It is often thought that Earth Observation is difficult. People think you need deep knowledge of data manipulation, know where to find the right data sets, understand complex GIS tools and have expert data mapping skills. Now this may have been the case ten years ago, but with the advance of new, intuitive tools like the Sinergise Sentinel Hub EO Browser and the brand new Kermap Nimbo Maps, EO data has been made accessible to all users who are interested in using space data.
Of course there are many more free and paid EO data user interfaces, including some as part of the five Copernicus Dada Access and Information Services (DIAS) that we wrote about recently. In this article we look at one of the best known (and most used) EO web interface, compared to one of the latest tools in the EO data analysist’s toolkit.
Sinergise Sentinel Hub EO Browser
The Sinergise Sentinel Hub EO Browser makes it possible to browse and compare full resolution images from all the data collections provided. You simply go to your area of interest, select your desired time range and cloud coverage, and inspect the resulting data in the browser. You can try out different visualizations or make your own, download high resolution images and create timelapses.
Sentinel Hub services are providing long-term analysis in an efficient way. EO Browser is Sinergise’s showcase of Sentinel Hub functionality, which is free to use, making these features available to just about anyone.
The ease of use and plethora of data being available makes it a great tool for non-experts to monitor the area in their neighbourhood or on the other side of the world. Due to fast availability of data, often only a couple of hours after the acquisition, it can be used for so called OSINT (open source intelligence). EO Browser is also often used in education as it allows students to explore the power of Earth Observation data.
The application makes it possible for anyone with Internet and web browser to find out, which data are available at specific location, instantly visualize it up to full resolution, perform various analytics (e.g. NDVI, NDWI, EVI and other algorithms, many of which are available on GitHub), compare data from various acquisitions, create time-lapses, export data for further analysis in desktop GIS tools, etc.
Data available in the EO Browser
Copernicus Sentinel-1, Sentinel-2, Sentinel-3, Sentinel-5P from CreoDIAS and AWS Public Dataset, USGS Landsat and MODIS data from CreoDIAS and AWS Public Dataset, Envisat MERIS from CreoDIAS, Proba-V from Proba MEP, VIIRS, CALIPSO, BlueMarble, Landsat WELD, MISR and ASTER GDEM from NASA GIBS platform.
When starting with the EO Browser interface it can still be a little intimidating. You are presented with a basic map and a satellite data selection box, where you select the type of data you need, sorted by satellite. This requires some basic understanding of the type of data that these satellites produce. You can simply move and zoom the map to the desired area and then select a timeframe for data. It then overlays the different images over the map, where you can simply select the dataset to visualise. A little preview image shows you what the image looks like, and what the cloud cover is. In our example of the Netherlands, clouds are in most images, so it takes a while to find a more-or-less cloud-free view of the desired area. New data is added daily, with a short delay of only a few hours.
Once these basic steps are done, you can zoom in and out more, or change the data within the dataset. For example a Sentinel-2 search (default) provides data in different wavelengths, varying from true colour to different combinations of wavelengths, including the NDVI vegetation index to infrared and other combinations, each highlighting different aspects of the image.
Playing with these wavelengths helps understand what these different views mean, but of course there is good explanation available in the menu. Once the basic settings have been selected, you can do many things to further enhance, or overlay or add datasets to compare different moments in time through timelapses or split screens. There are really thousands of options to compare and visualise satellite data.
One of the features worth mentioning is the 3D view, making visualisations even more realistic to the viewer, especially of course in mountainous areas. Again, there are dozens of options. The basics are fairly intuitive and simple to use, but advanced options require a little reading of tutorials and playing around. This is by far one of the most powerful free online Earth Observation visualisation tools!
Kermap Nimbo Maps
Nimbo Maps is a new EO Data analysis platform by new French EO company Kermap. Kermap was founded on the belief that satellite imagery and airborne photographs contain a wealth of information, but most of this information lies unused, due to a lack of accessibility to local authorities, businesses or even the wider public. Kermap’s response to this was that artificial intelligence should take geospatial expertise to another level. Deep-learning methods will help reveal uniquely rich data, which is made available in easy-to-use user interfaces.
Earth map and time machine
A map application based on satellite imagery to show how the Earth changes? True, others have been there before, but Nimbo Maps is not quite like the others.
First because it gets rid of clouds to deliver homogenous views of the Earth, out of satellite images from the Copernicus programme’s Sentinel mission. And also because Nimbo Maps lets you navigate through time on a monthly basis on four different types of maps : natural colours, infrared, NDVI (vegetation health) and radar. Different perspectives to witness major natural evolutions, but also smaller-scale transformations.
Comparing two periods in “split-screen” mode or making one’s own Earth timelapse video is very simple with Nimbo Maps. All you have to do then is downloading your Earth timelapse, ready for social sharing. Nimbo Maps is completely free, only requiring a free account.
Just like the Sentinel Hub EO Browser is the showcase of an even more powerful paid EO data platform, Nimbo Maps also has a paid Professional Edition with much more functionality.
The user experience is very different from that in Sentinel Hub. The key differentiator is simplicity. You do not have to choose what satellite you want to use. Nimbo has Sentinel-1 (SAR) and Sentinel-2 (optical) data available, in monthly snapshots of all of Europe. You cannot select a particular date, but you also do not have to worry about clouds. All images are completely cloud free!
Only once you have selected your area of interest and your month, the data is displayed in Sentinel-2 visual wavelength straight away. Only now you can select other wavelength combinations (including NDVI) or a radar image based on Sentinel-1.
At this point we can look at the other features of this tool, where it becomes obvious that (the free version of) Nimbo Maps is aiming at social media use of images. With only a few clicks you can make side-by-side or slider comparisons of different times or different wavelengths of data. These comparisons can then be downloaded as social media-ready image files or as cool gifs. You can even insert a name or a hashtag into the image.
Sentinel Hub EO Browser and Nimbo Maps clearly mark the latest generation of user friendly non-specialist Earth Observation tools. Both tools, in their basic functionality, are intuitive and easy to use without too much specialist knowledge. They package very powerful image analysis and fast results.
This is also where the similarities end. The EO Browser has a lot more oomph packaged into the tool, but exploiting this definitely requires some more expert EO knowledge by the user.
Nimbo Maps, as it stands in May 2022, is much more focused on the social media savvy analysist looking for fast multimedia results that are immediately shareable.
Looking at these differences, there is no winner or loser here. Both platforms help make EO more accessible to new user groups. When playing with these tools, journalists came to mind as an important audience for these tools, as well as for example urban planners, local government entities and environmental, agriculture, urban planning, geography and even history students.
Our recommendation? Use Nimbo Maps for fast social media sharable content and Sentinel Hub EO Browser for your more detailed satellite data analysis.