How AI Can Help Cities Conserve Resources and Plan for the Future
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
The world is changing swiftly, and nowhere are those changes felt more acutely than in our cities. Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a trend only expected to accelerate in the coming decades.
The rapid growth of urban populations is concentrating environmental stress in key regions of the world, increasing demand for resources such as reliable energy and clean water, and pushing urban growth boundaries farther and farther into surrounding forests and farmlands. This tension between our need for urban development and our responsibility to the environment is strained further by factors like global climate change and increasingly severe weather events, which have devastated both our cities and the natural ecosystems that sustain them. Together, these factors present a complex challenge for city managers who need tools that can help them better understand, address and even predict environmental risks to their communities.
Fortunately, there are technology trends emerging today that hold tremendous promise for helping cities address these issues. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to exponentially increase our ability to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data on the state of our planet and empower land use planners with the insights and tools they need to build a more resilient and sustainable future.
One of the many challenges that urban planners face is a lack of current, detailed and easily accessible data about how their municipalities are changing. Land cover maps can help by showing what is where in a particular landscape, and how fast it is changing over time—visualizing everything from natural phenomena (like forests, rivers, lakes, and prairies) to human-made surfaces (such as cities, farms, buildings, roads, and parking lots). The better the picture of our lands, the more informed policymakers and communities will be as they make critical decisions for the future, such as how to grow sustainably, how to manage their natural resources effectively, and where to implement critical environmental protections and interventions like green infrastructure.
In the video below, from a demonstration at this year’s Esri User Conference, I explain how AI and deep learning can be used to develop enhanced mapping software for more sustainable land management.
Unfortunately, many local decision-makers do not have easy access to accurate and timely data. The most accessible land cover map for the United States is currently produced at 30 meter resolution, and is now 5 years out of date. Products like these are useful when asking very broad questions at a national scale, but the lack of spatial and temporal resolution minimizes the utility of these data for city-level planning. Other free, higher resolution imagery, such as the National Agriculture Imagery Program’s (NAIP) 1 meter-resolution data collected annually for the United States government, provides the detail required to spot trends and manage lands with a degree of resolution relevant to urban planning. However, analyzing these increasingly data-dense images to identify every new road, house, and other land use using standard approaches is a resource-intensive process. For example, a land cover map of the entire United States would require training an algorithm to recognize a large array of land uses across a wide variety of geographies and analyzing nearly 10 trillion pixels all in one go, a process requiring access to a level of computing resources and technical expertise that is far beyond what most nonprofits and government agencies can, or should, afford.
AI for Urban Sustainability
Fortunately, land cover mapping is an application perfectly suited for modern AI. Over the past year, Microsoft has partnered with the Chesapeake Conservancy, and the geospatial mapping and technology company Esri, to improve access to high resolution land cover maps across the United States. We started with data created by the Chesapeake Conservancy, who worked with Microsoft and ESRI technologies, along with partners throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, to map the roughly 100,000 square miles of land in the region. The new map provides 900 times the amount of information as conventional 30-meter resolution land cover data and enables land managers to see specific details like buildings or trees within larger plots of development or forest land, and pinpoint exactly where the bay’s ecosystems are becoming fragmented or damaged.
Now, we are using those data to train a single, powerful AI algorithm for mapping land cover at 1 meter resolution across the United States, with the ambition to enable on the fly land cover mapping through a simple user interface. Early results are promising, and should we succeed, land use managers at organizations of all sizes will be able to develop accurate, actionable, and sharable insights about what is happening on their lands more quickly than ever before.
In the video below, you can see how the Chesapeake Land Cover Mapping Project is already being used to help those that live and work on the Chesapeake Bay protect and restore their watershed.
Microsoft’s AI for Earth Initiative
This project showed us just how effective AI can be in solving pressing environmental and resource challenges facing cities. Land cover mapping helps understand the physical landscape of the world around us, which is a prerequisite to then make smarter decisions about overall resource management, smart transportation and grid solutions, and a host of other areas critical to building more sustainable cities.
That’s where Microsoft comes in, through existing programs like CityNext, focused on cities, and a newer program focused on AI applications for sustainability called AI for Earth. AI for Earth is built to help address some of the most significant barriers to harnessing AI for sustainability, and provides mechanisms to overcome them. These include access and education, so we have allocated $2 million to grants, trainings and projects to showcase the transformative potential of Microsoft’s AI technologies.
Ultimately, Microsoft’s AI for Earth program exists because of what cities around the world already know: the scale and speed of the changes we see in our physical and natural world require new solutions, and quickly. As Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote at the launch of AI for Earth, “There is no shortage of work to be done to chart a healthier, more sustainable future for our planet. Time is not our friend on this endeavor, and the stakes are high.” By working with organizations of all kinds, we hope to empower communities everywhere with the insights they need to solve today’s complex environmental challenges, and build a more resilient and sustainable future.
To learn more, please visit: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/aiforearth
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity
The development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can expand internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.
In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.
Wildfire Risk Reduction: Connecting the Dots
One of the most visceral manifestations of the combined problems of urbanization and climate change are the enormous wildfires that engulf areas of the American West. Fire behavior itself is now changing. Over 120 years of well-intentioned fire suppression have created huge reserves of fuel which, when combined with warmer temperatures and drought-dried landscapes, create unstoppable fires that spread with extreme speed, jump fire-breaks, level entire towns, take lives and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres, even in landscapes that are conditioned to employ fire as part of their reproductive cycle.
ARISE-US recently held a very successful symposium, “Wildfire Risk Reduction – Connecting the Dots” for wildfire stakeholders – insurers, US Forest Service, engineers, fire awareness NGOs and others – to discuss the issues and their possible solutions. This article sets out some of the major points to emerge.
Innovating Our Way Out of Crisis
Whether deep freezes in Texas, wildfires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, or any other calamity, our innovations today will build the reliable, resilient, equitable, and prosperous grid tomorrow. Innovation, in short, combines the dream of what’s possible with the pragmatism of what’s practical. That’s the big-idea, hard-reality approach that helped transform Texas into the world’s energy powerhouse — from oil and gas to zero-emissions wind, sun, and, soon, geothermal.
It’s time to make the production and consumption of energy faster, smarter, cleaner, more resilient, and more efficient. Business leaders, political leaders, the energy sector, and savvy citizens have the power to put investment and practices in place that support a robust energy innovation ecosystem. So, saddle up.