which I did when I was 20.
So you learn to navigate with map, compass and not to rely on trails. So I developed a taste for going cross-country. And even to this day, I like to go. I like to just look at a map and study it and go, “You know, I bet that would be an interesting place to go, even though Yosemite didn’t make an official trail there.” And there are some beautiful places in the backcountry, by the way, where trails don’t take you.
So I keep walking until I have it just the way I want it, and then I get help. The guys who actually take the pickaxe and carve the trail. I have help for that part.
There’s an aesthetic for a trail. There are trail-building books that say, like, you don’t want to have more than a 10 percent incline on a trail, because if it’s more than 10 percent, you’ll get erosion in a heavy rain, for example. And the way that it tilts when you’re on a slope is important, because if you do it wrong, the trail washes out. When you make a switchback, it’s good to make a switchback around something like a boulder or a tree. There’s actually an art and a science to making a trail that’s fun.
For people who love hiking but aren’t used to off-trail or backcountry, what’s a good first step?
I think it’s good to go with someone who’s done it, because I would hate to be responsible for somebody getting lost, and we never hear from them again. And that’s quite possible.
I’ve gotten lost many times. And I’ve learned a lot from that. But I had compass, map, I had the skills to get myself found again.
Actually, with GPS now, if people take a GPS device, it’s almost cheating now, because it’s hard to get lost now with the GPS. But I will say, for people in California, the Sierras have a lot of beautiful areas that even guide books will tell you this is a little bit of an off-trail thing, but it’s not hard. There will be a trail that takes you into an area of lakes, and then there’s a side unofficial little canyon to go up to it, whatever. That’s a nice way to start.
We often ask people about the families they’ve formed. Do you have children?
No, I don’t. I have two dogs. And nieces and nephews. But no kids.
Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah. Some people can do everything. I don’t think I’m one of those people. I felt from my very early consciousness that I was here to do something. It took me a while to figure it out. It took me until that dark night of the soul, after my father and brother died, that I finally was determined to figure it out. And I did. This is why I’m here. This is why I was put on earth, to do this work. And I feel so fortunate to have done that. I just felt like I couldn’t do that and have kids. Other people may be able to. More power to them.
Rebecca Moore and Brazilian Surui tribe Chief Almir smile during a press conference in Rio de Janeiro (June 16, 2012).
What are some books that had a significant impact on you and your intellectual development?
I don’t know if this totally answers your question, but when I was a kid, I loved The Phantom Tollbooth. That was the first book that I remember really saying, this book is for me. This book speaks to me. I used to read voraciously when I was a kid. But that book — Dictionopolis, Digitopolis, you know, the abstractions of numbers and words, and it was so creative. Anyway, it was fantastic.
This is very wonky, but there were also books like—I won’t go into the wonkiest book—but there was a really cool book called On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. It’s about math and nature, and how you could find math everywhere if you know what to look for. So the Fibonacci series shows up in the way leaves grow along the stem of a plant, or the equiangular spiral shows up in the nautilus shell. There’s math in the way an abalone shell adds on a new layer every year. There are beautiful mathematics in nature. This book was just a classic treatise on that. I loved that because I love math and I love nature. And someone who put the two together was very beautiful to me.
That book is probably an acquired taste. Then I guess I would just mention my friend Victoria Sweet’s book, God’s Hotel, which is about the last Almshouse in America. She’s a physician, practiced for 20 years at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco.
What was moving for me is, I was like her first reader. As she wrote each chapter, she would give it to me, and I would critique it. I kind of watched this book turn into a book.
That was fascinating, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful book, God’s Hotel. I highly recommend.
You said you weren’t going to mention the wonkiest book you loved — what was it?
Gödel, Escher, Bach. I read that book like four times. I just loved the weaving together of music and art and math and computer science. If you squint your eyes, it’s all the same thing. If you look in a certain way, you can see them all as different expressions of the some same underlying… I can’t explain it.
I really love abstraction. I love people who see things very deeply and see beyond what other people see, and they make surprising connections. Again, like nature and math, I just love that. It’s very stimulating for me.
You were a voracious reader as a youngster. So many parents want to instill that love in their children. Do you recall what led you down that path?
Everyone in my family was a reader. We were very funny—like if you look at us after Thanksgiving dinner, someone’s pulled out an encyclopedia, someone’s pulled out a dictionary, someone’s got three crossword puzzles, and we’re all just challenging each other. That was our life. We ordered two copies of The New York Times so that we wouldn’t fight over it.
I think there was a love of knowledge, a love of good writing. My mother and my father, they both exposed us to a lot of things. I don’t claim any of this is profound, but we all had piano lessons.
The best thing for me was we spent every summer in the Adirondacks. My grandfather bought a house on a lake that my family still has. Now it’s come to my generation, so my cousins and siblings and I all own it. We’re going to try to keep passing it down through the family. It’s going to get more and more complicated. It’s a huge house on 50 acres. I took my entire team there last summer. It’s called Indian Lake in the Adirondacks.
When my friends would go to camp, I would go to Grandpa’s house in Indian Lake. Our days were completely unstructured, we’d spend the whole summer, we’d just wander in the woods and were identifying mushrooms and flowers, and swimming. I hope more kids have that, because I feel like my greatest source of serenity is nature. You can’t beat nature.
Is there a travel journey that you’ve taken that you would recommend to others?
I really love Alaska. I climbed Denali. In 1990 I led a team to the top of Denali. And that took a month. It was 28 days up, two days down. We did our own route. We did an unusual route. But along the way, it’s caribou and wolves and grizzly bears and Dall sheep and moose. Anybody can go to Denali National Park. Just incredible wildlife. And also just the people that we met. You can still homestead up there. It’s crazy, right?
So I’ve gone back two or three times. In September the tundra’s changing color, and you can get Northern Lights. I’ve seen grizzly cubs learning to catch salmon for the first time. That was very instructional for me, because the mother takes care of the cubs for two seasons, and then they’re on their own, because she’s going to have the next litter, or whatever they call it. They have to learn how to take care of themselves, or they’re going to die.
This was the second season for these two cub siblings with their mom. And I was with this guide, and they were a little worried, because this one little cub—and this is like a metaphor for me—would see a salmon—and they’re shiny and glittery—and would like grab it and would be just about to bite it, but then would see another one, and would drop this one and grab another one, right? It was literally that grabbing for the shiny things. They said, she needs to eat more.
Anyway, it’s just wild and beautiful and very different from the lower 48. I’ve gone to a lot of other places in the world, but I don’t know, there’s something about Alaska.
Denali, in Denali National Park.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Denali, in Denali National Park.
Is there an emotional arc to climbing a mountain that would surprise people?
It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. There’s nothing like it. I climb in the Himalayas also. We were the first women to climb this 22,000-foot peak in the Himalayas. For Denali, we trained for a year. Many people don’t succeed. Four people died on it the year that we did it.
But I think it forged my character. Mountaineering forged my character. I learned so much about myself, and how I deal with fear, and setting goals and overcoming obstacles and working as a team. When we climbed Denali, for a month, I was roped to three other people. We were never more than 20 feet away from each other for a month. Right? So if someone has an annoying habit, it really gets annoying.
There’s just tremendous, tremendous physical satisfaction. I think mountaintops are some of the most spiritual places on the planet. Many mountains are actually sacred to local people. There’s a mountain Machapuchare in the Himalayas that hopefully no one has ever stood on top of, because it’s so sacred that locals have asked mountaineers to stop just short of the summit so they don’t desecrate the summit, because this is the abode of the gods. And you feel that.
It’s also given me a perspective, because on my expedition in the Himalayas, someone died. When I was in the Denali, four people died. So when I’m here at Google, and people are stressing about something: “Oh, my God, they’re reorganizing,” or whatever—I’m like, “Look, nobody’s going to die. We’re not falling into crevasses here. Let’s have some perspective.”
I also learned a lot of leadership skills there. I don’t think I was a natural leader. I was very introverted as a kid, painfully shy. I was painfully shy. And my team here at Google can’t believe that today, because I’m public-speaking.
The only way I got over that hurdle of being able to speak in public was when I stopped focusing on myself and worrying about my nose is going to be running, and I’m going to have a heart attack and die on the stage. When I said: No, don’t think about yourself. Think about the work. Think about the message. Do you want people to know that message? Well, yes, I do. That’s your job, to deliver that. It’s not about you. It’s about that.
I still have to remind myself of that when I get nervous, that it’s not about me, it’s about what we’re trying to accomplish as a team. That helps me be less nervous.
So I learned. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned—for example, there was a Canadian mountaineering guide who wrote a book that influenced me. Conrad Kain, he guided people for decades in the Canadian Rockies. He had these rules for the leader, if you are leading a team in the mountains. You’re the leader, you’re the guide. These people are entrusting their lives in your care.
First rule: Show no fear. No matter what happens. And I still do that today. As a leader, your job is to be brave in the face of whatever it is, to have confidence that you will overcome that.
The second rule: Always pay most attention to the weakest member of the party. Right? You’re on a rope together. If there’s one person who’s tired or sick or whatever’s going on, they could be why you all get killed. I still pay attention to that. The whole forward movement of the project of whatever you’re doing doesn’t just depend upon the strongest contributors. It also depends upon making sure the weakest are not left behind. You help develop them or bring them along or whatever.
And the third rule… I don’t remember. [laughter] Sorry.
But this reminds me, one more thing. After my brother Frank Moore died, I was his executor. I’m going through his desk and I found this quote (sometimes attributed to Goethe): “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.” And it goes on: “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
When I saw that—and that was like his top thing in his drawer—I was like, okay. That was that period in my life where I was kind of equivocating. What am I going to do and how am I going to make a difference?
And what I take from this is: just commit, even if you’re not sure. And even when you climb a mountain, sometimes you don’t actually see the summit from where you are, but you know if you head in a positive direction, eventually you will see the summit.
I found that I used to be a perfectionist. I used to think there was only one right answer to things, and I just needed to figure it out. Like, what grad school am I supposed to go to? I got into different grad schools. Which one is the right one? I would be just paralyzed with what’s the right answer.
Or then I went to Stanford, I’m like, Who do I want to be my advisor? I was a mess—“this guy would be good for this, and that guy would be better for…”—I can’t decide, I can’t decide, I can’t decide. I always thought there was one right answer.
Then a friend said to me, “Throw the I Ching.” Do you know the I Ching? It’s the Chinese Book of Changes. There are 64 hexagrams. Each one has a sort of message. You want to do something that generates a number between one and 64. So you can throw six coins, two to the sixth equals 64, or people do something with sticks or whatever.
Anyway, you do something that gives you a number between one and 64. So she said, “You ask a question, and then you throw the I Ching and see what you get.” This is kind of woo-woo, right? But I did it. I was like, “Should I have this professor or that professor be my advisor? Tell me the answer.” I threw the I Ching, and the answer was, “Everything furthers.”
That message has been something that I hold. Whenever I think, Should I do this or do that? I’m reminded: That’s a false choice. There’s not just one right answer. Either of those professors would have been great to work with. I would learn different things. But either of them would be great.
And so suddenly I just relaxed, and I made the decision, and I went forward. That’s something I do believe, I hold to be true. It’s not useful to be paralyzed by indecision. Sometimes the best thing is just make a choice, commit, go forward and be attentive and mindful to what’s happening along the way, and be prepared to make mid-course corrections. Don’t get hung up on having to figure out the right answer before making a move.
Do you keep a journal or do anything else to maintain your memories?
I used to. I don’t right now. I have found there have been times where I was dreaming a lot. I think it’s important when you’re dreaming to try to write down your dreams. Because when I’ve had times of crisis, where I was in between and I was struggling, I think your subconscious has a lot of guidance for you and it comes out in your dreams. You have to write them down immediately when you wake up, because otherwise you forget them. You write it down and look at it, and then suddenly you get insights from it.
Let me ask about mapping technology. What are some of the new frontiers in your line of work?
When I first started here, it was all about using Google Earth and Google Maps to give people a perspective on a place. We work with more than 6,000 nonprofits now that are using Google Earth to take everyone on the world on a virtual guided tour to a place on the planet that may be under threat.
So, you hear about deforestation in the Amazon, or there’s genocide in Darfur and they’re burning villages, or icecaps are melting, or they’re doing mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia. You hear this stuff, and it seems very abstract. Often this is happening in remote places where people are not on the ground.
But these organizations now—and we’re helping them—are using Google Earth as a new kind of storytelling tool, where you can take people there virtually and show them the issues and also show them alternative future scenarios.
So Appalachian Voices said, “Okay, we could blow up these five mountains that have permits on them right now, and then they’ll look like that.” They could also show already horrendously dynamited mountains, which never grow back, by the way. “Or we could put windmills on them that would look like this.” They got commercially available windmills—and they modeled them in 3D and put them in—and it would look like this. Within two years, they would have produced enough power that compensated for what they would have gotten from one time blowing up the mountains, and from then on, it’s additional energy.
I think of that as the first era of our digital mapping work. The next phase that’s going on right now is: It’s not enough just to see it. You need to be able to analyze and measure and map and monitor what’s happening in these places. There’s enormous amounts of information—for example, satellite imagery and weather data and so on—that’s collected every day. If you have the right computing power and analytical methods, you can actually determine and measure what’s happening, like measure deforestation.
You can predict a likelihood of future malaria outbreaks six of eight weeks in advance by looking at the rainfall here, the temperature here, the distance from population centers, the distance from rivers. How is the landscape greening up? You can predict mosquito hatches, and you can then say, “Okay, we should target interventions for this place at that time,” whether it’s bed nets or inoculation or whatever.
We’re entering that era now, and this is the second hat that I wear. The first hat is Google Earth Outreach. The second one is Google Earth Engine, where we’ve built this amazing technology, this environmental analysis engine for the planet. While we’re sitting here, it’s getting feeds of satellite imagery and the weather data and so on. We’ve got more than 4,000 scientists now that are putting their models in to detect deforestation or risk of emerging infectious disease or mapping water resources or estimating crop yield, predicting drought.
It’s big data. That’s why it hasn’t happened before. Because to really manage all these feeds of satellite data and then do science on it, do an analysis, it’s petabytes of data, which is so much that people don’t even know what that word is.
But we have a lot of computers at Google that are running YouTube and Search and everything else. Well, now they’re running Google Earth Engine, and they’re doing this near real-time environmental analysis so we can really understand what’s happening on the planet.
One example is we worked with Professor Matt Hansen at the University of Maryland to create the first detailed map of global forest and deforestation from 2000 to 2012. We published that in Science. There’d never been a detailed map before. And it ended up we analyzed almost 700,000 satellite images. We ran it on 10,000 computers in parallel. We had that map result in a couple of days, whereas on a single computer, it would have taken more than 15 years.
Now it’s being applied to all these other things. The dream is that we’re building a living, breathing dashboard of the planet. There are a lot of decisions that are being made about how we extract natural resources—whether it’s logging or mining or water, where we put dams—there are a lot of these decisions that are not being made with the right information. And they’re not being made transparently.
The hope here is that we can take in this massive amount of data, and working with these leading scientists, we can distill that into knowledge, into information, into insights that will guide living on the planet more intelligently.
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