World Earth Day: AI for the preservation and protection of our planet

According to the Earth Day Network, we are currently in the largest period of species extinction in 60 million years. All species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, arthropods, fish, crustaceans, corals and plants have declined, in many cases, severely.

At Microsoft, we believe that technology can play a transformative role in protecting not only the endangered species, but also our planet. That’s why we introduced the Microsoft AI for Earth program, to increase access to AI tools and educational opportunities that will empower people and organisations to do their part to solve global environmental challenges.

Making a change

To date, Microsoft has awarded 26 cash grants valued at about $700 000 to countries in the Middle East and Africa through the Microsoft AI for Earth program. These grants are helping non-profits, academia and private organisations carry out research work in the region.

For example, AI for Earth grantee Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Associate Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, helped break new ground with studies showing that climate change both increases conflict at all levels of society and also correlates to dramatic drops in productivity. Now, Hsiang’s team is applying AI to see how climate change has affected migrations across Africa.

To do this, the teams are digitising 1.6 million aerial photographs from surveys of 18 African countries taken since 1943. By applying machine learning to the scanned images, the team is reconstructing chronicles of population density, urban extents and land use across Africa over time. With statistical tools, economic theory and climate model projections, they can use these chronicles to estimate migration risk across Africa in the future. By understanding who’s at risk, where they are located and why they are at risk, society — particularly governments — will finally have information that can change the present and adapt for the future.

Solving regional challenges

In Sub-Saharan Africa, around 40 percent of children less than five years old suffer from stunted growth. This is why Dr. Mercy Lung’aho and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are partnering with Microsoft AI for Earth grantee Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) to tackle the issues of chronic malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. With its cash grant from Microsoft AI for Earth, NEWS created a diagnostic model designed to predict and prevent a nutrition crisis before it occurs. The system aggregates then analyses satellite imagery and traditional data, such as rainfall, temperature, and vegetation health, to help predict the nutritive value of crops. Insights from NEWS will help inform interventions to boost nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Water management and its efficient use has also become necessary for farmers because, to get more yield with fewer resources, precision is key. One way to know how much water crops really need is by measuring the rate at which water evaporates from soil and plant surfaces. Through their AI for Earth grant from Microsoft, Torsten Bondo and Radoslaw Guzinski both of the DHI Group, are exploring ways to generate field-level ET measurements using machine learning and satellite imagery. They’re developing an open-source algorithm that can merge data from optical and thermal satellites, as well as meteorological data to determine the right amount of water for effective irrigation. The system will be tested on a large national irrigation project in Uganda, where water is becoming scarce because of a growing population and climate change.

Partnering to make a difference

The Microsoft AI for Earth program is seeking proposals from individuals and organisations throughout the Middle East and Africa that are looking to leverage the power of technology to tackle regional issues such as biodiversity, agriculture, climate change and water scarcity. You can apply for a grant here.

Launched in June 2017, the AI for Earth program seeks to put the Microsoft Trusted Cloud and AI tools in the hands of those working to resolve global environmental challenges, with focus areas in climate, agriculture, biodiversity and water.

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