Depending on how seriously you take the horoscope in your local paper, you may be dubious of the claim that a new product called ARIES can help predict the future. However, the newly-developed Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services (ARIES) technology is based on hard science that has much more in common with R2D2 than the fortune-teller at the local carnival – and its predictions have a much higher accuracy rate.
ARIES is poised to revolutionize the way governments, businesses and communities think about and manage their local environments, ensuring that important ecosystem services – such as fresh water, a stable climate and an ample food supply – will continue to provide for us all.
Estimating the Value of Ecosystems
ARIES is a web-accessible technology that was created by an international consortium of scientists and software developers from the University of Vermont (UVM), Earth Economics and Conservation International (CI). The tool is used to map the ecosystem services of a particular region and inform development and conservation decisions in the area.
ARIES creates maps which show the connections between the regions that provide ecosystem services (such as freshwater supply) and the regions that benefit from these provisions (like communities reliant on the water supply). It also identifies ecosystem service "sinks": areas where the resource benefits are being lost, such as in a polluted waterway.
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When these maps are combined, ARIES indicates where the high and low concentrations of these benefits are, revealing which areas are most critically important to protect in order to preserve these benefits.
How It Works
Like many of CI’s new conservation technology tools, such as OSIRIS or IBAT, ARIES was designed to be used by anyone, regardless of training or technological expertise. The tool is currently being used in preliminary studies, and the fully functional portal will be released in the spring of 2010.
ARIES has three levels of engagement, which allow it to appeal to a wide range of users with diverse needs. The first, most basic level allows online users to view maps made from existing data. Involvement at the second level is more complex, allowing users to input additional information that will supplement the data already available. At the third level, users can create customized models that reflect regional knowledge of a particular ecosystem service, such as in Madagascar, where farmers sometimes use forests to hide cattle in order to prevent theft by adolescents trying to prove their manhood. Incorporating local knowledge of ecosystem use ensures greater map accuracy.
A Tool for the Future
So where does artificial intelligence come in? In simple terms, the more ARIES is used, the smarter it gets. As the user adds more accurate information and region-specific knowledge to the database, it begins to recognize patterns in the data, build the best possible models for the situation and allow better assessment of ecosystem services in regions which may have less concrete data available.
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This artificial intelligence feature is what allows ARIES to stand out in the rapidly developing field of ecosystem services technology. ARIES users can enter the realm of probability, exploring the possible outcomes of effects like policy change, landscape development and climate change on ecosystem benefits. In this way, ARIES can be a valuable guide to policymakers, businesses, nonprofit organizations, local communities and ordinary citizens.
Promising Case Studies
Although ARIES won’t be available to the public until next year, the tool has already been breaking ground in the field.
In October 2008, the ARIES team (comprised of CI and UVM scientists) conducted a three-day workshop in Antananarivo, Madagascar with more than 35 local representatives from international and local conservation and development organizations, as well as several government officials. The workshop served as a stakeholder’s introduction to the tool that has paved the way for the ongoing case study in Madagascar, using ARIES to analyze the connections between freshwater provision, climate mitigation and biodiversity.
ARIES reached a new audience last month, when Mexico’s Comisión Nacional Forestal (National Forestry Commission) invited ARIES scientists to the Expo Forestal 2009 conference in Mexico City to present the technology in front of the wide range of stakeholders attending the event. The Mexican government’s support will be instrumental in the development of freshwater payments for ecosystem services projects in Veracruz State and beyond. A regional workshop is in the works for June 2010.
As cutting-edge technologies like ARIES become more widely used, CI will continue to fulfill its role as a trusted advisor to communities, governments and businesses, using science to help societies pursue development without sacrificing the benefits that nature provides.
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