Artificial Intelligence and Conservation

Artifical Intelligence graphic

The use of ‘innovation’ and ‘technical transformation’ to deal with climate change has recently gotten a lot of mindshare. These solutions are physical, using something like hydro-panels. They are also digital, such as using information technology. Information technology (IT) can provide better information to guide land management and restoration activities in a way that not only preserves native biodiversity but builds climate resilience into the natural landscape. One of the predominant advances in IT that has huge potential for conservation is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Let’s take a look at how both IT and AI are used for conservation.

Conservation and Information Technology

Conservation organizations have various business and mission functions that can be addressed with IT. Business functions can include outreach, education, and accounting. These are often addressed using social media, marketing, sales, workflow, Zoom, accounting software, and other general purpose business systems. Many organizations use information systems to achieve sustainability initiatives such as lowering energy use, creating more environmentally sound products, and reduction of paper use. Mission functions are those specifically for land, water, and wildlife conservation.

For example, the mission of The Conservation Foundation (TCF) is “to improve the health of our communities by preserving and restoring open space and natural lands, protecting rivers and watersheds, and promoting stewardship of our environment in the suburbs of northeastern Illinois.” IT can help with gathering, storing, and providing access to data needed to carry out this mission. Examples are a repository of proper methods for organic farming, records of effectiveness of various methodologies used for conservation, and inventory of flora and fauna at geographic areas.

Along with data management, IT can also support information analysis and decision making. Examples are predictions of impacts and changes from climate change over time; predictions of the effects of ongoing conservation; root cause analysis of conservation problems; and decisions on what approach to take on conservation issues. This is where AI comes into play.

Artificial Intelligence

So, what is AI? There are many definitions. In an article by the European Parliament, AI is defined as “the ability of a machine to display human-like capabilities such as reasoning, learning, planning and creativity.” The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science describes AI as “the study and design of machines or computational methods that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.” A commonly used definition of AI is “the ability of a computer or a robot controlled by a computer to do tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human intelligence and discernment.”

It is important to note that all these definitions refer to thinking like humans but not replacing humans. AI is meant to support and accelerate human decision making. AI primarily does this with smart data discovery (e.g., correlations and pattern recognition), visualization (e.g., charts, graphs, and dashboarding), machine learning (in a sense the system codes itself), and enhanced predictive capabilities.

Examples of AI in everyday life are digital personal assistants (like Siri), online shopping and advertising, cybersecurity, language translation, and detection of fake news. Other uses of AI are reduction of energy consumption and carbon footprints, disease diagnostics in the health industry, and minimization of the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation in food and farming.

Conservation and Artificial Intelligence

There are many uses of AI being currently applied or being considered for conservation. Based on an article in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, these uses can be summarized as follows:

  • Data classification and collection – A rapid increase in the quantity of environmental data has necessitated more efficient and automated data classification workflows. AI can help with the analysis and categorization of land use.
  • Decision support – AI allows for integration of data into decision support tools to support conservation planning.
  • Enforcement – AI assists in enforcing environmental regulations with wildlife research and protection.

An example of AI application in data collection is the work of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a non-profit organization based in Annapolis, MD, and a pioneer in the field of precision conservation to monitor, protect, and restore the natural environment. They cover the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, supporting more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, and is home to 17 million people. Despite the importance of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, its health over decades has been marred by sewage overflows and runoff of animal waste and chemicals. The future of the watershed depends upon smart conservation that is informed by data about where growth is least harmful and where interventions can be most helpful. This requires detailed and highly accurate land cover maps to understand land usage and identify environmental issues, such as pollutants entering the bay through agricultural runoff. To achieve this goal, the Chesapeake Conservancy used AI to create a model which predicts high-resolution land cover from aerial imagery. The real power of this approach is that data scientists can use this same algorithm to classify land cover in places that it has never seen before. The system can classify at a rate significantly faster than manual methods, limited only by the available hardware. The time needed to correctly classify the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed was reduced from 2500 hours to 150. The goal is to take this AI approach to scale across all the other watersheds of the US, and to empower more organizations in more places to sustainably manage their lands.

ARIES (ARtificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services) is a new methodology and web application meant to assess ecosystem services (ES) and illuminate their values to humans to make environmental decisions easier and more effective. Ecosystem services are the benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and from healthy ecosystems. An example of an ecosystem service is the human health benefits through interaction with nature (See the TCF Nature Rx web page for additional details on this and how land conservation can help). By creating models of both provision and usage of ES in a region of interest and mapping the actual physical flows of those benefits to their beneficiaries, ARIES helps discover, understand, and quantify environmental assets, and what factors influence their value according to explicit needs and priorities. ARIES has numerous practical uses for conservation and economic development planning. Notably, it can show which regions are critical to maintaining the supply and flows of particular benefits for specific beneficiary groups. By prioritizing conservation and restoration activities around particular services, benefit flows may be maintained or increased.

According to AILabs, the tools of AI are making a big difference in the fields of wildlife research and protection. AI equips wildlife conservationists and scientists with the ability to collate, analyze, and share information across disciplines, and helps keep wildlife conservationists a step ahead of the poachers, for example. These seem like basic applications of AI capability, and already their impact is substantial. With the rapid pace of innovation in the field of AI, one can only expect this to get better. These tools come at an opportune time for human and wildlife coexistence, as human societies learn to manage their growth in balance with the needs of our wildlife cohabitants. The irony is that human technological advances put habitats at risk, and yet these technological advances may help us manage a better coexistence.

Ready to expand the thinking for land and water conservation? For nearly 50 years, The Conservation Foundation has been a thought leader providing education on new and exciting ways of doing conservation and applying them to everyday life. TCF is also a forum for folks to push the envelope and challenge people in their thinking. We are always looking for creative, hard-working people – Become a member today!

Feel free to comment on this blog with additional ideas you have on how IT and AI can improve land and water conservation efforts.

By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member
Andrew Stawarz
R&D Manager, Digital Diagnostics

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