A mix of wildlife experts, everyday Australians and artificial intelligence have teamed up to try and save the Great Barrier Reef from harm.
Organized by the nonprofit Citizens of The Great Barrier Reef, the Great Barrier Census is a large-scale exploration project that allows the public to analyze photos to determine which parts of the reef are damaged.
The images are captured by groups of locals, tourists and experts while diving on the reef and then uploaded to a system where they will be analyzed later.
While the process of analyzing photos was slow at first, an AI built by Dell Technologies has made it possible to analyze thousands of photos per day.
The introduction of AI has been a stroke of luck for experts who have been analyzing a reef larger than the area of the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined.
The new technology means they can quickly identify unhealthy areas of the reef and focus restoration efforts on revitalizing it more quickly.
An AI developed by Dell Technologies and the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is backed by the general public in an effort to restore the Great Barrier Reef
Large areas of the Great Barrier Reef have suffered severe damage from coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns stars that have evolved to eat coral
Parts of the Great Barrier Reef have been badly damaged by recurring incidents of bleaching over large parts of the reef.
The first mass bleaching event occurred in 1998, with several more incidents in recent years.
Crown-of-thorns starfish, benthic feeders that evolved to eat coral, also caused significant damage to the reef after they exploded in population due to increased nutrients from runoff.
Citizens of The Great Barrier Reef co-founder and CEO Andy Ridley was drawn to the case after the 2016 mass bleaching event that made global headlines and prematurely claimed the Great Barrier Reef had died.
At the time, he was working for another organization in the Netherlands and was ‘surprised’ at the reaction of younger colleagues at an international level.
“It was just devastating to see their reaction because it wasn’t a reaction of ‘we have to do something’, it was a reaction of desperation,” Ridley told Daily Mail Australia.
“It kind of started as a marketing idea.
“But when the first bleaching happened, it became an opportunity to try something different.”
Mr. Ridley was co-founder and CEO of Earth Hour for eight years, the internationally successful environmental campaign that urged both the public and private sectors to turn off the lights and not use technology for an hour.
The AI identifies how healthy parts of the reef are by what species and how much coral is growing in certain areas, and is enhanced by citizens analyzing photos themselves
Upon arriving in Cairns and starting the initiative, the scale of the project quickly became daunting.
“Basically we got to a point where we had about 60,000 images and we didn’t have enough time or money to get experts to analyze it at the scale we wanted,” Ridley said.
However, a Dell Technologies-based AI helped speed up the process of identifying which species and how many coral inhabit parts of the reef.
“Dell came up with this AI algorithm and after the first five months it was about 50% accurate and we thought ‘this isn’t good enough,’” said Mr. Ridley.
“As time went on, we got better and better.”
The Great Barrier Census has now collected more than 75,000 images of the reef, and with the help of citizens, 510 unique reefs have been surveyed, 15 percent of the reefs in the Great Barrier Reef.
“We have always wanted to make sure that people’s role in this process is never taken out,” Mr Ridley said.
‘Often the standard in science is: remove the humans and leave it to the machines or leave it to the sciences.
“We were trying to get this perfect shape from experts, AI and the human eye.
The initiative has helped analyze thousands of images per day instead of deferring to experts and processing the same number of images for months.
Former CEO of Earth Hour and CEO of Citizens of The Great Barrier Reef, Andy Ridley (pictured), started the nonprofit after witnessing the reef’s degradation in 2016
The citizen approach has also led to local indigenous groups, citizens and tourists getting involved with universities and other organisations.
“This is a huge cooperative effort,” Mr Ridley said.
“There are multiple units involved, multiple tour operators, skippers, tugboats and so many different people, so it’s a very different model.”
Local residents and tourists have been able to take photos of the reef for the project for the past three years, with the next opportunity in September this year.
A Stan Original documentary called Reefshot follows Mr. Ridley, experts and locals as they try to restore the reef.
“I felt pretty emotional at the end (of the movie),” Mr. Ridley said.
“It was pretty wild to see all that on film.”