The Nature Conservancy is teaming up with Microsoft to bring machine learning and other tech innovations to the environmental group’s online mapping tools. The interactive maps are used for numerous eco-initiatives, including the protection of shoreline areas that are home to endangered salmon and vulnerable to erosion and home-destroying floods, as well as a tool to help prioritize projects to clean up polluted waterways — starting with a soon-to-be-unveiled Puget Sound-focused tool.
In a deal announced in April, the international nonprofit will be moving its interactive, geospatial tools to Azure cloud services and — even more importantly — will be collaborating with Microsoft engineers to build more powerful software for processing large data volumes and quickly generating results.
The goal is to create mapping tools that can help shape policy and conservation decisions to create the biggest impact.
Microsoft is providing The Nature Conservancy with a three-year, in-kind donation of cloud space and expert assistance. Esri, a GIS-mapping software company, will also be part of the collaboration.
Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, is eager for green groups to more fully realize how technology can help tackle their challenges.
“We’re working with nonprofits, like The Nature Conservancy, to help them leverage the exponential power of AI and digital technology to transform their work and increase their impact,” Bernard said. That can include machine learning to build higher resolution maps showing land cover details, like tree types and stormwater drain locations, or using facial recognition software to identify and track specific animals that belong to threatened populations.
The new tech partnership aligns with a shift already underway at The Nature Conservancy. The NGO has been around since 1951, but the past decade has seen a transformation in their approach, said Zach Ferdaña, a Seattle-based program manager who leads the group’s global Coastal Resilience project, which includes a suite of online mapping tools called the Natural Solutions Toolkit.
The nonprofit’s initiatives are more data-driven and their focus has expanded beyond wildlife and natural places to finding projects that combine those concerns with the protection of human lives, homes and businesses, and other priorities.
“It has gone from conservation planning to strategic partnership planning,” Ferdaña said. “Our nature bottom-line couples with insurance or engineering or technology and we can show you how … . It’s a fundamental shift in how we do business and conservation.”
An initiative that represents that shift and could benefit from the Microsoft partnership is a project to create a digital mapping tool to prioritize stormwater pollution hotspots in the Puget Sound area.
When the region’s infamous rainfall hits the roadways, rooftops, parking lots and other hard surfaces, it picks up a toxic brew of pollutants. That includes pesticides; oil and grease from cars; dangerous pollutants created from burning gasoline, diesel, wood and other fuels; heavy metals; and bacteria from pet waste. For the most part, the polluted rainwater streams into gutters, creeks and directly into Puget Sound without any treatment to clean it.
“We realized that stormwater is one of the biggest contributors of pollution to Puget Sound,” said Emily Howe, an aquatic ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. Up to 75 percent of the pollutants sullying the sound are dumped there via stormwater runoff.
The dirty stormwater can foul streams and beaches and contaminate seafood. Research shows that more than half of the adult coho salmon that return to urban streams are dying before they have the chance to spawn.
But there’s a solution to the problem that doesn’t require jackhammering up all of the region’s streets and parking lots and returning them to forests.
Developed areas can be retrofit with what’s known as green infrastructure. That includes rain gardens — a landscaping design that creates shallow basins where water can pool and soak into the ground — or pervious roads where rain can percolate through porous asphalt or concrete to gravel and soil below it.
It turns out that soil and the microorganisms that soil contains are, ironically, great cleaning agents. When coho are placed in stormwater runoff collected directly from urban highways, it kills 100 percent of the fish, scientists report. But if the researchers first let the stormwater percolate through a simulated rain garden, all of the coho survive in the semi-treated runoff.
Why not install rain gardens and permeable roads everywhere?
“We’ve figured out that it would cost about $500 billion to retrofit all of Puget Sound,” said Howe.
So she is leading the project that’s creating a stormwater mapping tool for the area. The product will be a “heat map” that highlights the spots with the most toxic runoff and overlays that with high priority areas: salmon spawning sites, locations where human populations are disproportionately exposed to pollutants, areas with the best soil for absorbing water and sites that are most important to the local communities.
In addition to the new Microsoft collaboration, support for the stormwater mapping tool comes from Boeing and Vulcan.
The project focuses on Puget Sound but uses open-source code and more widely accessible databases to make it reproducible elsewhere. Data comes from land-use maps, state Department of Ecology stormwater monitoring, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice program, geologic maps and other sources.
The stormwater project is ideal for Microsoft’s support because it’s scalable, Bernard said, and it’s useful not only for The Nature Conservancy, but for anyone concerned about polluted runoff. “It’s about creating a tool kit so 1,000 or 10,000 people can leverage it,” he said.
The project has been under development for about a year and stormwater maps for King County, which includes Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, will be available in the coming month. Maps including all of Puget Sound and more detailed map information will be released over time.
The objective is to make clear that while rainfall and runoff might seem benign, it’s causing environmental havoc — and needs a response.
“It’s difficult to get a handle on,” Howe said. “We wanted to create this regional, birds-eye view of the hotspots in Puget Sound so we can target green infrastructure. This is all about accelerating action.”
For more on stormwater challenges and solutions, check out this video from Washington State University that was created with funding support from The Nature Conservancy: