Please tell us about yourself

Aurélie Shapiro of WWF-Germany talks with us about maps, drones, and how humans still play an essential role in satellite data assessment.

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What is your role at WWF? 

I am a satellite remote sensing specialist, which in German is known as a Satellitenfernerkundungsspezialistin.

My job involves using satellite imagery to observe and monitor ecosystems for WWF projects. This involves making maps of ecosystems, habitats, protected areas, and forests, identifying areas of deforestation or forest degradation, and performing spatial analysis such as evaluating connectivity or determining hotspots of threats or other anthropogenic impacts. I am also increasingly working with other data from airplanes and drones, so it’s not exclusively satellites anymore.

What did you study?

I did my Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biology and Environmental Sciences from McGill University and M.E.M (Environmental Management) in landscape ecology, resource ecology from Duke University

What are you currently working on?

I am working on new ways to assess and quantify forest degradation, the second D in REDD+, which is much more difficult than monitoring deforestation. To do this I am exploring different techniques, from modeling drivers and threats that cause degradation, to using data collected on the forest canopy, by using 3-D data collected by drones, or detailed forest structure data from airborne laser scanning (LiDAR: Light Detecting and Ranging). We have collected this data in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the Carbon Map & Model Project. The DRC is a country with a pretty low deforestation rate, but high rates of degradation. Therefore, developing simple, repeatable methods to quantify degradation over time could help a lot of countries like the DRC quantify their degradation emissions, and make efforts to reduce them.

Another project I just started working with is Voices for Mekong Forests, for which I am helping to develop a forest governance monitoring system for the Mekong region countries. This involves providing civil society with the tools to observe and document what is happening to their forests from satellites and other sources, and helping them take action to invoke change through mobile apps. It’s really different from the more scientific research I have been doing, as this is really applying the outputs of remote sensing, bringing the information to people on the ground, and developing new tools for people to interact with and respond to map information.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I have always been an animal lover with a huge interest in maps. There were always maps everywhere in my room, and now they cover my apartment. In my first semesters at University I discovered GIS (Geographic Information Systems) where I created my own maps and spatial analysis, which led to satellite image analysis and remote sensing, and I have never really stopped mapping since!

Technology is an increasingly important part of REDD+; what do you wish more people knew, or took into account, when planning to use technology in their conservation efforts?

I believe it’s important to know that technology – all these new gadgets – they don’t do everything for you. When you download or purchase a satellite image you still need to process it and evaluate it and, most importantly, determine if it’s telling the truth – images from above can be deceiving! An area might look like it was purposely deforested, but it could simply be the result of a natural process. Or sometimes shadows from clouds make you think you are seeing water or a different land cover type. And after you fly a drone, there’s a lot of work to get the information you need from it. You shouldn’t underestimate the time and effort that requires. I feel like a lot of people think that everything can be solved with a satellite image or photo but that’s not at all the case. You still need humans: like a skilled Satellitenfernerkundungsspezialistin!

Apart from capacity and funding gaps, what do you think the biggest challenge is for remote sensing in the field?

I am sure you were expecting me to say: the biggest challenge is getting people to understand remote sensing or what a satellite or airborne photo or map is showing – but it’s not. Show anyone a photo or a map and they understand it right away – humans have been mappers even before we were reading and writing. The biggest challenge is keeping gear intact and powered up! Everything relies on batteries: the drone, the laptops, the phones, the GPS, and it still means lugging a generator around and having to buy fuel. Then add humidity, dust, bumpy roads…

What do you think the next big opportunity is?

A year ago, I would have said drones. Now, I think there is a huge potential in connecting people with live, real-time information from their surroundings. We are all increasingly connected by smartphones and mobile technology – the only way to stop the destruction of our forests and wildlife at this point in time is for people to know what is happening around them, be informed as soon as anything happens and be able to provide a quick reaction. This is what are hoping to achieve with the Voices for Mekong Forests project. Similar efforts like this are already happening in other spaces – for example, in Berlin there is an app to report things like graffiti or broken stoplights to the city administration – and this type of application could be very effective for conservation.