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Protecting the world’s threatened rainforests is key to slowing climate change. Trees trap large amounts of carbon dioxide and evaporate water, creating thick cloud cover that reflects sunlight and cools the earth below. But this vital global resource is being depleted at an alarming rate, as illegal and legal logging destroys more than 32 million1 acres of rainforest each year.
Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, wanted to build technical solutions and partnerships around the world to help fight deforestation, protect the environment and educate people about the natural world. Starting with a big idea, it needed an innovative tech partner to bring the concept to life and scale it up to protect rainforests across the globe. Hitachi, a leading technology innovator dedicated to improving quality of life by creating greater social, environmental and economic value, came to Rainforest Connection to provide a missing link to a crucial and ambitious initiative.
Rainforest Connection has developed small custom logic boards as forest listening devices, placing them on treetops with solar panels to provide their power. The units, called “guardians,” upload a continuous recording of the forest’s soundscape, transmitting the audio to the cloud for further analysis. The goal, says Bourhan Yassin, Rainforest Connection’s chief operating officer: Empower local partners, indigenous tribes, and local people with timely alerts to fight against deforestation and poaching. The data-powered system devised by Rainforest Connection and Hitachi uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to deliver rapid insight into what’s happening in vast forest ecosystems, identify potentially harmful behavior, and help communities pinpoint damaging activity before it happens.
The first step in protecting a threatened environment is to understand what’s happening there. That’s not easy in the world’s rainforests, which often extend across millions of acres. Hitachi and Rainforest Connection worked together to co-create and design a solution that collects acoustic data from deep within vast rainforest ecosystems.
Once the expansive soundscape was acquired, the next step was to gain insight into this vast aural environment by separating sounds related to logging activity from natural sounds of animals, insects and vegetation. “We looked into ways that all these great enthusiastic people at Hitachi could get involved in the work that we do,” says Topher White, CEO and founder of Rainforest Connection. “We knew we needed a lot of expertise when it came to designing our next level of cloud architecture, and they were there and ready to help us out. But they also had really great ideas for imaginative ways to make use of the data.”
Hitachi helped Rainforest Connection enrich and add value to its data by supporting the organization in three ways. The first effort focused on collaborating with Rainforest Connection to develop an algorithm that would go beyond simply discovering logging in progress to predict illegal logging before it could commence.
“One of the biggest challenges for us is getting people to be aware of the threats that are in the forest as quickly as possible,” White says. “Hitachi has helped us understand that the sounds of the forest itself can begin to actually alert us to threats before the chainsaw itself even begins. If a person walks in with a gun, or if a truck drives in, the animals themselves change their behavior, creating sounds that are different from what is happening in the forest normally. In very subtle ways, the animals themselves express not just their own emotions, thoughts and feelings, but what's happening around them. It's important for us to use artificial intelligence to pick these things out.”
The second solution was storage. Recordings from acoustic-monitoring stations are so vast that they’re not measured in minutes or hours — but in years. Hitachi devised a solution for managing and storing these terabytes of data with a composable cloud data lake that makes the data available for analysis feeds it to the AI algorithms. This platform-agnostic resource helps Rainforest Connection get the most out of its data while minimizing concerns about networking overhead or security. The data lake is key to Rainforest Connection’s plans to scale up the algorithm for deployments in rainforests across the globe. Hitachi’s solution brings in additional workflows to enhance Rainforest Connection’s ability to predict illegal logging wherever it occurs. With Hitachi services and solutions, including Intelligent Data Operations, Cloud Data Lake Services, and Data Management and Analytics Services from Hitachi Vantara, the organization can optimize data storage and analysis for fast, actionable insights.
Hitachi’s third essential contribution brought Rainforest Connection to the cloud and provided hybrid cloud management. “Hitachi stepped in and actually gave us exactly the type of expertise we needed for building a professional cloud infrastructure — one that could be scaled, that people could rely upon for constant availability, and that allowed us to look forward to the next decade of development for understanding the acoustics and the sound of our planet,” White says.
Rainforest Connection is in the process of installing guardians in new locations in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Romania. The organization is committed to making it easier for local communities to set up the guardians, with the goal of protecting forests all over the world.
Before illegal loggers start their operations, they often send someone scouting in the forest to find the best locations. The algorithm that Hitachi has developed with Rainforest Connection allows the organization to listen to the forest and identify when a scout gets there. Hitachi can help Rainforest Connection detect the scout, not the chainsaw — and send authorities into the area to intercept loggers before the damage is done.
“We can predict with 96% accuracy up to five days ahead of time where those illegal loggers are going to strike,” White says. “When chainsaws are used in a forest, our system is there to detect when that happens. But then we realized that there's a lot of information within that big data that can help you tell when someone is going to fire up a chainsaw hours in advance. These were some of the ideas that Hitachi has brought to the table.”
The ability to predict logging up to five days in advance is a potential game-changer. With that level of advance warning, it is now possible to reduce illegal forestry operations by 35% worldwide.
Hitachi not only has contributed advanced technology to Rainforest Connection but also devised a new approach to pushing that technology to its limit.
“It's difficult to overemphasize the value of the advice we've gotten from Hitachi and the amount of mentorship that we've gotten in building out our cloud architecture,” White says. “Over the past two years, Hitachi has helped us rebuild the way we do things in the cloud. The ability to run everything within a single cluster has allowed us to scale and react much more quickly and take on new technologies and try new things in much more effective ways.”
Hitachi Vantara’s deep insight into the cloud, data management and data analysis has built a backbone onto which the collaboration can grow to take previously unattainable actions against carbon emissions and the destructive aspects of climate change.
“We’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what we can accomplish together,” says Sid Verma, general manager of Hitachi Vantara’s manufacturing practice. “When you add the rich depth of Hitachi’s technologies and solutions to the incredible efforts and ambition of the Rainforest Connection, you are literally ‘powering good.’ The sky is the limit as to how far we can go.”
Rainforest Connection has been using technology to help save the world’s most threatened rainforests on five continents and in dozens of countries, with hundreds of devices collecting data on threats, as well as on nature itself. But the best is yet to come.
“For years, Hitachi has been helping us with exciting new projects,” White says. “They are not only helping us to be better at the core elements of what we do, but also to look at the next ideas.”
This type of partnership can help both sides find new ways to impact change.
“It's common for Hitachi to be true co-creators with partners in all kinds of settings, from commercial and industrial spaces to the world's treasured rainforests," Verma says. "This type of collaboration, driving real innovation, really speaks to Hitachi's values, especially in seeking new challenges and embodying a pioneering spirit.”
Rainforest Connection has ambitious plans in place to continue to learn from the data it is collecting, to unlock continued insights about our planet well into the future.
“Our past achievements are paltry compared to where we want to go,” White says. “We've collected hundreds of years of audio so far, but as we look ahead, we want to gather a million years of audio over the next 10 years. None of that would be possible without the extremely high level of cloud support and expertise that Hitachi has brought to the table.”