In a world first, Microsoft and the CSIRO have worked with Traditional Owners and Park Rangers in the iconic Kakadu National Park to create technology that draws on Indigenous knowledge, Microsoft artificial intelligence (AI) and science to find solutions to some of the worst environmental management issues facing the area.

The project ‘Healthy Country’ is the first of its kind worldwide and provides an information framework that prioritises Indigenous voices and environmental conservation in creating adaptive co-management solutions.

Philanthropies Lead at Microsoft Australia, Tianji Dickens said the program was born from conversations between herself and CSIRO Principal Research Scientist, Cathy Robinson.

“Cathy and I were speaking over a year ago around the ‘AI for Good with Microsoft Artificial Intelligence’ program and how we can support CSIRO and some of the incredible research they’re doing using AI across the world to address complicated and complex environmental problems,” Ms Dickens said.

Ms Dickens identifies Healthy Country as an example of how the program puts technology into the hands of those working towards overcoming some of the largest climate challenges.

Kakadu National Park hosts a vast network of wetlands that are refuges for many protect Australian native species such as magpie geese – which Traditional Owners consider a key indicator of healthy Country. However, the invasive weed, para grass, has choked out native plants that are an important food source for native animals.

Due to the nature of Kakadu, with extreme weather conditions and dangerous wildlife, it is difficult to collect data and combat this.

Healthy Country has enabled the use of drones, directed by First Nations Rangers, to collect data which is interpreted using a combination of Indigenous knowledge, Microsoft AI and scientific research. This enables a more rapid, effective and safe methodology of combating environmental issues in Kakadu.

Ms Robinson said the effectiveness of the program was seen prominently in the increase of magpie geese in the wetlands over the year.

“When we first went out it was really sad. [Statistics] showed there were very few around, we did cultural burning on just a few patches, then sent the drones up and people out on Country. [Then] we started getting data coming back and seeing the Country change,” she said.

“We could see thousands of magpie geese on the horizon, it was pretty amazing to see those results. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the partnership with Microsoft – its allowed us to do this in a much quicker and ethical way.”

“It’s the use of Indigenous knowledge, next to AI – not one on top of the other. It’s been placed in the hands of Traditional Owners, they choose how they use the information and how they use the technology.”

Ms Dickens recalled a moment on the project that exposed the power behind the program and the changes it was making to community and Country.

“We were filming up in Kakadu on one of the floodplains and the Traditional Owners were there looking for turtles. It used to be full of para grass … but they found a turtle. They hadn’t seen one in that area for 30 years. It was amazing to see their joy and happiness, seeing Country return to its healthy state was incredible,” Ms Dickens said.

This technology is now freely available online through GitHub, a decision made in the hope it could help empower Indigenous communities across the nation and globe.

“If you think about it as a weaving, we weave Indigenous knowledge, scientific knowledge and technology together – if you do that in an appropriate way, with the speed of which AI can do this, we make everyone that bit more agile to deal with some really big changes – whether [it be] the changes to wetlands, feral animals or the longer impacts of climate change,” Ms Robinson said.

“It’s also having the skills, it is great to have the technology but we have to make sure the Rangers, the Traditional Owners and Indigenous groups, not only here but around the world, have the capability to be able to manage and develop the technology. This is just the beginning and it’s going to be so powerful to see that grow,” Ms Dickens added.

Healthy Country was made possible through the partnership of Bininj co-researchers and Indigenous Rangers, CSIRO, Microsoft, Parks Australia, Northern Australia National Environment Science Program (NESP), University of Western Australia (UWA), Charles Darwin University (CDU) and Kakadu National Park.

By Rachael Knowles