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SU hosts first-ever Google Earth Engine workshop
Author: Asiphe Nombewu
Published: 12/07/2019

​​​South Africa's first-ever workshop on Google Earth Engine was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU)'s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies recently. The two-day course, presented by Dr David Gibson of Google and Dr Madhu Mysore from the Nature Conservation Foundation in India, was held from 25–26 June on the Stellenbosch campus.

Organised in conjunction with Rhodes University and sponsored by the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), the workshop brought together over 50 researchers from universities and research institutions around Southern Africa to learn more about Google Earth Engine.

Google Earth Engine combines satellite imagery with planetary-scale analysis capabilities, making it possible for scientists, researchers and developers to detect changes, map trends and quantify differences on the Earth's surface. Highlighting the importance of the workshop, Gibson emphasised that Google Earth Engine is a product that scientists can use. “The scientists attending this workshop study changing landscapes and they may require millions of satellite images. Satellites produce new images every day and many of them have been up for decades. We ran this workshop because we want to bring new tools to the research community in South Africa to understand phenomena, monitor changes and guide actions," Gibson said.

Alta de Vos, a senior lecturer at the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University and one of the key organisers of the workshop said, “The real advantage of Google Earth Engine is that you can run analyses that used to require extensive hardware and expensive software on a regular PC. Whilst virtually anyone can access Google Earth Engine, some technical skill is required to use it productively. This workshop is an attempt to develop some of these technical skills among scientists and practitioners who can put Google Earth Engine to work to understand and solve real-world problems. We also wanted to build connections between people who use Google Earth Engine locally.

“This workshop is a real partnership effort between Google, Rhodes University, the CSIR, Stellenbosch University, who did a lot of the local organising, and SAEON, who also funded the local costs of the workshop," she added.

Echoing the sentiments of De Vos, Liezl Vermeulen, a Geographic Information Technology MSc student at SU who was also instrumental in organising the workshop, described the event as a hands-on training for the Google Earth Engine platform. “This is a tool in geography that can be applied to a wide range of different applications.

“It's a very multi-disciplinary workshop. We have researchers specialising in ecology, hydrology, invasion biology, economics, conservation, computer science, geography and statistics. Every time someone asks where something happened, this is where Google Earth Engine can assist."

The South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), funded by the Department of Science and Technology to monitor and understand environmental change, were key role players ensuring the success of the workshop. “We supported the organisers and SAEON provided funding for the workshop," said Data Scientist at SAEON, Glenn Moncrieff.

“We've learnt a huge amount at this workshop and connected with other Earth Engine users in South Africa. Seeing the full scope of what the platform can achieve is mind-blowing, allowing us to rapidly access and analyse huge amounts of Earth observation data, and even publish it in interactive online apps," added Jasper Slingsby, a scientist at SAEON.