AI is a powerful ally in Ireland’s battle for biodiversity

18 May 2022

View from Djouce summit in the Wicklow Mountains. Image: © Gabriel/

Insight CEO Prof Noel O’Connor says we must look at tech sector synergies and create a national data infrastructure to tackle biodiversity loss in Ireland.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss finally met in person for the first time last week, three years since the Government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency.

This assembly will look at “opportunities to develop greater policy coherence and strategic synergies between biodiversity policy and other policy priorities including, but not limited to, economic development, climate action, sustainable development, agriculture and tourism”.

I sincerely hope that technology makes it to the table as a strategic synergy worth exploring.

Since 1970, we have lost 68pc of the world’s wildlife. If this 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, at least in part because of data deficits.

Projects such as 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. And we need numbers of our own.

‘We need to get to know the ground beneath our feet, and fast’

AI sensors and big data algorithmic processing have the potential to support the work of conservation teams at scales unimaginable even five years ago. AI can and must play a central role in addressing biodiversity loss, 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. We can’t address the loss of Irish habitats based on data generated in Brazil or the Congo Basin. 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 impact individual sections of coastline around our island?

What do we know about species loss in Irish wetlands, which have reduced in land area by 10pc in the last 30 years? The so-called ‘turf wars’ are all over the news, but who’s talking about the value of bogs beyond their role as a fuel source? Wetlands are more effective at sequestering carbon than rainforests. We need to get to know the ground beneath our feet, and fast.

‘We need to provide a national data platform to connect all these projects’

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 to monitor our wetlands. Drone technology is being used by researchers in the joint Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University (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 on the next generation of ultra-sensitive chem-bio environmental sensors to ensure higher quality data.

Secondly, through the Science Foundation Ireland research centres programme, there is greater opportunity for the networking of environmental researchers 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. Many state-supported research centres in Ireland are carrying out data-enabled climate monitoring – we need to provide a national data platform to connect all these projects.

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. Crowdsourced mapping, for example, has been successfully applied in Galway as part of the Crowd4Access project. Citizen mapping can be powerfully deployed in the service of biodiversity monitoring if we have a centralised, national framework for processing and using the information collected.

‘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’

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 (52pc) of survey respondents 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 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 to the global AI community.

By Prof Noel O’Connor

Prof Noel O’Connor is CEO of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.