Dove satellites enter orbit from the International Space Station in February 2014. (Photo by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, courtesy of Planet Labs) 

Timely and comprehensive data matter a great deal when it comes to issues that play out over long periods of time and over vast stretches of the globe. Think of deforestation, say, or illegal fishing. That’s why up-to-date satellite imagery could be a game-changer for organizations that focus on those issues. But barriers related to cost and technical expertise have kept such information out of reach for most nonprofits.

Enter Planet Labs, an aerospace start-up based in San Francisco. Founded by a trio of former NASA physicists, Planet Labs has designed a new breed of low-cost, shoebox-sized satellites that it calls Doves. With those satellites, the company is able to provide a bird’s-eye view of the planet—in the form of high-resolution photos, heat-map images, and other information—and to update that view daily. Planet Labs re- leased its first flock of 28 Doves from the International Space Station earlier this year, and it expects to have 100 of them in low earth orbit by 2015.

Planet Labs, backed by $65 million in venture capital, anticipates strong commercial interest in its data stream. But it’s exploring noncommercial opportunities as well. “We recognize that academics, nonprofits, and social enterprises could do pretty dramatic things in their fields [if they are] given access to this new and compelling data set,” says Alex Bakir, a director on the company’s business development team.

To serve that market, Planet Labs has created a sister organization called At the Skoll World Forum in April, Planet Labs CEO Will Marshall challenged an audience of social innovators to imagine how they might deploy this new source of data for social good. will soon unveil an initiative called the Mission One Alliance—an “on-ramp” for users who intend to leverage its data for “public good,” Bakir explains. The organization plans to announce details about the initiative, including pricing information, by the end of 2014.

Already, though, the prospect of using satellite technology to further humanitarian aims is generating enthusiasm among social innovators. Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech, calls Planet Labs “easily the most exciting thing I’ve seen in the past 10 years.” Access to frequently updated, around-the-globe data “is a platform innovation,” says Zolli, who has advised Planet Labs on its social benefit initiatives. “It’s going to enable thousands of new value propositions in all kinds of fields—public health, climate adaptation, land use, disaster monitoring, urban policy.”

Nonprofit organizations that use satellite imagery tend to rely on free data sets that may be out of date or limited in scope. That’s the case for Global Forest Watch (GFW), which uses Landsat imagery—provided by the US government at no charge—to detect changes in forest cover. Affordable access to recently produced high-resolution imagery would greatly enhance GFW’s work, according to Crystal Davis, senior manager of the organization. “Getting more-frequent updates on deforestation would increase the likelihood that action can be taken before it’s too late,” she says.

Humanitarian organizations also have a long history of analyzing images from space. “What Planet Labs will provide us and our United Nations partners is very rapid access to imagery,” says Patrick Meier, director of social innovation and social computing at the Qatar Computing Research Institute. He estimates that it took more than 48 hours after Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines for analysts to acquire the imagery that they needed to conduct a damage assessment. “With Planet Labs, I’m confident we’ll reduce that time to 12 to 24 hours,” Meier says.

Mere access to satellite data isn’t enough, however. According to Bakir, few nonprofits possess the technical skills required to make sense of this new goldmine of information: “Frankly, it’s not that easy to analyze imagery on a mass scale.” For that reason, Planet Labs is working to expand the availability of data-analysis tools and to encourage a community to grow up around using them. “We have to lower the bar to entry,” he says.

For its part, Bakir says, Planet Labs “embraces the hacker mindset.” Like many a tech start-up, the company started in a garage, and it practices rapid prototyping. Its offices even include room for an artist in residence, whose artwork has been etched onto the exterior of its satellites. Putting artwork into orbit, Bakir notes, reflects the company’s broader “goal of creating a planetary consciousness.”

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