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Harnessing intelligent insights for cleaner coastlines

Many hands make light work of the job, but a smart new approach to charting litter on our coasts will make the clean-up efforts more effective in future.

A world-leading effort to clean up our coasts gets a helping hand.

It was just another day at the beach for Camden Howitt when he and his team heard that Sustainable Coastlines, the charity he co-founded to help rid our coasts of plastic and other litter, had won one of Microsoft’s sought-after AI for Earth grants.

In fact, Microsoft president Brad Smith travelled to Wellington’s Lyall Bay to break the news to Howitt, who was expecting to merely show off the charity’s litter-busting technology to the visiting executive.

The AI for Earth grant, part of a US$50million, five-year programme to put artificial intelligence technology in the hands of individuals and organisations around the world that are working to protect our planet, is a huge endorsement of Sustainable Coastlines’ work.

Harnessing the power of thousands of clean-up volunteers, the charity has over the past decade removed nearly 1.5 million litres of rubbish from our coastlines, three quarters of it single-use plastic.

Many hands make light work of the job, but Sustainable Coastlines’ smart new approach to charting litter on our coasts will make the clean-up efforts more effective in future. The new programme, dubbed Litter Intelligence, launches its national litter action platform this month. The charity is already working with community ‘citizen scientists’ around Aotearoa to input the data, training them in a simple but rigorous United Nations Environment Programme methodology.

As the data comes in, Microsoft technologies crunch the numbers, providing powerful insights while inspiring locally relevant actions to solve the problem.

The Ministry for the Environment-funded programme, in collaboration with Statistics New Zealand and the Department of Conservation, is already filling gaps in national data, allowing a much better understanding of the litter issue.

Combining use of Microsoft Power BI (Business Intelligence) and Azure cloud-based technology, Microsoft Partner Enlighten Designs built the platform, which employs intelligent digital storytelling and visualisation tools as part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite.

With the AI for Earth grant, Sustainable Coastlines will receive Azure credit, technical advice and support, training and networking opportunities, allowing the project’s funding to go a lot further.

Project Manager Sandy Britain, who attended the AI for Earth Summit at Microsoft’s Head Office in Redmond, Seattle, in May says, “This grant, which gives us access to industry leading Artificial Intelligence tools and expertise, puts us one step closer to taking this innovative programme to the world.

“This quality assurance will help more communities engage more deeply in collecting this crucial data; monitoring the impact of their actions and creating a solution for litter that all countries can share.”

For Smith, organisations like Sustainable Coastlines embody the spirit of the AI for Earth grants. “We face a collective need for urgent action to address global climate issues,” he says.

For more information on Sustainable Coastlines and Litter Intelligence visit litterintelligence.org