Andrew Zolli is Chief Impact Officer at Planet.

Towards Planetary Stewardship


If you could take a picture of the whole world every day, what could you see?

It’s a simple question, with a fantastical, almost childlike premise. But let’s indulge.

Undoubtedly, you would observe an immense amount of beauty — the byzantine fractals of the Grand Canyon; the zen stillness of the sun rising over Mount Fuji; the impossible, endless green of the Amazonian rainforest.

But you would also see signs, not just of the human footprint, but of a human stampede: megacities pulsing with unplanned settlements across the Global South; vast agricultural fields being planted across the American heartland; Syrian refugee camps swelling in Jordan; and deserts relentlessly expanding across Western China.

You would perceive all of these, and you would be changed by the perception. You would experience the Overview Effect, the overwhelming feeling that astronauts get when they first see the world from the Moon: the feeling that life on Earth is fragile and precious, and that far more unites us in our common humanity, and in our interdependence with all other life, than could ever divide us.

The Blue Marble, Image Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

In seeing the whole world, you would, at once, bear witness to our challenges; and sense opportunities where we might engage them more effectively and more preemptively; and be infused with a deep sense of planetary stewardship.

It was precisely these intuitions that brought together an extraordinary group of innovators in the remote sensing, conservation and international development fields at Planet Labs in January 2014. Over several days, a group of several dozen diverse luminaries including University of Maryland’s Matt Hansen, the former Chief Scientist of USAID Alex Dehgan, Amy Leurs of Skoll Global Threats, and data journalist Gustavo Faleiros of Infoamazonia (to name just a few) explored the potential of Planet’s high-cadence imaging of the Earth to create breakthrough forms of social good. The entire forum was generously supported by the Packard Foundation. (Thank you!)

Our conversations together were rich and multifaceted. We explored novel use cases of planetary sensing, ranging from monitoring deforestation in the Amazon to encouraging food security through precision agriculture. We explored the ethical dimensions of data access, and held deep discussions around how to build an inclusive “architecture of participation” that would enable foundations, NGOs, technical partners, municipalities and others to use 21st-century data tools to solve 21st-century problems. Excitingly, some of these ideas will shape some bold new programs at Planet Labs in the months to come.

Planet Labs’ data will power breakthrough new tools for understanding and addressing complex global challenges; yet, as exciting as that prospect is, my conversations with Planet Labs staff, and my fellow advisors left me with another, equally compelling thought:

The Earth is a jewel. Exposing ourselves to its beauty, and its peril, is a social good all in itself, for it compels us to take our role as planetary stewards seriously. Planet Labs is making a loupe that brings this jewel to life as never before — and in so doing not only changing the world, but perhaps changing us as well.