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Practical Magic

Sci-fi meets sustainability: Artificial intelligence to predict deforestation

Big data software startup Orbital Insight is experimenting with the World Resources Institute to apply 'deep learning' to conservation.

This week, McDonald’s added its voice to the growing list of influential companies clamoring for an end to deforestation, following the lead of other multinationals and advocacy groups seeking to clean up global supply chains.

Now, an ambitious collaboration between Big Data technology startup Orbital Insight and the World Resources Institute (WRI) is adding a touch of sci-fi tinged technology to that quest.

Under the new partnership, Orbital Insight will use artificial intelligence to parse tens of millions of high-resolution satellite images from WRI’s Global Forest Watch, which already draws on data from the University of Maryland, Google, NASA and other organizations.

The mission of the new artificial intelligence experiment: identify factors, such as new road construction in remote areas, that could be predictive indicators of threats to forests throughout the world. For at least the time being, the tool will be offered for free.

“We currently know a lot about forest clearing that has happened in the past, but soon we will have the power to look ahead and identify the forest areas at greatest risk,” said Aaron Steele, chief technology officer of WRI.

During the initial phase of the collaboration, Orbital Insight will use its business analytics technology during a proof-of-concept phase to examine images from areas that already have suffered losses, looking back to identify key moments when encroachment activity began.

If the initiative proves scalable, eventually, those algorithms will be applied to the overall Global Forest Watch database so that the organization can detect areas of potential concern. Ostensibly, local authorities then could intervene more proactively to halt clear cutting and other activities that threaten forests.

“We have a unique ability to understand the world as it starts changing,” said James Crawford, founder and CEO of Orbital Insight, based in Mountain View, Calif.

Here is a snapshot of the type of mapping tools that could emerge from the project:

This is Orbital Insights’ first collaboration with an NGO. The startup closed $8.7 million in Series A venture financing (PDF) in mid-March, led by Sequoia and also including Google Ventures and Bloomberg Beta.

The company sells predictive data services based on its work with satellite imagery and data collected from drones. Among them are business intelligence about ideal crop harvest timing, retail sales forecasts extrapolated by counting cars in shopping mall parking lots, and oil forecasts calculated by watching tank levels and tanker truck activity. This information is sold through subscriptions, although Crawford declined to discuss pricing.

The effects of deforestation are varied but jarring, beginning with this mega-statistic: The practice accounts for up to one-fifth of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The good news is that many giant global companies are pressuring their supplers to help curb the practice. The Forest 500 ratings system grades their progress. In the lead so far: Nestle; Groupe Danone; Kao Corp.; Procter & Gamble; Reckitt Benckiser Group; and Unilever.

Many of these companies have signed the New York Declaration on Forests, which pledges to end deforestation by 2030. McDonald's latest commitment includes a plan to set "time-bound" goals this year for ending deforestation throughout its supply chains for beef, coffee, palm oil, poultry and the fibers used for its packaging.

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