Photos of earth to revolutionise social entrepreneurship

Tiny satellites taking photographs of the earth in its current state could have a revolutionary effect on the work of social purpose organisations – delegates heard at the Skoll World Forum last week.

Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship, asked for a show of hands at the closing plenary of the three day event, which revealed that tears had been shed, connections made and extraordinary things learned over the past few days.

But one journey of discovery, not far from the realm of science fiction, had been left for the finale.

Will Marshall, co-founder and CEO of Planet Labs, introduced the audience to the Dove, a tiny satellite that measures 10cm x 10cm x 30cm and weighs only 4kg. 

“The earth is changing, and to take care of it we need imagery,” said Marshall. “This is a tool that knows no borders, and will empower innovators around the planet.” 

Sci-fi fans and space geeks will know that satellites are huge, slow and expensive. And when it comes to capturing our fast changing world, “they are standing in our way,” said Marshall. 

Most satellite images of the planet are a few years old and one of the most iconic images of earth – The Blue Marble – taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts, dates back to 1972. 

In roughly a year there will be over 100 nano-satellites, or 'Doves', in orbit taking shots of every single spot on earth every day, and producing a daily update of human activities on earth, natural phenomena and changing landscapes. 

Planet Labs have already released the largest earth imaging constellation of satellites. They are currently releasing a further 28 and plan to release 100 by the end of the year, which will create the largest constellation of satellites in human history.

If you had access to imagery of the whole earth every day what would you do with it, how would it help your mission or what new challenges would you solve?

The impact that photography can have when targeted at social causes was demonstrated on the Skoll stage when Marcus Bleasdale, a documentary photographer for National Geographic, introduced his work at the opening plenary. 

Bleasdale captured evocative scenes of the brutal conditions in eastern Congo's mines. As a result companies including Apple and Intel have now stopped using conflict minerals in their products.

But photos taken from space can’t capture the hardened expressions of suffering capable of moving companies to act more responsibly. So what impact could they have? 

Planet Labs released their 28 ‘Doves’ from the International Space Station over the course of a few weeks in February and Marshall shared the results of the their first photographs with the audience.

The images showed how built up areas had expanded in California. “We’ll be able to see urban change as it happens in every part of the world,” said Marshall.

One image captured a forest fire in Bolivia, which highlighted the role that the satellites could have in detecting natural disasters and supporting organisations to prevent and react to them.

“We’ll be able to detect water levels and crop yields in every field – imagine what that could do for water security,” he said.

The resolution of the images will allow Planet Labs to track every tree on the planet, detect illegal logging and monitor deforestation.

Reflecting on recent world news of the mission MH370 Malaysia Airlines flight, he said: “We’d be able to find a plane – that should not be a problem again.” 

Marshall pledged to democratise access to the data and support its use. Planet Labs are considering diverse possibilities for how the data set might be used including helping people in developing countries deal with climate change and science teaching in sub-Saharan Africa.

But, “there is a gap between having pretty pictures and useful information for social innovators around the world,” he said. 

To bridge the gap Planet Labs have launched and the Mission One Alliance, a programme which will support social purpose organisations to make use of the images and help them develop Geographic Informations Systems (GIS) expertise.

Marshall invited all organisations interested in making use of the data to register on, and to imagine the new possibilities these nano-satellites could bring to their missions:

“If you had access to imagery of the whole earth every day what would you do with it, how would it help your mission or what new challenges would you solve?”