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Tackling the conservation crisis with the right data

Tourism is big business, accounting for 10.4 percent of the world’s GDP and supporting one out of every 10 jobs on the planet. For economically fragile communities it can be a lifeline, spurring business development and creating living-wage jobs. But sometimes this growth comes at a price.

The top twenty countries now represent nearly two-thirds of all international arrivals. This concentrated tourism means some of the world’s most beautiful sites are in danger of being “loved to death,” according to a new report from McKinsey & Company, “Coping With Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations.”

An estimated 32 million people will visit Greece in 2018, and just five small islands—Santorini, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, and Mykonos—will receive much of the volume, stressing their infrastructure and ecosystems. The Peruvian government has tried to limit the number of visitors to Machu Picchu, because of concerns about irreversible ecologic impacts. Tourism hotspot Venice is suffering because the vast crowds that descend on its 100 small islands every year displace locals. And nearly 80 percent of the reefs in Thailand’s popular Koh Khai islands have been damaged by humans, causing the government to close three islands, states the McKinsey report.

In nearly every tourist attraction location, governments are struggling to manage and mitigate the environmental impacts, which include waste, erosion, defacement of artifacts, habitat loss, and water stress. Popular tourism sites provide a compelling example of why national and local governments need to craft long-range sustainability strategies accompanied by specific actions that start today to protect their valuable ecosystems.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is taking the lead on assessing the economic and ecologic politics of tourism. More importantly for the countries, economies, and ecosystems in question, TNC is using the power of the cloud and AI to provide insights about how to develop a more sustainable path forward.

Using big data to protect fragile tourism destinations

TNC has worked for years to protect and conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Their goal is to enable a world where people and nature thrive. To create that world, people need better and more accurate information to understand what is happening today and why, to prove the economic value of investing in data-led solutions for conservation issues, and to pursue focused actions to preserve nature for future generations.

TNC has historically relied on traditional and academic research to build a business case for sustainability. However, the organization also has lacked a way to combine that research with big data and social media to create a compelling rationale for protecting fragile ecologic systems, such as coral reefs, cities prone to flooding, and more.

Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, which is part of Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, helps organizations use artificial intelligence (AI) to solve the world’s thorniest environmental challenges. Microsoft became a global partner of TNC with its Upgrade Your World program, launched in conjunction with the Windows 10 release in 2015. Backed by Microsoft’s resources, TNC can now use data in a more powerful way, and even work toward dissolving boundaries between organizations that deal with environmental issues, such as urban planning, economic development, corporate sustainability, and ecology preservation 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 Dr. Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “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.”

Artificial intelligence improves conservation decision-making

Through an AI for Earth grant fulfilled by NetHope, TNC leveraged Microsoft Azure cloud services to help link data with AI and machine-learning tools to develop decision models that can be shared among cross-disciplinary organizations. Each group can use the models to prove, plan, and track the impact of sustainability initiatives, providing economic data decision-makers with the information they need to drive policy-making and investing.

Emerging technology is also helping break down information silos that for years have stood in the way of better scientific insights. For example, Esri, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Spatial Development International, and the Natural Capital Project worked with TNC and Microsoft to brainstorm conservation applications based on Azure’s cognitive services API. One groundbreaking result is TNC’s Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative. The nonprofit crafted an AI-powered web app in tandem with Microsoft AI for Earth and Esri, building the software and training the algorithm.

The app can precisely analyze geo-tagged photos that are uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr, processing millions of images in hours. Machine learning helps the app distinguish between a scuba diver in a fragile area versus one in a pool, for instance. By matching the frequency and number of coral-related photos to economic tourism data, data scientists can quantify the value of coral reefs, kilometer by kilometer.

Data visualization reveals the true value of natural resources

When TNC leaders shared its AI-powered map of the Florida Keys coral reefs to local officials, the policymakers realized that in high-tourism areas in their waters, every square kilometer of reef accounts for up to more than $1 million in revenue each year. “People are starting to have ‘aha’ moments,” Spalding says. “Seeing that hard data helps localities plan and realize their natural resources truly are precious.”

Those insights, delivered with powerful data visualizations, can help local agencies balance tourism goals with preservation objectives. That type of decision-making is already occurring. In Cancun, Mexico, local hotels are contributing to a voluntary tax fund to repair the area’s “million-dollar reefs” when they are damaged after natural or other disasters. TNC plans to run its app in real time to rapidly identify such changes, which will empower groups to accelerate repair efforts, translating to a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Similarly, TNC has teamed with Minecraft to create an immersive world that enables players to protect and restore coral reefs through play. Players can place five types of coral reefs in Minecraft’s in-game oceans and use the Coral Crafter Skin Pack to create character costumes, learning about the importance of ecologic preservation.

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

Read the case study.

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