7 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do With SkyTruth Alerts

SkyTruth Alerts is better than ever. Learn how to make our new Alerts work for you.

SkyTruth’s new Alerts app is a year old! Or, in human terms, our new Alerts is in early childhood, a period of tremendous growth across all areas of development with occasional wobbles and stumbles.

SkyTruth Alerts show subscribers and users where environmental incidents have occurred in their Areas of Interest (AOIs), particularly for oil and gas activities. In making Alerts available to the public — at no charge — SkyTruth has provided access to tools, data and satellite imagery that environmentalists and citizen-scientists otherwise wouldn’t have. You can learn more about SkyTruth Alerts here

In 2018, we gave Alerts a facelift and SkyTruth began looking for additional datasets that would help subscribers monitor their AOI. We’ve expanded oil and gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York. (If you’d like to see more datasets, let us know!)

The new Alerts was developed to meet three goals: 

  • Provide users access to satellite imagery;
  • Give users the ability to create, annotate and share their own custom maps;
  • Enable a quicker process for adding new Alert data sources.

Whether you’re a longtime Alerts subscriber or are just starting out, here are seven features you might have missed.

1. Drawing Setback Distances Around an Alert

While Alerts incidents are generally tied to a specific point on a map, they can also greatly affect the surrounding areas. Alerts helps highlight these areas of impact by letting you define setback distances around an incident. (For example, you may get an Alert that your state government has issued a permit to drill and frack a new gas well in your AOI, and you want to create a map showing the 2500-foot zone of potential public health risk around that drilling site.)

Start by viewing the full details of an incident, either by clicking on an incident from an Alerts email, or when navigating the map by clicking an Alert icon, followed by the View Full Report link from the pop-up window.

You’ll find the Draw setbacks link at the top of the left sidebar. After clicking this link:

  1. Select a unit of measure (meter, km, mile).
  2. Select a distance.
  3. Click Draw.
  4. Repeat as necessary.

2. Navigating by Latitude/Longitude

Just like every house has its own address (house number, name of the street, city, etc), every point on the surface of earth can be specified by its own latitude and longitude coordinates. Sometimes, a latitude/longitude is all you have. Fortunately the Alerts Location Search box — located on the upper-right corner of the map — will accept these coordinates just as well as a city, state, or house address.

Try it out by on the Alerts Map by seeing where these latitude/longitude coordinates take you:

  • 36.0986, -112.1107
  • 30, -90

Wondering what the latitude/longitude is for where you are on the Alerts map? If you use a mouse or touchpad, Alerts will always show you the lat/lng for the current location of the pointer. You’ll find these coordinates on the right side of the heading, just under the Login link.

3. Search Alerts by Keyword and Time Period

Alerts has about 420,000 incidents in its database. The primary method for narrowing these down to the ones you’re interested in is by moving around the map, zooming in and out, and creating AOIs. You’ll always see the most recent 100 incidents on your current map.

Looking for a specific incident can seem impossible without the additional filtering that Alerts provides:

  • Start and end dates: Enter either or both dates. Results are shown automatically when completing each date.
  • Keyword: Alerts will search all incidents in the current map boundaries for the keyword you enter here. Keyword search is not case sensitive, so TAYLOR and taylor will return the same results. However, the incident must contain your typed keyword(s) with exactly the same spelling, spacing and syntax. 

Click the  when you’re finished typing the search keyword.

Some of the uses of this feature include searching incidents for a specific owner, address, material, well number (for oil and gas permits), or description. Also, many Alerts sources use special keywords to identify incidents. For example, we add the keyword BIGSPILL for spills over 100 gallons reported to the National Response Center, and for spills that we estimate are bigger than 100 gallons. Essentially, any words you see while viewing an incident can be used to search for similar incidents.

Some examples: 

  • ALLEGHENY POWER
  • TAYLOR ENERGY
  • SHEEN
  • AMMONIA
  • PIPELINE
  • INCINERATOR
  • SEATTLE
  • 063-37531
  • BIGSPILL
  • CRUDE

4. Download the Data to Analyze for yourself

Once you’ve got the map positioned just so, with the map boundaries and zoom level showing the area you’re interested in and any required filtering applied, you can take a closer look at the data and even download a CSV or KML file.

Start by clicking the Table view/Download icon, located on the Alerts tab:

You’re presented with a spreadsheet-like view of the data:

Here are some of the capabilities you’ll have:

  • Show top 20,000 alerts: check to show the most recent 20,000 instead of 100 incidents. [Update 8 May 2020: We’ve increased the number from 2,000 to 20000.]
  • Download KML File: KML files are used in an Earth browser such as Google Earth to layer the incidents visually on a map outside of Alerts. 
  • Download CSV File: CSV files can be opened by spreadsheets or viewed in text editors.
  • Previous and Next buttons take you through the data, page by page.
  • 20 rows dropdown list: allows you to change the number of incidents per page, up to 100.
  • Click on any column header (Id, Title, Incident Date, etc.) to sort on that column. Click again to sort in descending sequence.
  • Pull the vertical bars between column headings to increase/decrease the width of a column.

5. Play a Visualization of How Many Alerts Occurred Over Time

Before running this timeline, position the map with the boundaries and zoom level you want and apply any required filtering.  Start by clicking the Timeline link on the Alerts tab:


Alerts will create annual counts of incidents. Try running the visualization by clicking the
Play button:

From here, you’ll have controls to adjust the visualization:

  • Define how long each step represents (defaults to 1 year): Can select 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, or 24 months.
  • Define how long each step lasts (defaults to 1 second)
  • Select Marker plot or Heat map (defaults to Marker plot): The marker plot visualization will place a marker on the map for each alert; a heat map uses a warm-to-cool color spectrum to show where the incidents are most concentrated.
  • Select a date range (begin and end month/year)
  • Clear markers after each step, or not. If you don’t clear markers after each step, the map will represent a sum of incidents for the current step and and all prior steps.
  • Cluster markers, or not. For marker plots, you can cluster the incidents together instead of showing individual markers. Clustering provides a count of incidents in relative proximity to each other.

You must be logged into Alerts to use the remaining features in this post, making you a SkyTruth Alerts super-user!

6. Measure an Area on the Map

Navigate to any AOI on the map. You may want to switch to the Satellite basemap for a better view of the area. You’ll find basemap selection in the upper-middle section of the map:

Look for something you want to measure, such as a body of water, housing development, industrial complex, or agricultural field.

Start by clicking the Annotations icon , which opens the Annotations window:

There’s a lot to explore here, but for this exercise click the polygon () to start identifying the area you want to measure. You’ll find on-screen help in the Annotations window. In short, you start the measurement by clicking anywhere on the map, then use additional clicks to create new lines around the area you’re measuring. Complete the polygon by clicking the original starting point.

When finished, you’ll have these options:

By checking the Include area checkbox, Alerts will measure and display the selected area in square kilometers.

7. Share a Map Image

Create your custom map — any map! Select the alerts, basemaps, satellite imagery, layers, and annotations you want to show. When the map is ready to share, click the Share icon:

Then click the Download image of map button:

The image that’s downloaded will be a JPG file and can be found where your browser stores downloaded files. It will have a filename starting with skytruthalertsmap followed by the date and time. This is an experimental feature in Alerts and we would appreciate any feedback on its use.

Conclusion:

Alerts is becoming one of the go-to applications in an environmentalist’s toolbox. Soon, you’ll be able to create your own Issue Maps so that you can focus on the area, data, and map controls relevant to a specific topic. We also have high hopes for User Generated Alerts, planned for later in 2020, so you can show the world what’s happening in the places you care about. Stay tuned for new features in the year to come!

SkyTruth Alerts: When We Know, You Know

Key Takeaways:

  1. SkyTruth is looking for new sources for the environmental alerts we send out.
  2. Since relaunching Alerts in December, 2018, we’ve expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.
  3. We rely on our users to let us know about potential new sources for Alerts. Email your ideas to info@skytruth.org.

Introduction

Where do you start if you want to monitor the environment in an area that’s special to you? How do you find useful data? You might have a specific issue in mind and you suspect there’s relevant data online if you could only find it. Data.gov alone contains 252,892 datasets last time you checked, and much of that’s related to the environment.

You could spend days researching online datasets, and when you find something relevant figure out how to navigate the website to pull out the data you need while somehow filtering for your Area of Interest (AOI). Repeat daily.

Or, you could register for a SkyTruth Alerts account, outline and save your AOI, then go live your life while we do the heavy lifting.

Example of an Alerts email.

SkyTruth Alerts was built in 2012, originally as an in-house tool for our staff to automate receiving notifications of incidents reported to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC). The NRC is a federal emergency call center that fields initial reports for pollution and railroad incidents. They make updates available usually once a week, which we then download and add to our database. SkyTruth Alerts was soon thereafter made available to the public and expanded to include Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Permitting events, which we “scrape” from PA’s Dept. of Environmental Protection website several times a day. SkyTruth makes Alerts available to anyone, and at no charge, for the purpose of providing access to tools, data and satellite imagery that environmentalists otherwise wouldn’t have. 

In 2018, Alerts was given a facelift and SkyTruth began looking for additional datasets that would help subscribers monitor their AOIs. We’ve since expanded Oil & Gas permitting to include West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. We’ve also added pollution alerts for Florida, New Mexico and New York.

Alerts In the Big Picture

Alerts is an environmental monitoring platform. In addition to receiving incident emails, users also have access to satellite imagery, relevant map layers, and the ability to annotate and share map views. Alerts is not a research platform — there are websites that do a great job with this (World Resources Institute, for one). And while we have some of the tools that allow you to monitor a species, we’re not really designed to do this task which, by the way, is already very aptly handled by sites such as iNaturalist.org. At the same time, if there’s a map layer that will help you monitor your AOI, let us know about it and we’ll see if it can be added to the set of layers we make available. 

Getting Started with Alerts

  1. If you haven’t already done so, register for an account.
  2. Identify your AOI(s).
  3. Identify the Alerts you want to receive.
  4. Check your email for new alerts.

What About Dataset XYZ?

We are always on the lookout for new datasets that can be a source for new Alerts, and we depend on our subscribers to help find these sources. If a dataset is important to you, it might also be important to others and we’d like to learn more. Email us at info@skytruth.org.

The number one requirement for an Alerts source is that the data must be available online. After that, to be meaningful the source needs to be related to the environment, have location information such as latitude/longitude or address, and include a date such as the incident date. Alerts don’t have to be about incidents that have already occurred. We’re also interested in new alert sources that would drive people to take action before there’s harm to the environment. Think upcoming hearings, permitting processes, etc. If the data’s online somewhere, it might make a relevant SkyTruth alert.

Our current plans are to add more oil and gas permitting states, pollution incidents and federal datasets such as those from the EPA. We love hearing from our subscribers about potential new sources and how they can be useful, and the more people who might use a source, the more likely we can add it to our database.

Coming Soon?

SkyTruth may soon be its own source of Alerts. Over the years we’ve compiled some unique datasets such as our global flaring data, which dates back to 2012. New flaring in an AOI equals a new alert, right? That’s the plan! We’re also working on algorithms that will automatically identify changes in the environment and our strategic plan includes feeding the results of Conservation Vision into Alerts. Stay tuned for progress on these fronts!

 

Annotate & Share Your SkyTruth Alerts Map

SkyTruth’s latest update to Alerts adds features that allow subscribers to annotate a map view and share it with co-workers, organizations and interested parties. These additions add to a rich set of features that are unique to online mapping and satellite imagery viewing — all available for free to the public.

New annotation features allow subscribers to:
  • Highlight traits found in satellite imagery
  • Measure the area of new development or changes in a habitat’s footprint
  • Add information to a SkyTruth Alerts incident
  • Measure boundary setbacks or the distance between 2 objects
  • Add text to the map in preparation for sharing with others

This is accomplished with a set of tools that can annotate by using shapes (rectangles, circles, polygons), lines, text, markers and measurements. A guide to these tools is available here.

New sharing capabilities allow you to save current map views either as a JPG image or a unique URL. Visit here for a  guide to sharing and some of its limitations.

The full online manual is available here.

We’ll be testing and fine-tuning these features throughout the summer. If you run into problems or want to suggest features you’d like to use with Alerts, please contact us at feedback@skytruth.org. We would also enjoy hearing about how you’re able to make use of these features!

PA and WV Drilling Alerts have Moved to SkyTruth Alerts

If you’ve been on the Pennsylvania Drilling Alerts or West Virginia Drilling Alerts pages lately, you know that they’ve been semi-broken for a while. The technology we’re using on the Drilling Alerts pages is pretty old and will be retired soon. However, you can now do the same county monitoring in SkyTruth Alerts. We’d love it if you’d take it for a spin and tell us what you think.

The PA and WV Drilling Alerts pages have been semi-broken for a while.

We’ve set up two public accounts at SkyTruth Alerts — one for Pennsylvania counties and one for West Virginia counties — that will let you view county alerts in pretty much the same way you did on the Drilling Alerts pages, and with some extra features that we use in-house and hope you’ll find useful too.

To view Drilling Alerts at SkyTruth Alerts:

  1. Go to https://alerts.skytruth.org
  2. Select Login from the top right of the map.  Log in using the UserID and Password information below.

    UserID: Pennsylvania or WestVirginia (no spaces)
    Password: skytruth
  3. Select the My AOIs tab from the left sidebar and choose a county.
  4. Select the Alerts tab from the left sidebar and choose which alerts you want to see.
  5. You can opt to view only alerts within the county you selected and view alerts for a particular date range (Alerts tab).
  6. You can also view near-real-time satellite imagery to help you assess what’s happening on the ground (My AOIs tab).

If you plan to keep using SkyTruth Alerts, consider creating your own account. You’ll be able to keep your settings instead of having to select them every time you log in, and you can optionally receive email notifications when new alerts come in. If you have comments, suggestions, questions, etc., contact us at feedback@skytruth.org.

Satellite Imagery comes to SkyTruth Alerts

Given SkyTruth’s mission of using the view from space to motivate people to protect the environment, it was only a matter of time before satellite imagery would find its way into our Alerts application. With 2019 comes the ability to visually check out what’s taking place in your areas of interest (AOIs), all inside the same application that notifies you about environmental events in those areas.

Newly available imagery in Alerts comes from Sentinel-2 satellites, an Earth observation mission from the European Union’s Copernicus Program. Copernicus systematically acquires optical imagery at high spatial resolution (10 to 60 meters) over land and coastal waters, with new images available about every five days in many areas.

What you can see with 10 meter resolution imagery

The 10m resolution images from Sentinel 2 satellites should work well if you’re searching for new roads, expansion of large disturbance areas, or changes in natural boundaries. But you’ll be disappointed if you’re trying to identify tree cover or the type of vehicle that’s parked in your driveway.

In a 10m resolution image, one pixel represents a 10 meter by 10 meter area, so objects will need to be considerably larger than that for any detail to be discernible.

Here are two 10m images over a gas drilling site in Pennsylvania, taken one year apart.

 

Viewing satellite imagery inside SkyTruth Alerts

Most new features in Alerts require you to login. From alerts.skytruth.org, click on the  LOGIN  link in the header and follow the instructions. First time users will need to register for a new account.

NOTE: If you used our original Alerts, you’ll still need to register for an account the first time. Just remember to use the same email that you used to subscribe to AOIs in the original Alerts.

 

2. Identify the Area of Interest (AOI)

Start by clicking on the My Areas tab.

If you’ve already subscribed to an AOI, you can easily select it by clicking on its thumbnail.

Or, you can start a new AOI by clicking “Explore a New Area”.

 

3. Click the Sentinel Imagery checkbox.

 

4. Select your image date

Notes

  • Feel free to adjust the cloud cover or enter a date range, then click Filter to change the images that are available.
  • You can remove the alerts markers by, 1) Clicking the Alerts tab, 2) checking/unchecking the alerts you want on the map, 3) Clicking the My Areas tab to return the AOI controls.
  • If you like the AOI you’ve created, don’t forget to click Add this AOI to my list.
  • Use cloud cover percentage as a guidance. This represents the larger satellite image, which may cover substantially more area than your AOI. So it’s possible to have a low percentage of cloud cover and still have your AOI covered mostly by clouds.
  • You can add highways, towns, etc., to your image by clicking the Show Labels checkbox.

What’s next with Alerts and imagery

The true color images shown throughout this post are just part of what’s possible with satellite imagery. In addition to the red, green and blue bands that give images their true color appearance, most satellites catch additional bands that can include near-infrared, mid-infrared, far-infrared and thermal-infrared. Identifying landscape patterns and features using combinations of these spectral bands starts with additional processing by various data enhancement techniques, and is often followed by some type of classification algorithm to help understand what each feature or pattern represents. Doing this work is one of the challenges faced by SkyTruth Geospatial Analysts and other scientists around the world.

What do you think?

We’d like to know what you think about the addition of Sentinel-2 satellite images to the Alerts system: Will you use this new feature? What does it help you do? How does it fall short? We’re working to make continual improvements to Alerts and we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email at at feedback@skytruth.org.