An interview with

John Amos

Founder, SkyTruth

True To Me Too: How did you first get introduced to remote sensing and digital mapping?

John Amos: That was way back when I was an undergraduate geology student at Cornell University. . . actually it was before I even decided to be a geology student. I was looking for a major and I was poking around in the civil engineering department and saw they had some classes on remote sensing, image analysis and image processing. I thought those sounded like cool things so I took those classes and I was hooked.

You started your career working for oil companies and later shifted to using your image analysis skills to expose what the oil companies were doing. What sparked that shift?

Once I got my masters degree from Wyoming I spent about ten years at two different consulting firms in the Washington DC area who specialized in selling exploration studies and resource evaluations to the oil, gas and mining agencies, and to government agencies. I was one of the staff who used satellite imagery as a basic data source for doing geologic mapping and analysis. It kind of seems like I was working for “the other guys” for awhile. As time went by I saw more examples on satellite images of very interesting environmental stories in addition to the geological stories I was looking for.  I was seeing things like massive deforestation in Siberia, both from logging and from wildfires.  I was seeing massive deforestation here at home in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest just from the way we managed those forests for logging.  I saw this very rapid spread of high intensity gas drilling activity on public land in the Rocky Mountains.

A lot of these things that struck me as very major and rapid changes to the environment didn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention.  I thought part of the reason for that was that they were happing far away in parts of the world where there aren’t a lot of people so most people just don’t know about it.  I started thinking that I wanted to be able to show anybody who cared about what was happening in the environment. . . I wanted to be able to show it to them no matter where it was happening anywhere on the planet and I had the right tools to do that. I also started seeing the damage caused by mining activity and oil and gas activity and learning more and more about how we were changing the chemistry of the climate.  I was pretty convinced that the climate science that was developing was real and implied that pretty dramatic changes would be coming fairly soon for the people on this planet. I wanted to be working on ways to make that better rather than making it worse.

John Amos' testimony before Congress on fracking disclosure.

While I was preparing for this interview I got very overwhelmed with the amount of events that are constantly occurring around the world.  It’s still impossible for you to be everywhere at once do how do you decide what to focus on?

There are lots of different things we could be doing at any given time.  For us imagery is a very important component of what we do so we would much rather show people things rather than tell people about them.  A big part of our decision making process is, does imagery have the potential to play an important role in making people aware of this issue and getting people engaged in paying attention to the issue. If we determine that imagery can play an important part then there’s a whole bunch of different things we think about, how significant is this issue in terms of how many people? How much of the environment it potentially effects? Are there things happening socially and politically that would make it advantageous if we addressed this issue right now?

An example of that is this debate over whether or not the government should approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would move tar sands bitumen from Canada directly to refineries on the US Gulf Coast.  The State Department is going to give the thumbs up or thumbs down decision anytime now so if there’s something we can do to make people aware of some of the negative impacts of tar sands development; now would be a really good time to do that.  If we wait until after the Keystone decision has been made anything we produce is probably going to get a lot less attention.

That’s important because we’re a small outfit, we don’t have a big communications department, we don’t have a lot of people constantly calling media outlets, we’re not sending out news releases, so we rely, to some extent, on other organizations and concerned citizens to take our work and spread it around.  We know that we’ll get a better bang for our buck, that our work will be seen by more people, if we’re careful about the timing of our work.

With such a fast moving media cycle it’s probably difficult to have your work resonate with people for a long period of time.  What are some of the challenges of trying to communicate your findings to the public?

The one thing imagery is really good at is time travel (laughs).  Biologists call this the problem of shifting baselines, where the state of the environment is constantly changing and we get used to things pretty quickly.  If there used to be forest someplace and it got cut down and now there’s no forest it doesn’t take long for people to think “oh no forest here is normal”.  Normal is constantly changing, our perception of normal. One of the powerful things about imagery is that it can take people back in time.  We can do that pretty easily now and we can take people back to the 1970s when civilian remote sensing satellites first went up into orbit.  You can take people back 40 years and a lot has happened in 40 years on the planet.

Change has accelerated as humanity has grown, we’re a busy species so the amount of change you can show in the last 40 years is tremendous. Taking people back to what’s really not that long ago, it’s much less than an average lifetime, and you can show people and say, here’s what this place looked like when you were a kid, here’s what it looked like 20 years later, and here’s what it looks like now. That helps fight the insidious shifting baseline where more and more environmental degradation and change is viewed as normal.

BP Oil Spill - Annotated Satellite Images.

SkyTruth collects data that is available to the public through a number of different agencies. Do you think there is an easier way to consolidate this information and make it accessible to the general public.

The federal government has been trying to do that with the website, which is trying to be like a big aggregator of government datasets that are available to the public, they’ve done a pretty good job of that.  Things are changing so much in the information space. Not to long ago people used to think data warehouses were great ideas, you could just go out and grab all of the interesting datasets associated with a topic and you would copy all of those datasets under one roof.  Now we’re in the era of the cloud where people are wanting to distribute data more widely rather than concentrating it in one location.  Distributing it is smart because it makes it more durable, you don’t have the vulnerability of having one piece of infrastructure go down and making every dataset unavailable. The ideas about information architecture and information distribution keep evolving.

I’m not sure there is a perfect scenario in my mind for that but I think what is the minimum, especially for government datasets, is that data ought to be made available to the public in an easy to read and easily to handle format that are standard. So that standard software can read that data. Then people can build their own indexes of all of the datasets they think are important for fracking or for coal mining and those can constantly be changing as new stuff comes online and different curators emerge who have different ideas of what’s important and what’s not important.  The key is the data has to all be published, easy to get to, and provided in a standard format so it’s easy to work with.  Then just let people do with it what they want.

Governments, countries, and corporations each have an impact on the health of our global environment. Do you have an ideal vision for a global environmental protection policy or agency?

I don’t think we’re going to have one government, god I hope not, but on the other hand we’ve got global commerce and multinational companies and those function almost like governments.  What I’m encouraged by is the power of consumers to effect the way industries behave, totally separate from any government regulated command and control approach.  I think the key to consumers effectively controlling how well industry treats the environment is how much information those consumers have about how those companies are operating, not just here at home but when they’re doing things overseas and around the world.  It’s getting harder and harder to hide that stuff.  If Chevron lights the ocean on fire off the coast of Africa everybody here can see it and know about it and some of them may decided they aren’t going to fill up their gas tank with those guys anymore.  I think the ability of imagery to cover the globe and provide people with an up to the minute picture of what’s happening anywhere on the planet is one of the keys to really harnessing the power of peoples pocketbooks to make some positive changes happen for environmental protection.

Pollution reports surrounding a PA fracking waste pond - SkyTruth aims to crowdsource analysis of sites like this across shale gas regions

What are you currently working on? Do you have a dream project? Is there something you’re adamant about capturing and exposing?

We’re working on oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  We have a program where we are inviting the public to help us map drilling activity, we’re calling that Frack Finder. There’s a series of projects within Frack Finder, we’re in the third phase right now, ultimately the near-term goal of that project is to produce a GIS dataset that public health researchers can use to explore any connections between gas drilling, fracking and public health.  Anyone can visit the site and we’ll put them to work, they don’t need any experience or expertise or particular skills, all they need is a decent internet connection and we will give them imagery and ask them what they see in those images.

There’s always stuff going on that I think everybody should know about.  The tarsands extraction in Canada and the fact that they have an ongoing underground leak of tarsands that they can’t stop that most people don’t know about.  It’s underground so we can’t show it.  There’s always stuff like that going on. My dream project isn’t any one issue or problem but our dream is to make everyone a SkyTruther and that is to get everyone regularly looking at satellite imagery and aerial photography of the parts of the earth they care about, whether it’s their own backyard, their own neighbourhood, their favourite fishing hole, or some place they read about on the other side of the planet and they just decided they were going to watch out over that part of the world and let everybody know about anything that doesn’t look right.

Our dream is a SkyTruthing movement where people are looking at the same imagery we’re looking at and using the same tools we use and they’re publicizing their results.  We’re working on building the tools to make that happen and that’s what we’re really excited about.  We could use a few more programers to speed up the process.  If any of your readers have Python skills tell them to give us a call.  We’re not the only ones who have access to this tremendously powerful information, everybody has access to it, and with a little bit of help we can have everyone doing useful things with that information.

What do you think some of the biggest changes have been since you started SkyTruth?

Technology has changed a lot in 20 years.  One big way has been with data access, getting imagery, when I started doing this work in the late 1980s and early 1990s there weren’t many earth observing satellites in orbit and the imagery they were collecting was not available for free, you had to pay for it, even the stuff from the Landstat satellites, which were built and launched by US taxpayers by NASA, you had to buy the images from a private company and they cost $4,400 a piece.  Data was very limited in terms of what you could get and what you could afford. When I started my career really the only people who could afford this stuff were oil and mining companies and big government agencies.

That’s changed tremendously, now there are dozens of different remote sensing units in orbit, some of them are commercially operated, some are operated by other governments, some are operated by ours.  Now you can get every single Landstat satellite image, you can download them all for free if you have the time, there’s 3.8 million of them in the archives since 1972.  There’s a lot of things that you can do in terms of studying how the environments changed, how it’s changing now, the data availability has just exploded.

There’s a company in San Francisco Bay Area called Planet Labs and they just sent 28 satellites up to the International Space Station.  These satellites are earth imaging satellites, each one is 18 inches long and they’re going to be deployed over the next couple of months and when they’re all deployed they’re going to collect a daily 5 meter detailed portrait of the entire planet.  That’s huge, that kind of repeated coverage is game changing.  It makes all kinds of realtime environmental monitoring work possible.  Technology wise, to handle this stuff, you can do all of the image processing on a typical laptop, that’s all it takes.  Increasingly the images are available in ways that don’t take a lot of work for an ordinary person to bring up on the screen and look at it.  When I started you needed specialized imaging software, pretty high powered computers, and a lot of skill to take it from a bunch of data on a CD-ROM to an image you could actually look at and share.  So much stuff is off the shelf ready to go for anyone who wants to look at it.

Batu Hijau Gold Mine, open-pit mining operation.

With all of these technological advances in remote sensing and satellite technologies where do you think the job opportunities and demands will be?

I’m still trying to figure that one out.  Everything comes down to cost, cost to get data and cost to handle data, those things have dropped tremendously but they’re not zero (laughs) even if you have free data it takes people time and effort and it takes skill and expertise to do something meaningful with it. There’s still room for experts who can do stuff that no one else can really do.  One trend that’s really taking off is the development of very cheap, small, environmental sensors that you can place in a stream and it will continually sample that stream for contaminants or pH levels and will report the results to you in real time.  Sensors like that combined with imagery will make it much more useful in terms of what you can say with the imagery because you’ll have this opportunity for really detailed granular ground-truth to correlate with what you see in your image. I think there is going to be a lot of work in terms of integrating these different kinds of sensors, sensors in space, sensors on the ground, there’s going to be a lot of technology work and software development work that needs to be done to get all these systems working together and communicating effectively so we can have essentially real-time knowledge of what’s happening in the environment anywhere on earth.

An example of where that could have been very useful happened right here in West Virginia a few weeks ago when we had a chemical leak out of a storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston.  Nobody notified the water company just downstream until they had already taken a bunch of contaminated water and distributed it into the home plumbing of about 300,000 people across a 9 county area.  By that point it was to late, people had been exposed to this chemical, they were showering in it, they were cooking with it, they were drinking it, and nobody had any information about how potentially harmful this chemical was.  You could see how if they had an intelligent sensor network in place they might have had an opportunity to shut that drinking water intake down before any of the chemical got brought into the system.  Instead of inconveniencing people for weeks and exposing hundreds of thousands of people to this chemical you might have had a situation where you inconvenienced people for a few days.  Remote sensing comes in many different forms, not just collecting imagery from space, I see a lot of potential for the growth of these smart sensors and devices monitoring the environment and networked together to give us real-time alerts and warnings when something is happening that we need to be concerned about.

You studied geology but is there a more focused program for students who are interesting in studying remote sensing?

It’s taught at the undergraduate level at most places through different disciplines but I don’t actually know of a remote sensing degree. In most cases you can pick up classes in image analysis and image processing through a lot of geology, earth science, or environmental studies programs.  There’s even some certification programs now that work with schools to develop curriculum at the undergraduate level that lead to certifications in image analysis. Those programs are administered through the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

Landstat image of open-pit uranium mining in Gas Hills, Wyoming

A lot of non-profits struggle with funding. Do you have any advice for finding or securing funding?

My first piece of advice would be save your money so that you can go without salary for while.  After that it’s just constant work to research potential sources of funding, environmental foundations for starters but also trying to find donations from concerned individuals. It takes a lot of research and it takes a lot of work.  The internet is making some things easier in terms of your ability to reach people who might be interested in supporting what you do.  It doesn’t matter if they’re in your own town or on the other side of the planet, they can find you now.  The rise of crowdfunding tools is another thing that offers a lot of potential.  We’re starting to see if we can take advantage of the possibilities offered by crowd funding.  We managed to actually have a whole project funded through Indiegogo. Those are new avenues that didn’t exist when we started SkyTruth.  There are a lot of new ways for people to think about how to fund a project or a program that go beyond the traditional mechanism of finding a charitable foundation and writing them a proposal.

Do you have any final advice for people who want to work with remote sensing or do something similar in the field of environmental protection?

I think it was really valuable that I had several years of industry experience because it gave me a foundation of good practical expertise with the technology in terms of what you can do with it and what you can’t do with it.  It’s just as important to know the limitations of the tools as it is to know their capabilities.  I learned a lot about how the industry works.  I have some sympathy for the challenges that all companies face in funding their operation and running it.  I think I’m more inclined to see it as, hey, they’re people too.  Too often I see people on both sides of an issue who tend to demonize the other side. I think having been in both worlds I have a little bit more respect for people regardless of where they end up working. It’s good for perspective and for skills to actually work somewhere for awhile before you decide to get started in a non-profit organization.

Date: March 18, 2014 • Category:
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