How these volunteers are harnessing technology to clean up NZ's coastlines

by Noted / 04 February, 2019
sustainable coastlines

The Sustainable Coastlines charity keeps New Zealand's coasts clean with the help of Microsoft. Photo/Kurt McManus

You may have seen them while out for a stroll along your local beach – teams of eager volunteers picking up the food wrappers, bottles and plastic bags that litter our beaches.

Charity group Sustainable Coastlines has collected around 1.5 million litres of rubbish from our beaches in the past decade. But the scale of the problem is such that new approaches to cleaning up our coastlines are needed.

A project powered by Microsoft’s technologies looks to turn clean-up volunteers and beach lovers alike into citizen scientists, letting them contribute valuable information to better pinpoint the sources of litter and ways to stop it getting to our beaches and waterways.

The big clean up

Sustainable Coastlines is developing a national litter database and education programme that will give us the right data and insights to help reduce waste and keep our beaches litter-free, the way they should be.

The multi-award-winning charity turned to Microsoft Partner Enlighten Designs to build the platform, which employs intelligent digital storytelling and visualisation tools as part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services suite.

The system will allow the location, quantity, types of litter and trends in its accumulation to be accurately recorded and tracked with a robust United Nations Environment Programme methodology applied to the data.

That may help politicians decide on the most urgent actions required, inform regional councils on improvements to infrastructure like bins and stormwater filters or inspire school students to design campaigns and projects of their own. Images of beach detritus analysed by Microsoft’s powerful algorithms could even help researchers identify the types and colours of litter that are most impactful to seabirds and other marine life, helping to prioritise action for solutions.

sustainable coastlines

A new initiative using AI will help establish a New Zealand-first national litter database. Photo/Kurt McManus

Empowering communities

Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt says that Microsoft’s data visualisation tool, Power BI, will allow the data collected from volunteers and the general public to be visualised and presented in ways that will offer new insights into the effort to clean our coastlines.

“This will help schools, community groups and businesses to view and make sense of the data and trends from a local perspective, empowering them to undertake their own litter-reduction projects in their communities,” says Howitt. Based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform, Cognitive Services allows organisations of all sizes to tap into powerful tools spanning computer vision, speech, text analytics, knowledge mapping and search applications.

Images of beach detritus analysed by Microsoft’s powerful algorithms could help researchers identify the litter types that are most impactful to marine life.

“This is a fantastic example of how our Cognitive Services suite is being used for good – in this case, delivering large-scale, grass roots solutions to our growing litter problem in New Zealand,” says Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer, Russell Craig.

“What’s also great is that the initiative is being harnessed as a powerful education instrument for schools.”

With the support of the Ministry for the Environment, the national litter database debuts alongside an education approach that includes a new curriculum-aligned behaviour change programme that aims to curb single-use plastic consumption and reduce litter.
All of the data collected will be made freely available to the public, allowing everyone to share in the effort to prevent litter from polluting our beautiful beaches and waterways.

Click here for more information on how Microsoft Cognitive Services can deliver new insights for your organisation. 


Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more
The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more
The untold history of China's one child policy
108182 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z History

The untold history of China's one child policy

by RNZ

Nanfu Wang explains the story behind her film One Child Nation, which screens at the International Film Festival this July.

Read more
Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal democracy?
108314 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z World

Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal…

by Paul Thomas

Vladimir Putin reckons “the liberal idea has become obsolete”. As Mandy Rice-Davies said, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Read more
The psychology of psychopaths and social media users
108199 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z Psychology

The psychology of psychopaths and social media use…

by Marc Wilson

Psychologists are getting a picture of people who are big on social media. It's not always pretty.

Read more
Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen children
108138 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z History

Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen…

by Clare de Lore

Greg McGee always knew his great-grandfather had kidnapped his father and uncles as infants, but now for the first time he’s revealing that...

Read more
Video-streaming platforms are failing their impaired customers
108303 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z Tech

Video-streaming platforms are failing their impair…

by Peter Griffin

When it comes to video streaming, the hearing- and visually impaired can only dream about the technology that’s passing them by.

Read more
We like big vehicles and we cannot lie
108312 2019-07-12 00:00:00Z Politics

We like big vehicles and we cannot lie

by The Listener

It would take a psychologist to explain Kiwis’ love for utes and SUVs. But it’s not the only reason people are revved up over the attempt to reduce...

Read more