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Google is teaming up with CSIRO via its Google Earth Outreach Program to put cloud-based satellite image analysis in front of earth sciences researchers.

While there are plenty of public sources for satellite data – such as NASA, for example – turning images into analysis is a power-hungry business. First, you have to locate the right mapping tiles and download them, then stitch together your area of interest, and then go to work with your analytical tool of choice.

For large-scale work, this quickly gets prohibitive, not because the processing algorithms are particularly mysterious, but because the quantity of data is so huge, especially if you’re working at a large scale with a long time series.

Land cover is a natural starting point: as the CSIRO release points out, this initiative gives researchers access to 40 years’ worth of satellite data, something which would be unwieldy for the individual researcher to work with.

Enter the Google Earth Outreach, working in partnership with the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s (TERN) AusCover facility. Data already available from CSIRO and TERN will be progressively integrated into the Google Earth Engine.

This means researchers will be able to locate the satellite data they want in Google Earth – and then, instead of turning their own computers into big heaters while they process it, they’ll be able to apply various tools and algorithms to the data for processing by Google.

So in other words, researchers get a triple-whammy out of the initiative: easier access to time-series satellite data, access to analytical tools that might otherwise be outside their specialty, and access to Google’s processing power to deal with it all.

Google Earth Outreach also http://www.google.com.au/earth/outreach/ offers eligible non-profits free access to Google Earth Pro, the Google Maps Engine, Google Maps Coordinate, and Maps API for Business.

The head of TERN, Dr Alex Held, spoke to The Register about the new partnership.

Making both the data and analytical capabilities is a big thing, he told us, since it offers capabilities that previously required supercomputers.

“We’ve only had large universities, big research labs, governments having large enough computers and storage to deal with the vast amount of satellite data available,” he says.

Very large data sets like MODIS and Landsat data are now much more available, and “by putting them online, anyone can access the data and create visualisations of it.”

Anybody can access the imagery and apply analytical tools to it – and over time, Held said, researchers will be able to have their own algorithms and tools implemented into the “supercharged” Google Earth environment for others to use. Links back to the original research will let other users assess the quality of the algorithm on offer, he told The Register.

“It opens up a resource – university students, individual researchers, even citizen scientists can contribute. If someone develops a new algorithm can sign a special test agreement that allows them to work with Google developers to implement that algorithm into the engine.”

Shed a small tear for desktop GIS specialists who have spent years honing their satellite imagery skills… ®

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