Cloud computing and AI help The Nature Conservancy dive deeper into conservation

Apr 19, 2018   |   Justin Spelhaug, General Manager, Tech for Social Impact, Microsoft Philanthropies

Coral reef

Clear turquoise water, white sand beaches, colorful corals teeming with every size and shape of ocean life—these postcard-perfect views are lovely, but when pitted against competing priorities that bring in revenue and profits, the sea turtles often lose.

Yet the assumption that nature is beautiful but not as economically important as more extractive activities is false, says Zach Ferdaña, program manager at The Nature Conservancy. “We wanted to make the case that tourism, recreation and other coastal ecosystem services rely on the health of coral reefs for the business bottom line,” he continues. Yet without numbers—and dollar signs—their insistence on the value of nature often wasn’t compelling enough to outweigh other interests.

Technology helped put the organization on a more impactful course. The Nature Conservancy has adopted Microsoft Azure cloud services, which is revolutionizing how the nonprofit approaches conservation planning—and drives meaningful change on the ground (or, in some cases, in the water). The long-term partnership with Microsoft empowered The Nature Conservancy to use an innovative approach that combined traditional, academic research with big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and social media inputs to map, in high resolution, the full value of coral reefs to tourism, highlighting the incentive for sustainable reef management.

“Thanks to our work with Microsoft, we have the incredible opportunity to leverage technology to link science to actionable planning. We’re using AI, machine learning and other technology tools to accelerate our impact and increase coastal communities’ resilience,” says Ferdaña. “We’re hacking the future.”

Struggling to connect the dots between data and conservation

Part of The Nature Conservancy’s work is communicating the critical importance of nature—not only as a place to enjoy a beautiful vista, for example, but also as the linchpin in local economies and as a cushion against the effects of climate change. The nonprofit’s technological infrastructure, though, limited the kinds of information it could collect and share on changing environments.

For example, The Nature Conservancy gathers information on the economic impacts of nature-based tourism and activities that benefit from the presence of nearby natural resources. Data on these factors were hard to come by, though, and weren’t detailed or consistent enough for data scientists to parse the effects on a specific community—or even on a country, in some cases. Data scientists spent uncountable hours poring over academic papers and tourism industry reports for statistics they could use in their own calculations. Even when they did find relevant information, it was either too granular—say, the financial benefits of sharks in Palau—or too general, like country-wide tourism numbers.

These limitations prevented The Nature Conservancy from making a strong case for conservation to communities, businesses, governments and international groups. “If we don’t have proof or numbers on the important facets of nature and why we need to protect it, we sound vague,” explains Mark Spalding, PhD, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “That lack of confidence and evidence plays into the hands of people who care less, whose upstream activities have degraded the environment, or whose interest is in extracting as much as possible.”

The organization hasn’t always succeeded in persuading other nonprofits and communities that protecting the natural world also protects at-risk populations from things like natural disasters and guards against the accelerating effects of climate change. The Nature Conservancy has created decision support tools intended to get data on ecosystem services in the hands of nonprofits, governments and businesses to use themselves, but the organization knew they could do more. They needed a way to make these tools more dynamic with the ability to track trends in ecosystem health, and therefore better plan to conserve the resources on which we all depend.

coral reef
Photo Credit: © Jeff Yonover for The Nature Conservancy

Embracing the power of cloud computing and AI

Beginning about one year ago, The Nature Conservancy began partnering with Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability and AI for Earth teams to explicitly incorporate AI and cloud computing to advance its mission. The nonprofit received a grant for cloud services from Microsoft Philanthropies fulfilled by NetHope, an organization that helps other nonprofits improve their IT expertise and resources. The Nature Conservancy also works with other technology companies, including Esri, a mapping and spatial analytics software company.

The collaboration between The Nature Conservancy and Microsoft helped open new doors into what the nonprofit even imagined was possible, Ferdaña says. “Once we got a grant for Azure cloud services and began working with Microsoft’s AI for Earth program on the optimal uses of its cloud and AI infrastructure, we began to realize how much Azure’s cognitive services API could help us increase the impact of our conservation planning.”

Staff began to brainstorm how they could expand existing projects and start new ones with the technology—cloud-based computing, AI, machine learning, data visualization—now at their fingertips. “I began to wonder, how can we take our work to the next level?” Spalding remembers. “My first thought was that with advances in technology, we can show local economies how valuable nature is. If we can show them where nature provides significant economic returns, then we can do a much better job of persuading them to look after nature.”

The Nature Conservancy went big with ideas, and it was through working with Microsoft’s “black belt” experts within their AI team, along with partners at Esri, that revealed the how. Microsoft hosted a workshop with representatives from The Nature Conservancy, Esri, University of California at Santa Cruz, Spatial Development International and the Natural Capital Project to brainstorm applications of Azure’s cognitive services API and begin to hash out how to execute those ambitions.

“AI can be an especially powerful force for nonprofits. This technology can help these organizations not only do more with their limited resources, but also explore entirely new ways to accelerate their mission,” says Lucas Joppa, PhD, chief environmental scientist at Microsoft. “That’s precisely why we have launched the Microsoft AI for Earth program: To get transformational technology into the hands of organizations working to protect our planet and the communities that depend on environmental resources.”

The Nature Conservancy’s digital transformation has not only influenced existing projects; it has inspired innovation and prompted teams to consider avenues never available before, Ferdaña says. “The new technological resources have spurred a culture shift in The Nature Conservancy to think about AI, cloud resources and machine learning,” he says. “This opportunity has created a pipeline of projects with an AI component, illustrated conservation impact and clear user adoption. We’re just getting started.”

Gathering better data through smarter technology

To leverage comprehensive, detailed and geography-specific data, The Nature Conservancy adopted Microsoft cloud services. Microsoft Azure not only provides a powerful and flexible platform to store and crunch data; it also enables tools like machine learning and data scraping that the nonprofit staff can use to better understand the state of the world’s natural resources—and how they can better protect the planet.

For example, The Nature Conservancy’s Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative crafted an AI-powered web app in collaboration with Microsoft AI for Earth and Esri. After the team built the software and trained the algorithm, the app can now analyze geo-tagged underwater images posted to the photo sharing site Flickr. Through machine learning, the app can distinguish between a photo of scuba diving and one in a pool, for instance. By matching the frequency and number of coral reef-related photos to other data (such as spending on nearby hotels and licenses for tour operators), data scientists are able to quantify the value of coral reefs, kilometer by kilometer.

This kind of analysis and visualization would be impossible at a worldwide scale were it not for AI and the Azure-powered web app, Spalding says. “Now we can push a button, and in a matter of hours we get millions of images processed,” Spalding says.

After its successful pilot stage, the nonprofit plans to run the app in real time, continuing to update the tool and even compare changes. “We can look at trends, then investigate the causes of those trends,” Spalding says. “If we can link changes to mismanagement, the tool becomes even more powerful because we can step in quickly and save the reef.”

That insight can translate into a stronger commitment to protecting the environment. For example, when The Nature Conservancy showed the Mapping Ocean Wealth map of the Florida Keys coral reefs to local officials, they realized just how much money pristine coastal and marine environments funnel into the local economy: In stretches of tourism-centric areas in the Keys, each square kilometer of reef accounts for up to more than $1 million every year. Florida leaders said that easy-to-understand visualization would help them better preserve such a critical natural (and economic) resource. “People are starting to have ‘aha’ moments,” Spalding says. “Seeing that hard data helps localities plan and realize their natural resources truly are precious.”

Similarly, for The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Coastal Cities initiative, technology is tapping the power of social media to promote conservation. By monitoring Twitter for flooding-related posts, The Nature Conservancy’s AI-powered platform creates a live map of on-the-ground conditions in the low-lying coastal city Semarang, Indonesia. It can then track these events over time to identify especially flood-prone pockets of the city, which scientists say will become more plentiful as climate change affects weather patterns and sea levels. This also incentivizes promoting the restoration of mangrove ecosystems as a means to reduce coastal flooding—and enhance community resilience.

Photo Credit: © Jason Houston for The Nature Conservancy

Relaying the benefits of conservation

As the world’s population continues to boom, competition for natural resources and space becomes tighter. For example, the same stretch of ocean could provide for offshore energy production, fishing, mineral extraction and tourism. Often, conservation loses to more tangible or easily understood benefits, such as fishing or mining. The Nature Conservancy is using technology to change that pattern.

Take, for example, Cancún, Mexico—a tourist hub as well as the site for a coral reef that supports remarkable biodiversity. When a hurricane used to blow through, hotels would grudgingly chip in to the government’s efforts to restore the storm-battered reef. Then The Nature Conservancy presented its Mapping Ocean Wealth visualization, which shows a wide stretch of what Spalding calls “million dollar reefs”—zones that bring in impressive local revenue both directly from the reefs themselves (for example, diving and glass-bottom boat tours) and indirectly (from the sand the corals generate and the calm waters they create, for instance). Spalding says that the visualization greatly influenced the hotels’ agreement to contribute to a voluntary tax fund, which is automatically tapped after a disaster to repair damaged reefs. The change will speed reef recovery efforts and preserve the health of this marine habitat.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners designed these tools so that users don’t need to be a data scientist to understand the implications of a set of numbers. The tools put scientifically nuanced information into the hands of policy makers, urban planners, tourism industry leaders and other decision-makers so they make educated choices that benefit the environment—and, thereby, themselves, Ferdaña says. For example, anyone can learn to use a Resilient Coastal Cities 3D mangrove modeling tool in just a few minutes. The simulations are accurate, meaning city planners can work with nonprofits to protect flood-prone regions through conservation.

This smart, user-friendly technology couldn’t have come at a better time, Spalding says. “We’re at a crux now: Between climate change and all the other problems we’ve created, we urgently need to start managing our natural resources the best we can,” Spalding says. “Now that we can pinpoint how nature is valuable and where it is valuable, we can make the case accurately, locally and unassailably that we need to protect these resources—and win any argument for nature.”

Linking conservation to humanitarian efforts

A rapidly changing planet poses problems to the environment and people alike, Ferdaña explains, yet too often efforts to protect these remain separate. Using technology and a collaborative partnership with the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, the International Federation of the Red Cross, and local Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, The Nature Conservancy is uniting efforts to benefit communities and natural resources—together.

Through the Resilient Coastal Cities initiative, The Nature Conservancy is aggregating data from diverse sources such as social media and topographical information to convey the link between environmental protection and human safety. Housed and crunched in Microsoft Azure, this information is now being examined through the use of Power BI. In addition to showing areas affected by flooding, the map-visualization tallies the number of businesses, schools and cultural sites impacted. The result is a dashboard that indicates the true social and economic toll of flooding in coastal cities.

“The larger picture goal with this project is to educate cities and humanitarian organizations to utilize mangroves in flood reduction,” Ferdaña says. “The golden opportunity is showing that by improving and restoring the environment, they reduce the risk to real people and real communities. This technology gets us there.”

To learn how Microsoft technology can accelerate your organization’s mission, and to apply for donated or discounted technology, visit Microsoft Nonprofits.

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