Category Archives: research

Is open and free global land cover mapping possible?

Short answer: yes.

Mid November took place in Toulouse “Le Capitole du libre“, a conference on Free Software and Free Culture. The program this year was again full of interesting talks and workshops.

This year, I attended a workshop about contributing to Openstreetmap (OSM) using the JOSM software. The workshop was organised by Sébastien Dinot who is a massive contributor to OSM, and more importantly a very nice and passionate fellow.

I was very happy to learn to use JOSM and did 2 minor contributions right there.

During the workshop I learned that, over the past, OSM has been enriched using massive imports from open data sources, like for instance cadastral data bases from different countries or the Corine Land Cover data base. This has been possible thanks to the policies of many countries which have understood that the commons are important for the advancement of society. One example of this is the European INSPIRE initiative.

I was also interested to learn that what could be considered niche data, like agricultural land parcel data bases as for instance the French RPG have also been imported into OSM. Since I have been using the RPG at work for the last 4 years (see for example here or here), I was sympathetic with the difficulties of OSM contributors to efficiently exploit these data. I understood that the Corine Land Cover import was also difficult and the results were not fully satisfactory.

As a matter of fact, roads, buildings and other cartographic objects are easier to map than land cover, since they are discrete and sparse. They can be pointed, defined and characterised more easily than natural and semi-natural areas.

After that, I could not avoid making the link with what we do at work in terms of preparing the exploitation of upcoming satellite missions for automatic land cover map production.

One of our main interests is the use of Sentinel-2 images. It is the week end while I am writing this, so I will not use my free time to explain how land cover map production from multi-temporal satellite images work: I already did it in my day job.

What is therefore the link between what we do at work and OSM? The revolutionary thing from my point of view is the fact that Sentinel-2 data will be open and free, which means that the OSM project could use it to have a constantly up to date land cover layer.

Of course, Sentinel-2 data will come in huge volumes and a good amount of expertise will be needed to use them. However, several public agencies are paving the road in order to deliver data which is easy to use. For instance, the THEIA Land Data Centre will provide Sentinel-2 data which is ready to use for mapping. The data will be available with all the geometric and radiometric corrections of the best quality.

Actually, right now this is being done, for instance, for Landsat imagery. Of course, all these data is and will be available under open and free licences, which means that anyone can start right now learning how to use them.

However, going from images to land cover maps is not straightforward. Again, a good deal of expertise and efficient tools are needed in order to convert pixels into maps. This is what I have the chance to do at work: building tools to convert pixels into maps which are useful for real world applications.

Applying the same philosophy to tools as for data, the tools we produce are free and open. The core of all these tools is of course the Orfeo Toolbox, the Free Remote Sensing Image Processing Library from CNES. We have several times demonstrated that the tools are ready to efficiently exploit satellite imagery to produce maps. For instance, in this post here you even have the sequence of commands to generate land cover maps using satellite image time series.

This means that we have free data and free tools. Therefore, the complete pipeline is available for projects like OSM. OSM contributors could start right now getting familiar with these data and these tools.

Head over to CNES servers to get some Landsat data, install OTB, get familiar with the classification framework and see what could be done for OSM.

It is likely that some pieces may still be missing. For instance, the main approach for the map production is supervised classification. This means that we use machine learning algorithms to infer which land cover class is present at every given site using the images as input data. For these machine learning algorithms to work, we need training data, that is, we need to know before hand the correct land cover class in some places so the algorithm can be calibrated.

This training data is usually called ground truth and it is expensive and difficult to get. In a global mapping context, this can be a major drawback. However, there are interesting initiatives which could be leveraged to help here. For instance, Geo-Wiki comes to mind as a possible source of training data.

As always, talk is cheap, but it seems to me that exciting opportunities are available for open and free quality global mapping. This does not mean that the task is easy. It is not. There are many issues to be solved yet and some of them are at the research stage. But this should not stop motivated mappers and hackers to start learning to use the data and the tools.