Insight Climate: CEO Noel O’Connor on AI’s critical role in measuring and addressing climate and biodiversity change in Ireland

Submitted on Tuesday, 08/03/2022

AI a powerful ally in Ireland’s battle for biodiversity and climate sustainability

March is Insight Climate month. Noel O’Connor looks at the power of AI in conservation

The Irish Citizen’s Assembly plans to turn its lens on biodiversity. Meanwhile in Kunming, China, the ill-fated 2020 Cop 15 UN Biodiversity Conference will finally take place. Attendees at both events will hear a lot of bad news about species and habitat loss.

The headline? Since 1970, we have lost 68 per cent of the world’s wildlife. If the trend continues the result, according to a 2021 report by Vivid Economics, will be increased food demand accompanied by reduced supply, reduced household income and increased land prices.

Irish biodiversity pressures have unique features that we are failing to confront, as the recently revealed

Projects like the Biodiversity Trends Explorer in the UK are providing global level data on land use and biodiversity loss. These numbers are powerful, and terrifying. However, it is the power of numbers that gives us a realistic shot at addressing biodiversity decline. We need numbers of our own.

AI sensors and big data algorithmic processing have the potential to support the work of conservation teams at scales unimaginable even five years ago. As our citizens assemble to consider Ireland’s next steps they’d better understand the role that AI can and must play, especially when it comes to the unique challenges and opportunities presented by the Irish land and seascape.

Ireland can only address what it can measure, and our response to biodiversity loss must reflect what’s happening here on the island. We can’t simply take our cues from global data on sea level and temperature changes, for example. We can’t address the loss of Irish habitats based on data generated in Brazil or the Congo Basin. In Ireland, Noteworthy’s Endangered Species investigation is working to pull together a big picture of Ireland’s biodiversity status from a large number of unconnected data sets. We need more of this – and not just from the media.

We need a connected and resourced team of environmental researchers here in Ireland to measure and respond to developments on the ground. What do we know, for example, about how sea level rises are going to effect individual sections of coastline around our island? What do we know about species loss in Irish wetlands, which have reduced in land area by 10 per cent in the last 30 years? Wetlands are more effective at sequestering carbon than forests, and yet we don’t have a policy on protecting them in Ireland. We need to get to know the ground beneath our feet, and fast.


There is good news for the citizens, and if the Assembly can impart a sense of empowerment in the face of this enormous challenge, it will have been worth it.


Firstly, we have a lot of expertise in Ireland in this domain. Researchers based in Maynooth University are tracking climate change and sea level rise as they apply in Ireland and around the Irish coastline. In NUI Galway we have a growing corps of data researchers developing AI tools of monitor our wetlands. Drone technology is being used by researchers in the joint TCD/DCU iHabiMap project for habitat distribution mapping in Ireland’s grasslands, uplands and coastal regions. Researchers in DCU’s School of Chemical Sciences are working the next generation of ultra-sensitive chem-bio environmental sensors to ensure higher quality data. We even have trail blazing artists like Cleary-Connolly highlighting the issues, and potential solutions, by engaging directly with the public along the waterways of Ireland via their Eco Showboat project.


Secondly, through the SFI Centres programme there is greater opportunity for the networking of environmental researchers, in order to start building a more complete picture from the diversity of projects taking place across the country. The Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, of which I am CEO, has the expertise in data infrastructure to pull the massive datasets captured by drones and sensors and cameras into formats that allow for knowledge sharing and measurable interventions.


Thirdly, we have growing capacity for the deployment of data captured by citizens, using their phones to record species activity and habitat change on the ground. Crowd sourced mapping, for example, has been successfully applied in Galway as part of the Crowd4Access project. [link]


We have all the elements we need to develop AI-enabled decision making on Irish habitat support. What we need is a connected approach. We’re not alone in this.


The first Annual State of Conservation Technology Report, published in December, sounded a rare positive note in the world of wildlife and habitat conservation. More than half of survey respondents (52%) working in the field reported feeling more optimistic about the future of conservation technology relative to 12 months prior. When asked to rank potential reasons for optimism, people indicated that the increasing accessibility of conservation technologies, the rate at which the field is evolving, and the culture of collaboration were most important.


We need, the authors concluded,  ‘a shift from a patchwork landscape of projects competing for limited resources to an internationally coordinated organisational ecosystem with innovative funding mechanisms to back it. With artificial intelligence, genetics, and networked sensors already revolutionising many of the world’s largest business sectors, this research makes clear the tremendous opportunity to invest in harnessing their potential for conservation.’


If we’re serious about tackling biodiversity loss in Ireland, we need to make a national commitment to supporting and developing the environmental data infrastructure in Ireland to allow conservation researchers to benefit from advances in AI, networked sensors, machine learning and computer vision, in the same way that the recent Digital Ireland Framework commits to supporting the digital transformation of industry. This is an actionable goal that will have a positive impact on habitat and species support, as well as developing Ireland’s knowledge base in AI and sustainable development, creating high skill jobs and connecting us the global AI community.