South African ecologists win UN data science award

December 1st, 2017, Published in Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

Scientists at the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) have won an award at the United Nations Data for Climate Action Challenge contest for a prototype near-real time monitoring tool that reports on the state and changes in vegetation based on satellite observations.

The contest tasked contestants with developing research papers or data visualisations that address problems tied to climate change and help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with emphasis on climate action.

The contest received 450 entries from 63 countries, and awarded three thematic prizes for research papers, two prizes for data visualisations and one grand prize winner.

The change detection tool has been developed for Fynbos vegetation but has potential to be adapted to other ecosystems. (Credit: Jasper Slingsby)

The change detection tool has been developed for Fynbos vegetation but has potential to be adapted to other ecosystems. (Credit: Jasper Slingsby)

SAEON’s submission, the Ecosystem Monitoring for Management Application (EMMA), won the Thematic award for Climate Mitigation for addressing SDG 12 (Climate Action) and 15 (Life on Land), among others.

The application uses MODIS NDVI data to detect abnormal changes in the greenness of Fynbos vegetation in near-real time. By detecting potential threats to the ecosystem in near-real time, the tool can inform the responses of conservation authorities, citizen scientists and policymakers while simultaneously collecting data for long-term ecological research.

Near-real time vegetation change detection tools are largely limited to forests, with few tools for non-forest ecosystems such as the shrublands, woodlands and grasslands that dominate South Africa and much of the rest of the globe.

The change detection tool can detect incremental invasion of Fynbos by alien woody species as well as vegetation clearing. (Credit: Jasper Slingsby)

The change detection tool can detect incremental invasion of Fynbos by alien woody species as well as vegetation clearing. (Credit: Jasper Slingsby)

The team also developed a prototype smartphone application to aid field inspections by navigating users to locations highlighted by EMMA to investigate impacts, and allowing them to map other locations where they have spot threats to ecosystems.

Other winners included the Georgia Institute for Technology, Yale University and Eriktronic Engineering. The Grand Prize was awarded to a collaboration between the Mexican National Institute for Ecology and Climate Change and the University of California at Berkeley for research that supports greater electromobility in the Metropolitan Area of ​​Mexico City.

Contact Dr Jasper Slingsby, SAEON, Tel 021 799-8834, jasper@saeon.ac.za

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