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How Map of Life helps preserve Earth’s biodiversity with Google Cloud Platform

Google Cloud Platform
Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Global biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate: The World Wildlife Foundation estimates the decline of two thirds of the earth's vertebrate populations by 2020, providing supporting evidence that we are currently in an extinction crisis. With so many species at risk, it’s difficult for scientists, conservationists and government agencies to know how and where to prioritize and target efforts to halt extinctions and preserve biodiversity.

Map of Life, a collaborative project hosted by Yale University and the University of Florida, endeavors to tackle this challenge by providing comprehensive biodiversity information that integrates data from a large number of sources, including museums, conservation groups, government agencies and individuals. It layers an astounding amount of information for hundreds of thousands of species and using a rapidly growing amount of data, currently over 600 million records, on web and mobile-based Google Maps.

Map of Life needed a cloud-based platform to host their considerably large database, and chose Google Cloud Platform because it offers the best scalable tools to integrate, manage, mine and display data, additionally integrating products with Google Earth Engine and Google Maps.

“Google Cloud Platform offers all the tools we needed for large-scale data management and analysis. Its integration with Google Earth Engine and Google Maps make it ideal for data visualization.”

— Walter Jetz, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University.

Pinpointing at-risk species

Combining data from multiple sources, Map of Life provides estimates of the distribution and potential trends of at-risk species and makes this information available to naturalists, conservation groups, resource managers, and global threat assessors. Anyone who visits the website or downloads the app can get information about which species occur where, globally. Google Cloud Storage hosts the data and scales automatically as the amount of information grows. Google App Engine runs a middleware API that integrates the data, makes it available to researchers, and displays it on Google Maps. Google Compute Engine performs data analyses to predict which species are at risk.

In biodiversity science, making predictions is extremely complex and requires many iterations, each of which includes corrections and new input from scientists. Compute Engine is particularly well-suited for this because of how quickly it performs each iteration. That allows more iterations to be run in a given time period.

“Every day we’re gathering more data, including from remote sensors. Using Google Cloud Platform and Google Earth Engine, we’re able to make more accurate predictions about at-risk species worldwide,” says Jetz.

Map of Life continually incorporates new data sets from resources around the world. It also allows people to send in their own observations about birds, mammals, cacti, and many more organisms. This platform integrates remote-sensing data from Google Earth Engine additionally utilizing Google BigQuery to perform queries on very large data sets.

“Map of Life uses Google BigQuery to analyse massive data sets, quickly. We can perform a query on 600 million species occurrence records in less than a minute, helping scientists reach conclusions more quickly,” says Jeremy Malczyk, lead software engineer for Map of Life.

Addressing biodiversity and conservation across the globe

Well over 100,000 scientists and citizen scientists are using Map of Life for biodiversity research and discovery. Map of Life is now developing visualizations and tools to support the specific needs of government agencies and conservation bodies and to help decision-making for environmental policy. In September 2016, the Chicago Field Museum and Map of Life received a $300,000 MacArthur Foundation grant to support conservation efforts in South America. Dashboards will provide park managers with biodiversity information including lists of species expected in a particular location. That information will be used to improve conservation strategies in protected areas within South America.

“Humankind has historically had very little information about biodiversity with sufficient spatial detail at a global scale. With Map of Life are setting out to change that. By combining in data and models we aim to help everyone from ecotourists who can appreciate biodiversity wherever they travel, to resource managers who need to handle development in a sustainable way, and to governments who want to protect biodiversity,” Jetz says.

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