Closing the Climate Data Divide in the Global South

World and business leaders are facing pressing climate issues as they gather in Egypt for COP27 – and are focused on ways to come together on action and implementation. At Microsoft, we see these days ahead as an opportunity to engage in important discussions and take steps toward solutions.  

Today we are sharing details about our work to support new climate solutions by harnessing the power of data and artificial intelligence (AI), with an expansion of our AI for Good Research Lab into Egypt and Kenya. The work of these data labs will be informed by a new Africa AI Innovation Council comprised of representatives from leading African organizations. We’re also announcing an expanded collaboration with Planet Labs PBC, combining their high-quality satellite imagery of Africa with our AI technology to accelerate climate adaptation solutions.  

It’s a challenging time for our planet and no nation is immune from the risks and perils faced by the ongoing impacts of climate change. There is additional complexity in that the consequences of this existential threat to our planet’s survival are unevenly distributed amongst the world’s countries, with a greater burden falling on the Global South, which refers to countries with lower levels of economic and industrial development compared to more developed nations. The Global South has contributed far less than the Global North to the actual causes of climate change, yet they have been disproportionately impacted by extreme climate events including droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves, which contribute to other problems like food insecurity and exacerbate existing challenges like poverty. Between 2008-2018, there were 2.2 billion people in the Global South that were under high climate risk.  

Chart showing annual weather related displacementsIn order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, governments and decision-makers in the Global South equally need access to reliable climate data. This push to democratize access to data aligns with Microsoft’s broader effort to accelerate and support progress toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by United Nations member states in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Data has the power to unlock adaptation and resilience projects so that the resources available are directed to places that can make the greatest impact both before and immediately following climate-related disasters. We recognize that not only is there insufficient reliable  climate data in the Global South, but also a significant lack of data scientists to work with the data available. Our research shows that there are approximately five data scientists in the Global North for every one in the Global South – meaning there is a significant gap in the Global South’s ability to turn climate data into insights for decision-making and action. In Africa, the gap is wider still – one data scientist for 14 in the Global North. In short, we face a climate data divide – and at Microsoft we want to do our part to help close that divide. 

Chart showing ratio of African scientistsToday, we’re sharing more about our efforts to help close that climate data divide through an expansion of our AI for Good Lab and new partnerships underway across the Global South to accelerate action. 

Microsoft’s AI for Good Lab has been using AI, machine learning and statistical modeling to tackle climate change in partnership with leading nonprofits, research institutions, NGOs and governments as part of its portfolio to help solve humanity’s biggest challenges. By offering our technology and expertise, we are helping advance the local development of scalable solutions. Today, we are announcing the first global expansion of the Lab to Nairobi, Kenya, and Cairo, Egypt, building a new team of data scientists on the ground in Africa that will work to improve climate resilience. 

We know that addressing and mitigating the effects of climate change requires a collective effort across industry, government, academia and civil society. In early conversations about this expansion with the Kenyan and Egyptian Ministries of Information, Communications and Technology, we made it clear that our ideal outcome was African data researchers working on projects that benefit Africa in Africa. We will establish a new Africa AI Innovation Council, with membership drawn from leading African organizations such as the African Development BankAfrican Risk Capacity and African Climate Foundation. The Council will convene a high-level, multi-sector group of African leaders who deeply understand the issues facing the continent, to inform the work of the new AI for Good Labs, identify opportunities to improve climate resilience through data and AI, and facilitate ways to generate additional climate data and drive continued research. In addition to the Africa AI Innovation Council members, we are pleased to be working in collaboration with the Kenya Red Cross Society, PATHInstitute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), and Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to turn data into climate action. 

Microsoft will also work to scale AI for Good projects across the Global South. Most recently, it has partnered with the government of Uruguay on a new Microsoft AI and IOT lab that will support startups in the region to deliver new AI innovations in many areas including climate change and other pressing societal issues. 

In September, we announced a collaboration with Planet Labs and The Nature Conservancy to build the Global Renewables Watch – a first-of-its-kind living atlas intended to map and measure all utility-scale solar and wind installations on Earth using AI and satellite imagery. The Global Renewables Watch will provide data that helps both researchers and policymakers understand current renewable energy capacities and gaps and assist decision-makers in search of more efficient and effective options for renewable energy development. Access to high-quality data is critical to enabling measurement and realization of the SDGs. 

Through an expanded collaboration between the Microsoft AI for Good Lab and Planet Labs, Africa-based data scientists will have access to satellite imagery from across the African continent to address challenges nominated by the AI Innovation Council with a special focus on adaptation – the process of adjusting to current or expected effects of climate change – and early warning systems. 

In the Global North, use of geospatial data has become commonplace in the response to natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and earthquakes, and this new collaboration will help extend this usage to the Global South. Planet Labs has been at the forefront of the geospatial revolution for more than 10 years. With approximately 200 satellites in orbit, Planet Labs capture more than 25 terabytes of imagery each day that helps businesses, governments, researchers and journalists understand the terrestrial world and take action.   

The climate crisis must be addressed, and to do that, a wide range of ideas and approaches must be considered. It’s essential that we support and enable those living in climate-impacted regions to be front and center in developing solutions. At Microsoft, we are committed to partnering with and providing digital technology, and resources for those living, working and innovating in the Global South to help close the climate data divide and create the climate solutions of the future. 

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