Science, Indigenous knowledge and AI weave environmental magic

    AI accelerates adaptive co-management

    Northern Australia may be one of the most stunning places on earth – but it’s a challenging environment where cyclones and floods switch to the dry for half of the year. Park rangers and scientists whose job is to travel Kakadu to source environmental data are also fully aware that waterways are full of crocodiles, that buffalo and feral pigs roam the landscape, and that there are only limited resources to support them.

    What data has been collected in the past has been somewhat limited, and getting it into the hands of the people able to act on it is a time-consuming process.

    The Healthy Country project instead sources large quantities of data from drones, controlled by Traditional Owners. Artificial intelligence which combines Indigenous knowledge and scientific research then interprets that data, providing the insights in near real time to the rangers who manage the park.

    Professor Michael Douglas, Leader, NESP Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub and a Kakadu Board Member stresses that; “The need for good information to help us manage these landscapes is only increasing. The challenges from climate change and the threats from weeds and fire and feral animals are getting worse every year. The resources that we have to respond to those is getting less and less. So we have to work smarter.

    “We have to do more with the limited resources we’ve got, and Microsoft AI can really make a huge difference there.”

    But the project has been determined to ensure that this is truly responsible and ethical AI.

    Douglas explains that before embarking on the Healthy Country project, the team spent 18 months identifying what Traditional Owners saw as high priorities for research in Kakadu National Park, focussing on Indigenous knowledge indicators for healthy country regarding weeds, fire, and feral animals and building on work already underway to manage Kakadu’s riparian zones, which include its rivers and floodplains.

    According to Dr Justin Perry, CSIRO Research Scientist, Indigenous values are front and centre to the project. They steer all monitoring and management actions.

    The data collected and resulting insights reveal to rangers and scientists how well their responses to environmental problems are working, allowing continuous improvement.

    Douglas adds; “For me this project brings together 20 years of studying para grass, and the threat that it poses to floodplains, but for the first time we’re actually doing something about it. So, we’ve managed to completely remove para grass from a really important part of Kakadu’s floodplains,” he says.

    And the magpie geese, ducks and turtles are returning

    Douglas says; “Microsoft AI is going to revolutionise the way that we do research and manage Northern Australia’s environments. It means that we can collect more data than we’ve ever been able to do in the past. We can access locations, and at times of year, that we couldn’t do previously. But it also means that we can collect that data much more safely than we were able to do.”

    Microsoft AI is also removing the need for people to physically review thousands of hours of video to count animals and identify para grass in its different states (burnt, wet, growing, dead). Instead, CustomVision AI, trained with machine learning, interprets the drone footage.

    The results and analysis are then made available to rangers through a dashboard on a mobile device to support their on-the-ground decision making.

    Dr Cathy Robinson, is Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO and stresses that it’s not just the speed at which information can be relayed that is critical, it’s also the ethical approach that has been adopted with Indigenous people leading the process, ensuring that their knowledge is handled in an appropriate way and producing outcomes that are supported by Indigenous people in an adaptive co-management setting.

    “This is the essence of responsible AI…making sure that we benefit Indigenous people, and their knowledge, through every single step of the way.

    “This is a very, very unique project. We’ve allowed AI to sit next to Indigenous knowledge, to inform adaptive approaches to caring for this land.

    “AI has taken a view from the sky, through drones. We’ve woven those together and thought about that platform design, so that it’s usable for Indigenous people. In every part of that process, we’ve had to make sure that Indigenous knowledge is protected appropriately. That Indigenous knowledge is used appropriately to guide management decisions, and that we weave science, including AI, so that we can do that together, to deliver healthy country outcomes.”

    Working with Bininj people on the Indigenous led research process the project melds AI with Indigenous knowledge to guide adaptive co-management. Says Robinson; “So what does adaptive co-management mean? It means we’re building the evidence base, to make better decisions. We’ve got to make those decisions together, and we’ve got to build a different evidence base to help that.”

    Robinson is also convinced of the global potential of the work underway at Kakadu. “Across the globe, Indigenous people are handling some pretty challenging questions. Their planet is under pressure, and much of that planet is owned by Indigenous people, particularly areas that have got high biodiversity assets. Threatened species, important ecosystems, fabulous cultural heritage spots,” all of which need effective and sensitive management.

    With that in mind the adaptive co-management framework is opensource and being made available on GitHub allowing the solution to be used internationally.

    Kakadu Park Rangers, Serena McCartney (left) and Annie Taylor (right)

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