How an Instagram Feed, Next Generation Satellite Imagery and Open-Access Data Are Changing the Way We See the Planet

Daily Overview creator Ben Grant, using images from DigitalGlobe, hopes to foster a sense of stewardship for the planet. 

The Bento Rodrigues community and surrounding area prior to the tailings dam failure in September 2015. Image Credit: Daily Overview/DigitalGlobe

The Bento Rodrigues community and surrounding area after the tailings dam failure in November 2015. Image Credit: Daily Overview/DigitalGlobe

The Bento Rodrigues community and surrounding area after the tailings dam failure in November 2015. Image Credit: Daily Overview/DigitalGlobe

The Bento Rodrigues community and surrounding area prior to the tailings dam failure in November 2015. Image Credit: Daily Overview/DigitalGlobe

Even the most casual Instagram viewer scrolling through images is likely to stop when a Daily Overview appears on the screen. Daily Overview images beg examination, a second look to determine what exactly is happening in the photo.

That second look is exactly what Daily Overview creator Ben Grant wants his audience to do.

Take for example the juxtaposed before-and-after images of Brazil’s Bento Rodrigues Dam collapse in November 2015. More than 62 million cubic meters of wastewater from the iron ore mine wiped out numerous villages – killing 17 people – and poisoned drinking water, destroyed crops, and killed countless animals and plants as the mine tailings barreled down the Doce River toward the Atlantic Ocean. Described as the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, the images of the dam failure shown on the Daily Overview website tell the story in a way the words of this article cannot.

“The core idea of the project is to change the way people see our universe, starting right here and now with what we’re doing to our planet,” Grant said in an interview with Earthzine.

Grant started the website and Instagram feed (he’s also on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr) in late 2013 after watching the film “Overview,” which introduced him to the concept of the Overview Effect.

The core idea of the project is to change the way people see our universe, starting right here and now with what we’re doing to our planet. – Ben Grant, Daily Overview founder

“Some people call it the ‘Big Picture Effect,’” Grant explained. “Astronauts who spend significant time at the International Space Station or on space shuttle missions got a different meaning of what it meant to be a human being. They came back reporting a new awareness, a psychological shift in what they had seen in seeing the planet as a whole, ‘floating in a sea of infinity’ as they said. When I saw that video it profoundly changed the way I thought about the world.”

Intrigued by the Overview Effect, Grant searched the Apple Maps app for “Earth,” figuring an image of the planet would appear on his screen. Instead, the app displayed pivot irrigation circles in the map-dot town of Earth, Texas. Awestruck by what he was seeing, Grant took a screenshot and began showing that image, and others like it, to friends and colleagues. The Daily Overview was born.

The website quickly went viral, and the Instagram feed has more than 200,000 followers. Grant said his main focus is demonstrating how humans have altered the planet, and the top 10-most viewed pictures on his website confirm that, depicting a Brazilian beach packed with buildings, a Dutch ‘star fort,’ and variations on city grids – subdivisions and slums – to name a few.

But Grant soon realized that if he wanted to make Daily Overview his full-time gig (he was working as a brand consultant in New York City at the time), he needed to make sure he had the right to use and sell the images he pulled from the Internet and edited in Photoshop.

He reached out to DigitalGlobe, the satellite imagery company based out of Westminster, Colorado, which operates a fleet of next generation satellites that provide the high-resolution images people see when they look at Google Maps or the Apple Maps app. DigitalGlobe agreed Grant’s project was a good one and has licensed him to use the company’s images under a royalties agreement.

“There’s an intrinsic artistic viewpoint in our images,” said Kumar Navulur, senior director of Strategic Solutions at DigitalGlobe. “Our purpose is seeing a better world, to provide information for the changing planet.”

The DigitalGlobe “constellation” of satellites began in 1999 with the launch of IKONOS, a satellite capable of taking pictures anywhere on the Earth at sub 1-meter resolution. Since then, DigitalGlobe added another first generation satellite, QuickBird, and has moved on to WorldView-1, GeoEye-1, WorldView-2, WorldView-3, and upcoming WorldView-4.

There’s an intrinsic artistic viewpoint in our images. Our purpose is seeing a better world, to provide information for the changing planet. – Kumar Navulur, senior director of Strategic Solutions at DigitalGlobe

An artist’s rendering of WorldView-4, set to launch in September 2016. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

An artist’s rendering of WorldView-4, set to launch in September 2016. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

According to DigitalGlobe, the final satellite in that lineup, WorldView-3, is a super-spectral, high-resolution commercial satellite. It is operating at an altitude of 617 kilometers, and provide 31-cm panchromatic resolution, 1.24-m multispectral resolution, and 3.7-m short-wave infrared resolution. Its latest satellite in the constellation, WorldView-3, has an average revisit time of less than one day, and is capable of collecting up to 680,000 square kilometers per day.

“We are providing line of sight anywhere across globe so we don’t need to guess anymore. We can act on data,” Navulur said.

Because DigitalGlobe today has four such satellites that go from pole to pole, the same point on Earth can be mapped daily, which creates a story of change over time.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery is used for more than just Google Maps imagery and Instagram feed fodder. In addition to a number of defense applications, DigitalGlobe has worked with Jane Goodall, the renowned British anthropologist, to provide another layer of information about chimpanzee habitat and how humans who live in the area interface with the chimp populations in the Greater Gombe and Masito-Ugalla ecosystems.

DigitalGlobe images depict the fruits of reforestation efforts in Gombe National Park from 2005 to 2014. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

DigitalGlobe images depict the fruits of reforestation efforts in Gombe National Park from 2005 to 2014. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

Navulur said DigitalGlobe’s imagery also is used to improve human habitats.

“In most developing nations today governments don’t know where people live,” he said. “We are creating a half-meter mosaic of entire globe that developing nation governments can use to document where people live, establish how many people live there, and how to get there. Our imagery can solve fundamental problems – it can tell you this is a poor neighborhood, a rich neighborhood, and give a general analysis of what’s happening on the ground.”

The Malaysian and Indonesian governments in 2014 used imagery to pinpoint where forest fires had been set by farmers that were causing extremely unhealthy air quality conditions in Malaysia. DigitalGlobe’s short wave infrared was able to see through the smoke, and in partnership with World Resources Institute (WRI), the Indonesian government, Google, Esri, and a host of others launched Global Forest Watch Fires, an online platform for monitoring and responding to forest and land fires in Southeast Asia.

This image illustrates how DigitalGlobe satellites can “see” through smoke in this photo taken of a wildfire in California. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

This image illustrates how DigitalGlobe satellites can “see” through smoke in this photo taken of a wildfire in California. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

Data to decisions

But the amount of information these satellites produce is absolutely staggering, and concerns over how to share such volumes of data in meaningful ways has become the purview of the Group on Earth Observations’ (GEO) Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Aggregating data into information decision makers, scientists, and the general public can use is the raison d’etre for GEOSS.

“Countries have borders. Earth observations don’t,” said Barbara Ryan, GEO’s director. “Our whole objective is to make sure that Earth observations – any observations about the Earth, around the Earth, on the Earth, even in the Earth – inform policy decisions. We’re at the upstream end of making these observations broadly available so more people can use them to make sound decisions. That’s our vision, our mission.”

GEO has 102 member countries and 92 different participating organizations in the quest for open-access Earth observation data. The system includes access to more than 200 million information assets from around the world, including remote sensing, and marine and terrestrial Earth observations. Ryan said she firmly believes that broader and open access to Earth observation data will aid scientists in integrating modeling, the private sector in building value-added products and services and policy-makers to make better informed decisions.

“One can see dust coming off the Sahara Desert, getting picked up by the prevailing winds heading west, and affecting coral reef health in the Caribbean,” she said by way of example. “Processes in one place on the Earth are impacting other another places, both negatively and positively.

“Data sharing is also important for capacity building, and as mentioned above, an economic engine for building economies. GEO is really committed to making a difference in the world on broad open data policies.”

In the case of DigitalGlobe, GEO has an infrastructural agreement. GEO provides a metadata link into the DigitalGlobe catalogue, where users can search for content. Ultimately, users do have to pay DigitalGlobe for the imagery, but GEO’s map to DigitalGlobe data sets policy makers and scientists on the path of discovery.

Countries have borders. Earth observations don’t. Our whole objective is to make sure that Earth observations – any observations about the Earth, around the Earth, on the Earth, even in the Earth – inform policy decisions. – Barbara Ryan, director of Group on Earth Observations

This image illustrates how DigitalGlobe satellites can “see” through smoke in this photo taken of a wildfire in California. Image Credit: DigitalGlobe

The Mir Mine is an inactive, open-pit diamond mine located in Mirny, Eastern Siberia, Russia. The mine is 1,722 feet (525 m) deep and has a diameter of 3,900 feet (1,200 m), making it the second largest excavated hole in the world. Active for 44 years, the mine had an output of 10 million carats of diamond per year during peak production in the 1960s. Image Credit: Daily Overview

More than pretty pictures

But for the average person, the quickest way to comprehend human impacts on the planet comes not from data sets but from pictures.

Grant, the Daily Overview founder, said his daily feed is also educational in a sense. He said the technology DigitalGlobe is using is incredible, but that many people have negative associations with satellites, thinking first of surveillance satellites instead of satellites devoted to Earth observations. He hopes the Daily Overview images will help people think consider the planet from a different perspective.

“It’s amazing this technology exists and enables us to get this perspective,” he said. “There’s an interesting duality that exists, a duality of presence when you look at the images, an uncomfortable, disconcerting moment where you can’t really believe it’s real at first because it’s difficult to comprehend the scale. It forces you to leave yourself, go up into the satellite camera and imagine yourself there seeing what you’re seeing.”

Grant said he hopes his Instagram feed and website, which have become his primary source of income now, will continue to evolve to fulfill his mission: “To change the way people see our universe, starting right here and now with what we’re doing to our planet,” said.

He said Daily Overview is only the first step for him in a journey to use technology and the power of new perspectives to shift the way people are seeing the world. In September, Harper Collins’ Ten Speed Press in the United States, and Penguin Random House in the United Kingdom, will release a book of his compiled imagery.

“To approach these images from an artistic perspective has been really fulfilling for me to merge creativity and education and environmentalism at the same time,” he said.

And for the hundreds of thousands of people who view his Instagram feed each day, these images are the beginning of a newfound environmental awareness without borders.