App to monitor freshwater ecosystem

Google, UN Environment & European Commission’s Joint Research Centre have unveiled a web-based platform to monitor global freshwater ecosystem.


Freshwater ecosystems are a subset of Earth's aquatic ecosystems. They can be contrasted with marine ecosystems, which have a larger salt content. 

Human activities such as physical alteration, water withdrawal, pollution, overexploitation and the introduction of non-native species all contribute to the decline in freshwater species. Data on the condition and trends of freshwater species are poor at the global level, although some countries have better inventories and indicators of change of freshwater species. Efficient monitoring of water resources is fundamental for effective management of water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

The European Commission’s Joint Research developed water data set which maps the location and temporal distribution of water surfaces over the past 32 years & provides statistics on the extent and change of those surfaces. 


UN Environment, Google and European Commission’s Joint Research centre has unveiled a publicly available free platform with expertise in satellite data, cloud computing, earth observation, artificial intelligence, UN Environment’s scientific knowledge and data analysis expertise to show how water ecosystems are changing over time. 

The app was presented during the United Nations Science-Policy-Business forum. UN Environment and Google hope to eventually establish a platform for open-source data and analysis of Sustainable Development Goals that was adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015.

Jillian Campbell, the chief statistician at UN Environment, said the app would enable countries to track progress on Sustainable Development Goal 6.6, which seeks to halt the degradation and destruction of water-related ecosystems, and to assist the recovery of those already degraded. 

“We are really excited to be able to show you that as of now we can use this information to efficiently monitor one of the Sustainable Development Goals,” she told the forum.

Brian Sullivan, team leader at Google Earth Engine, said that the new partnership fits well with Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, a mission, he said, related closely to the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

 “This is a tool that we are making freely available for all non-commercial use because we feel this is a critical environmental stage and we want everyone to have the same access to Google’s computing resources to advance these goals,” he said. “We have well over 11 million images, 200 plus public datasets and we are constantly adding new ones… and the idea is that anyone with access to an Internet connection can access all this data.”

 The new platform uses a data mining algorithm—Global Surface Water Explorer—developed by the European Commission Joint Research Centre. Andreas Brink, the senior scientist at the centre, told the forum it would support more informed decision-making.“Water is changing all the time. It is highly dynamic. For decision makers, it is of vital importance to know where water is… in a regular, consistent way,” he said. “But to understand the situation today, we have to look in the past. Monitoring from the past to the current situation is critical.”

 By providing satellite images accompanied by downloadable statistical data and trend analysis, the platform can help the Member States understand changes occurring in the spatial extent of open water bodies; identify new or lost water bodies, and identify where changes are happening to seasonal water bodies. It is hoped to expand the project to air quality and oceans, among other sustainable development topics, in the future. 

UN Environment’s Campbell said the app could have very practical results at the community level. “It’s also a flagging system. You can identify where there may be a problem, then someone needs to do more research… and this is where we need community engagement to say, ‘here’s what it looks like, here’s how it’s affecting us’.”


Our assessment is that critical data gaps in the environment can make it difficult to draft effective policies. We feel that with reliable, consistent and comparable data, nations can implement real-time environmental action. Informed decisions can be made on water bodies which are conducive for cross country collaboration.  We believe that this project will shift the way that water resources are managed, in turn reducing the loss of biodiversity.  


Image Courtesy - Stebunik