SkyTruth Annual Report
If you can see it, you can CHANGE it.
In the huge auditorium of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, surrounded by some of the smartest computer scientists and software engineers in the country, I waited for my name to be called. It was December 2, 2019 and SkyTruth was one of four worthy nonprofits chosen to participate in the re:Invent 2019 Nonprofit Hackathon for Good.
What did that mean? It meant SkyTruth was competing for brainpower in a day-long event, hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), to address some of the world’s most pressing problems with computer technology. As I listened to our competitors pitch their projects — each hoping to inspire the best and brightest to work on their goals (for free) that day — I reviewed SkyTruth’s major talking points in my head. First and foremost, I told myself, remember what we are trying to accomplish:
Why? Every year, more than 230 million gallons of oil are intentionally dumped into the ocean. That’s a BP-sized spill that nobody hears about, every year. The culprits? Thousands of ships at sea, mostly big cargo ships and tankers, that are discharging untreated bilge waste. Bilge is the nasty, oily slop that accumulates in a vessel during normal operations. The quickest, cheapest way to get rid of it is to flush it directly into the sea, a process called bilge dumping.
This has been illegal under international maritime law since the 1970s.
And yet it continues to happen with alarming frequency, mostly afflicting countries that can’t afford a robust navy or coast guard to patrol their waters. This stuff is toxic, harmful to marine life, and all too often causes “mystery spills” that wash up on shorelines around the world, along with dead and dying sea birds, turtles and other marine life. Tourists flee, fisheries close, and thousands of people suffer losses to their livelihoods and wellbeing.
For years, SkyTruth has observed this phenomenon via satellite imagery. In 2019 we began a more strategic and systematic search for polluters, focusing on heavily trafficked shipping lanes that are visible from publicly available ship-tracking data. In total, between January and December 2019, our staff and interns found 163 slicks averaging 56 kilometers (almost 35 miles) in length. We were not able to cover all of the Earth’s oceans — we were limited by satellite capabilities and staff time. But the frequency of this activity tells us that it is routine in many places in the world’s oceans, and that the problem is much larger than the incidents we uncovered.
How? By automating the detection of bilge dumping on satellite imagery, allowing us to monitor the entire ocean every day, and identifying the polluters responsible. In 2019 we began using Artificial Intelligence techniques such as machine learning to train computers to recognize the tell-tale slicks that trail behind a polluting vessel. We are building programs to correlate Automatic Identification System (AIS) vessel-tracking radio broadcasts with those slicks to help us identify the polluters in many cases. As we move forward, we will implement a notification system to inform, in near-real time, enforcement agencies, port authorities, supply chain managers, shipping companies, flag state compliance officers, activists, journalists, and anyone else who is in a position to take action.
This was the vision racing through my mind that December morning in Las Vegas. When my name was called, I stepped onto the stage, smiled at the assembled crowd of techies and made my pitch. It must have worked. After a brief presentation and a little Q and A, SkyTruth attracted seven different teams with a total of 35 computer scientists and engineers to work on different components of our project.
And perhaps most importantly, we gained a valuable new friend: Amazon Web Services awarded SkyTruth an Imagine Grant to start building the toolkit that will help the world end bilge dumping. In addition to direct support, the grant includes generous in-kind donations of cloud computing assets, technical training for our team, hands-on help from AWS engineers, as well as marketing and promotional assistance.
It’s an exciting time at SkyTruth, reminiscent of the early days of our Global Fishing Watch collaboration, which fundamentally changed how the world sees and tracks commercial fishing.
We will be applying many of the same techniques developed to detect bilge dumping — a major part of our Conservation Vision program — to terrestrial conservation challenges in our new partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). SkyTruth will be helping WCS monitor and manage protected areas around the world. We are identifying specific projects to demonstrate how automated analysis of satellite images can assist efforts to detect and stop illegal logging, land clearing, oil and gas drilling, mining, poaching, and other activities that threaten biodiversity and destabilize communities.
To accomplish these amazing feats, we hired a machine learning engineer, Jona Raphael. Jona is advancing our ability to automatically scan thousands of satellite images a day and find the needle in the haystack of data; that is, detect features of interest or concern that might otherwise remain hidden from view.
We are improving our capabilities every day, applying these techniques across a broad spectrum of our work. Read on to learn more about our activities in 2019 and how we will be building on them for years to come, addressing escalating issues such as environmental justice and coping with new challenges presented by the global pandemic.
Global natural gas flaring detected by satellite.
SkyTruth uses the view from space to inspire people to protect the environment. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, with offices across the United States and in Indonesia. We believe more transparency leads to better management and better outcomes. By sharing our findings – stunning imagery and robust science-based data – with the public for free, we move policy makers, governments and corporations towards more responsible behavior and more accountability for the environment.