How AI and big data can help fight deforestation

deforestation-AIDeforestation is one of those environmental issues that seldom seems to get the attention it deserves.  Its importance to both biodiversity discussions and climate change seems beyond dispute, yet in both areas, other topics often seem to secure greater levels of public attention.

I’ve written previously about a number of projects that are taking innovative approaches to improving our ability to protect the forests of the world.

The Geo-Wiki team has been setup by the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) to try and provide a more accurate view on the world’s forests.

The output from their project has recently been published as a series of maps in the Remote Sensing of the Environment journal, but are also freely available on the Geo-Wiki website (linked above).

Unifying forestry data

Whilst there is substantial data out there about forestation around the world, there isn’t really strong agreement between the various sources.  Hence the crowd were deployed to make things better.

“The new maps rely on a combination of recent multisensory remote sensing data, statistics, and crowdsourcing,” the project team say. “By combining different data sources, and incorporating the input of trained citizen scientists, we were able to produce new maps that are more accurate than any existing data source.”

Using AI to identify deforestation

Whilst Geo-Wiki used people power to improve our understanding of forestation levels, Orbital Insight is taking a much more big data orientated approach to the task.

They’re taking satellite images of forestation around the world and using nifty AI algorithms to identify threatened areas before potential deforestation can take place.

It works by keeping an eye out for suspicious changes, such as new road building around forests for instance.  Once such changes have been spotted, an alert is published on the Global Forest Watch website, who are partnering with Orbital Insight.

From there, the alert will hopefully mobilize local and international conservation organizations to prevent the illegal activity from occurring.The AI system that underpins the venture was developed specifically to spot danger signs, but also to learn as it goes.  The hope is that as the system is in operation for longer, the system will become even more adept at spotting the signals.The prospects are good as Orbital Insight have already put the system through its paces in the corporate sector in a global trend spotting capacity, so it will hopefully provide a useful weapon in the fight against deforestation.


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