UB scientist wins UN data prize for monitoring threats to South African biodiversity hotspot


By CHARLOTTE HSU republished from UBNow.

Published November 20, 2017

“To monitor this ecosystem, you need to be able to identify changes that fall outside of these natural variations, and our system does this quite well.”
Adam Wilson, assistant professor
Department of Geography

South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region is one of the richest repositories of plant life in the world.

Here, about 20 percent of Africa’s flora grows in a landscape that accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the continent’s area, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The diversity of plant life is among the highest on the planet. About 69 percent of the region’s estimated 9,000 plant species live nowhere else in the world.

Now, a team of scientists including UB biogeographer Adam Wilson has won a United Nations data prize for creating a digital tool for monitoring threats to this biological jewel.  

The researchers — including Wilson, assistant professor of geography; ecologist Jasper Slingsby from the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON); and data scientist Glenn Moncrieff from Ixio Analytics in South Africa — were one of six winning teams in U.N. Global Pulse’s Data for Climate Action Challenge, which asked scholars to use private sector data sources to address problems tied to climate change.

The group won the competition’s Thematic Award for Climate Mitigation. The competition was hosted by U.N. Global Pulse — a flagship innovation initiative of the U.N. Secretary-General that aims to accelerate discovery, development and scaled adoption of big data innovation for sustainable development and humanitarian action — in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation and with support from the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Wilson traveled to Bonn, Germany, to receive the award on Nov. 12 at a companion event to the Sustainable Innovation Forum, a side event to COP23, the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference that took place Nov. 6-17.

Aiding conservation of South Africa's fynbos

The digital tool the team created is a system that maps and analyzes vegetation in the fynbos, a belt of shrubland in the Cape Floristic Region that includes parts of protected areas forming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The system is capable of detecting abnormal changes in fynbos plant life. This is no easy task, as it requires distinguishing between unnatural aberrations — such as declines resulting from drought, development or climate change — and natural variations caused by wildfires, which are common in the region. As Wilson explains, land in the fynbos burns roughly every six to 20 years, and fires are an important part of the life cycle of many local plants. The seeds of some species, for example, grow in cones that only open naturally after fire.

“Wildfire is an important part of the ecosystem, so there is a natural cycle of vegetation loss and recovery,” says Wilson. “To monitor this ecosystem, you need to be able to identify changes that fall outside of these natural variations, and our system does this quite well.”

“By detecting potential threats to the ecosystem in near-real time, our tool can inform the responses of conservation authorities, citizen scientists and policymakers,” Slingsby says.

Mapping threats to shrubland

The team’s tool is called EMMA — the Ecosystem Monitoring and Management Application.

It is still being piloted, but it includes an interactive, web-based map that researchers can use to compare expected vegetation status to actual changes seen in images from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, and from Planet, a private company that provided high-resolution satellite images of the Earth through the U.N. Global Pulse data challenge.

EMMA also includes a smartphone app that field rangers, landowners and citizen scientists can use to map locations where they have spotted specific plant species in the wild, along with threats such as invasive plants, landslides and illegal clearing of vegetation.

“Systems like EMMA have been very useful for monitoring forest ecosystems, but we don’t have any way of doing this in non-forest ecosystems such as shrublands and natural grasslands, as far as I am aware,” Moncrieff says. “The tool we’ve created could have a lot of utility for other fire-prone ecosystems, such as the Mediterranean Basin, California or South Western Australia.”