Dan Morris, AI for Earth program director, says the most important result from the hackathon was that AI for Earth taught The Ocean Cleanup a lot about machine learning. “The real value was teaching them through interaction with data scientists and engineers at Microsoft,” he says.

This year, The Ocean Cleanup was named an AI for Earth grantee for its work.

“Using the AI for Earth grant, we’ve been able to set up and run the machine learning models,” De Vries says. “Having the resources at our fingertips has greatly accelerated the technical progress, by taking away practical concerns and letting us focus on the development.

“It allowed us to develop the vision that this is something we can do, not just for one river, but eventually for rivers across the globe.”

Robin de Vries, right, of The Ocean Cleanup works with a Microsoft Global Hackathon team member in 2019.

The Ocean Cleanup is highly admired, particularly in the Netherlands, where the organization has been a symbol of pride for years, even before they became more well-known internationally, says Harry van Geijn, a digital adviser for Microsoft in the Netherlands. Van Geijn is among the Microsoft staffers there who have volunteered to help The Ocean Cleanup when it comes to computer and related support.

While its staff is relatively small with around 100 employees, “they have this cause that they pursue with great tenacity and in an extremely professional way,” van Geijn says. So much so that “When I ask around for someone at Microsoft Netherlands to do something for The Ocean Cleanup, half the company raises their hand to say, ‘I want to volunteer for that.’”

Drew Wilkinson at the 2019 Microsoft Global Hackathon in Redmond, Washington.

Wilkinson, who grew up in the hot, dry climate of the Arizona desert, spent time at sea as a volunteer for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit, marine wildlife conservation organization.

In 2018 at Microsoft, he and another coworker started an employee group, Microsoft’s Worldwide Sustainability Community, which has grown to more than 3,000 members globally. The group focuses on ways employees can help the company be more environmentally sustainable. Wilkinson now is a community program manager for the Worldwide Communities Program, which includes the employee group he co-founded.

Wilkinson sees the issue of plastics in the ocean as a pretty solvable problem and is excited about the work that has been done, the work that he spurred with an email.

“I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take a lot of science to understand that our fate on the land is very much tied to the ocean,” he says. “The ocean is the planet’s life support system. Without a healthy ocean, we don’t stand a chance either.”

Top image: Some of the plastic and trash picked up onto the conveyor belt of The Ocean Cleanup’s Interceptor 002 on the Klang River in Malaysia. Photo credit: The Ocean Cleanup.



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