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Artificial intelligence and citizen scientists: Powering the clean-up of Asia Pacific’s beaches

By Mike Chan, General Manager, Cloud and Enterprise, Microsoft Asia Pacific

Mike ChanAn estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than 250,000 tons are floating in the world’s oceans. Aside from polluting our waters and seas, marine debris and beach litter are becoming an increasing risk, posing health hazards and causing injuries.

And it’s hitting Asia Pacific hard.

In April 2018, the Philippines’ resort island of Boracay closed its white-sand beaches for a major cleanup. Thailand’s Maya Bay followed two months later, shutting its shores indefinitely to allow its declining marine ecosystem to recover. Sri Lanka’s golden coasts are experiencing the same issues, with garbage washing up on its beaches.

For developing countries such as these, where travel and tourism make up a sizeable percentage of GDP — 4.2% in the Philippines, 4.6% in Sri Lanka, and a whopping 9.3% in Thailand — the problem of pollution is much more than just cosmetic.

The temporary closing of Boracay alone, which lasted 6 months, is estimated to have cost up to US$1.6 billion.

The problem is also affecting Asia Pacific’s developed economies. Singapore is struggling to keep up with plastic waste as it manages its Semakau landfill.

South Korea’s plastic waste problems have surfaced in dramatic fashion with the blazing trash fires in the county of Uiseong.

And in New Zealand, over 70% of items removed from its beaches are made of plastic — from food wrappers and containers to plastic bags and polystyrene products.

That’s why New Zealand charity Sustainable Coastlines has been working to solve the problem of marine litter for the past 10 years, both in New Zealand and around the Pacific.

Data is the first step

Sustainable Coastlines identified single-use plastics as the worst offenders in the marine environment and realized that data is key to addressing the problem. As United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his opening remarks at the 2017 Ocean Conference, “We can’t improve what we don’t measure.”

This is the motivation behind Sustainable Coastlines’ latest project: New Zealand’s first litter database, that is developed in partnership with Microsoft, Enlighten Designs, New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment and Department of Conservation, and Statistics New Zealand.

Built on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, the system captures and categorizes litter data, which can then be explored and visualized with the help of Power BI, Microsoft’s data visualization tool.

To gather the data that will be fed into the system, Sustainable Coastlines will be mobilizing citizen science groups at different sites. These groups will be trained on how to survey and monitor marine litter based on a local adaptation of the UN Environment Program methodology. Every quarter, groups will collect and enter data into the litter database, including images of beach litter, quantities, weights, and locations.

“Being able to catalog where litter exists on the beaches would allow the combination of open data (like ocean currents) to be used to help identify the source of the litter and better target clean-up efforts.”

Supporting citizen science

Sustainable Coastlines turned to Enlighten Designs, a technology firm with expertise in website design and software development, to work on the solution. “The main objective is to support citizen scientists cleaning up New Zealand beaches and get a better understanding of why litter is turning up, so preventive and proactive action can be taken,” says Enlighten Designs CEO Damon Kelly.

Access to the database will be free and open to anyone, allowing anyone to use the open data and computer models to quickly combine data collected from Sustainable Coastlines initiative to help clean up the environment.

Communities can use it to take on their own litter-reduction projects, while advocacy groups can use the data as a basis for creating petitions and lobbying for their causes. Schools can use it to educate students on waste reduction and the government can use the data to make informed decisions and create environmental policies.

“It’s not just a litter database — it’s a solutions platform,” says Camden Howitt, Co-Founder of Sustainable Coastlines.

By building the database, Sustainable Coastlines expects to gain important information around the quantity of litter, the types of litter and its sources, and the reasons for certain distributions of litter.

Sustainable Coastlines

Additionally, the charity hopes to clear up the misconception that citizen science data is in any way inferior to other scientific data.

“We believe that with the right training, the right methodology, and a robust and easy-to-use system, we can significantly increase the quality of data coming in through citizen science work,” Howitt says.

 A promising solution for Asia Pacific

As a system built on the cloud, the solution can be implemented anywhere. In places like the Philippines and Thailand, the database could aid cleanup efforts and prevent costly beach closures in the future.

In Sri Lanka, where they are just beginning to embrace the cloud in various industries, the timing is right to address its coastal litter.

Singapore could supplement its zero-waste agenda with Sustainable Coastlines’ platform. The platform could be used as a common tool for businesses and companies to report on their packaging waste. It could also be used to categorize items placed into recycling bins, identify those unsuitable for recycling, and visualize and present this data in a way citizens can better understand, therefore raising awareness on how to recycle right.

Even South Korea — where the problem is inland as well as on the coasts — could utilize the litter database to deal with illegally abandoned waste and avoid polluting farmlands and nearby rivers.

“The issues we’re fighting aren’t isolated to New Zealand,” says Howitt. “Litter is a global issue, and this is a global solution. It’s certainly applicable to any country and any coastline in the world.”

 The technology behind the solution

To offer more advanced insight, the system will use the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services, specifically for data categorization and image recognition.

“The use of artificial intelligence provides the basis for building an accurate and consistent knowledge base,” says Russell Craig, Microsoft New Zealand’s national technology officer. “Not only are we building AI-enabled applications that are easy to access and use, but we’re also playing a role in addressing these big environmental challenges that we all face.”

After making the database available throughout New Zealand by May 2019, Sustainable Coastlines will bring it to their branches in Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. Then the organization intends to roll out the technology across the Pacific and eventually the world. And as a recent recipient of Microsoft’s AI for Earth grant, the charity envisions using machine learning to predict litter distribution patterns and accumulation hot spots.

With the help of AI and technology, Sustainable Coastlines is employing citizen science in its quest for beautiful beaches and healthy waters. “I hope more people will be encouraged to help clean up our beaches and seas,” Craig says. “And that in doing so, they’ll feel as though they can make a big difference — bigger than they might imagine.”

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