mindtangle

July, 2010

Samasource.org -> Google.org

Leaving Samasource.org

The Samasource.org team and I said our goodbyes Wednesday night, after a long evening of well-wishing and reminiscing (and strong drinks). We had a lot to celebrate about. I joined when Samasource was just Leila and two other insanely-devoted people working out of a conference room. Nine short months later, the organization has more potential than at any moment in its history. Every month, Samasource has brought in larger and larger contracts to bring ever-increasing numbers of people out of poverty in South Asia, East Africa, and Haiti. The young organization is proving its model.

The team has grown substantially, and fortunately I leave Samasource in very capable hands. David Yoon assumes technology leadership as the new VP of Engineering, after years of experience building sites like Donorschoose.org. Noah Bradach is the new VP of Sales, closing deals left and right. Chelsea Seale continues to wrangle order out of the chaos of their operations. That’s just a few of our amazing staff. The office is full of dedicated people like Caitlin, Luke, Rebecca, Joon-Mo, Kala, Marcia, Pamela, Tanya, and so many others before them who pour their heart and soul into the organization. And, of course, there’s Leila Janah, who continues to lead with immeasurable grit and intelligence.

The decision to leave Samasource was very difficult. The short of it is that I’ve found an opportunity to work on another problem of enormous scope. If you’re interested in this project, read on.

A prototype of Earth Engine shown almost a year ago at COP15Google Earth Engine

The world is slowly getting serious about putting a dollar value on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.* One of the mechanisms for mitigating climate change that gained substantial traction in Copenhagen last year was REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD is based on a simple fact: the world’s forests represent a massive carbon sink, sequestering huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. How much carbon? It’s estimated that the the amount of forest the world loses every year results in more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Clearly that the world’s forests represent an enormous value, even if we only consider the value of the carbon they sequester.

The major challenge to the REDD mechanism is verification: How can we know that our actions are actually preserving forest and reducing CO2 emissions? Monumental sums of money are at stake in answering this question properly, as the world must reduce CO2 levels at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the effectiveness of forest preservation efforts. For example, legislation that protects forests in one region may simply push logging activity somewhere else. What’s needed is a global forest monitoring solution. Until we have this, only token investments will be made in REDD. Today, we see nations pledging a few billion here or there for forest preservation, but the market should theoretically support orders of magnitude more than this.

My new employer, Google (and more specifically, Google.org), is aiming to provide exactly this with Google Earth Engine. The product will serve as a central clearinghouse for all available satellite data and earth surface monitoring algorithms. It will be a place for scientists and policy makers to answer big questions at global scale, and to prove that their methods are best. If our small team succeeds, we will enable these forest preservation markets at a scale we have all only hoped for until now.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Earth Engine team half-time for a few months, now, but next week I will transition over completely. I’ll be returning to my roots in frontend engineering. This means designing and building the web applications that people will need to access and understand the vast stores of data that Google Earth Engine will be making public.

Wish me luck!

More great articles about Google Earth Engine:

* How much are our coastal cities worth? Stability for hundreds of millions of climate refugees? The avoidance of massive water shortages and resource wars? Economists, scientiests, and policy makers are having trouble wrestling with a problem at the scale we are currently facing.

One algorithm for analyzing satellite data

One algorithm for analyzing satellite data

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Left-Handed Monkey

I couldn’t resist…

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