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How these volunteers are harnessing technology to clean up NZ's coastlines

The Sustainable Coastlines charity keeps New Zealand's coasts clean with the help of Microsoft. Photo/Kurt McManus

You may have seen them while out for a stroll along your local beach – teams of eager volunteers picking up the food wrappers, bottles and plastic bags that litter our beaches.

Charity group Sustainable Coastlines has collected around 1.5 million litres of rubbish from our beaches in the past decade. But the scale of the problem is such that new approaches to cleaning up our coastlines are needed.

A project powered by Microsoft’s technologies looks to turn clean-up volunteers and beach lovers alike into citizen scientists, letting them contribute valuable information to better pinpoint the sources of litter and ways to stop it getting to our beaches and waterways.

The big clean up

Sustainable Coastlines is developing a national litter database and education programme that will give us the right data and insights to help reduce waste and keep our beaches litter-free, the way they should be.

The multi-award-winning charity turned to Microsoft Partner Enlighten Designs to build the platform, which employs intelligent digital storytelling and visualisation tools as part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite.

The system will allow the location, quantity, types of litter and trends in its accumulation to be accurately recorded and tracked with a robust United Nations Environment Programme methodology applied to the data.

That may help politicians decide on the most urgent actions required, inform regional councils on improvements to infrastructure like bins and stormwater filters or inspire school students to design campaigns and projects of their own. Images of beach detritus analysed by Microsoft’s powerful algorithms could even help researchers identify the types and colours of litter that are most impactful to seabirds and other marine life, helping to prioritise action for solutions.

A new initiative using AI will help establish a New Zealand-first national litter database. Photo/Kurt McManus

Empowering communities

Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt says that Microsoft’s data visualisation tool, Power BI, will allow the data collected from volunteers and the general public to be visualised and presented in ways that will offer new insights into the effort to clean our coastlines.

“This will help schools, community groups and businesses to view and make sense of the data and trends from a local perspective, empowering them to undertake their own litter-reduction projects in their communities,” says Howitt. Based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform, Cognitive Services allows organisations of all sizes to tap into powerful tools spanning computer vision, speech, text analytics, knowledge mapping and search applications.

Images of beach detritus analysed by Microsoft’s powerful algorithms could help researchers identify the litter types that are most impactful to marine life.

“This is a fantastic example of how our Cognitive Services suite is being used for good – in this case, delivering large-scale, grass roots solutions to our growing litter problem in New Zealand,” says Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer, Russell Craig.

“What’s also great is that the initiative is being harnessed as a powerful education instrument for schools.”

With the support of the Ministry for the Environment, the national litter database debuts alongside an education approach that includes a new curriculum-aligned behaviour change programme that aims to curb single-use plastic consumption and reduce litter.
All of the data collected will be made freely available to the public, allowing everyone to share in the effort to prevent litter from polluting our beautiful beaches and waterways.

Click here for more information on how Microsoft Cognitive Services can deliver new insights for your organisation.