Conference 2024: The AI Frontier in Environmental Observation

About our 2024 annual conference

Thursday 7th March 2024, online

Recordings and slides now available

Our 2024 conference The AI Frontier in Environmental Observation took place online on 7th March 2024.


UKEOF conference 2024 graphic

About the conference

Recent advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are beginning to revolutionise many human activities, including environmental observation. AI is increasingly being integrated into environmental monitoring systems to enhance the efficiency, accuracy, and scale of data collection and analysis.

These developments are bringing both tremendous opportunities and formidable challenges for society and organisations, including those with environmental monitoring and observation remits and interests that contribute to the UK Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF).

The 4th UKEOF conference considered current applications of AI in the environmental observation sector, encompassing monitoring and modelling, as well as strategies, ethics, biases, risks and wider considerations associated with the application of AI.

Speakers from across the environmental sector provided examples of current initiatives that are harnessing AI in environmental observation, discussing the impact on their work and the lessons learnt.

With keynote talks from Professor David Topping (University of Manchester) and Dr. Francesca Mazzi (Brunel University), our conference aimed to both inform and inspire. Attendees heard about advances and challenges in this field and posed a wide range of questions to the panellists.


Final programme

► Download PDF version of programme

09:30   Welcome and Introduction to UKEOF and the Conference - Dr Ben Ditchburn (UKEOF chair)

09:45 Opening keynote - Overarching Introduction to AI and its Benefits in the Environmental Sector - Prof. David Topping (University of Manchester)

10:15 SESSION 1 - Speakers will provide examples of current initiatives that our harnessing AI in relation to environment monitoring and a variety of different environmental areas and discuss the impact on their work and lessons learnt.

  • AI for Environmental Monitoring - Matt Fry (The Alan Turing Institute / UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)
  • The Use of AI in the Development of Catchment Clustering and the Potential for Future AI Development - James Finnigan & Harriet Housam (Environment Agency)
  • Application of AI to Images and Acoustics - Dr. Jenna Louise Lawson (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)

11:00 Break

11:15 - SESSION 2 - Speakers will provide examples of current initiatives that our harnessing AI in relation to environment modelling and a variety of different environmental areas and discuss the impact on their work and lessons learnt.

  • Getting the Most out of Digital Twin Models - Alberto Arribas (National Oceanography Centre)
  • Farm-scale Decision Support With Digital Twins - Prof. Paul Harris (Rothamsted Research)
  • Combining Existing Modelling and AI Machine Learning - Andy Hodge & Paul Edmunds (Aquascope)

12:00 Lunch

13:15 Welcome back

13:20 Afternoon keynote - AI and SDGs: Governance and use cases - Dr. Francesca Mazzi (Brunel University)

13:50 SESSION 3 - Speakers will provide insight into some of the strategical, ethical and bias issues that may affect AI, and discuss any wider consideration of using AI.

  • The Impacts of ICT and AI - Prof. Adrian Friday (Lancaster University)
  • AI Impact on Observations Strategy for Weather Forecasting - Dr. Jonathan Taylor (Met Office)
  • Alan Turing Institute Environment and Sustainability Grand Challenge: Stakeholder Mapping and Community Strategy - Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag (The Alan Turing Institute)

14:35 Panel discussion - We welcome all our speakers back to the ‘floor’ and open up discussions about what we have heard today, and anything else relevant to using AI in the environmental sector.

15:15 Closing remarks - Dr Ben Ditchburn (UKEOF chair)

15:25 Conference ends

Talks and speakers

Videos of the conference talks are available on the UKCEH YouTube channel.

Playlist (all the conference videos)

David Topping, Professor of The Digital Environment at the University of Manchester

David is a professor in the department of earth and environmental science. Over several years, he has contributed to several atmospheric model frameworks, though now works more broadly at the environmental data science and policy interface. He currently acts as a fellow for the Alan Turing Institute, is deputy director of NERCs Digital Solutions programme, a member of NERCs scientific committee and is ‘e-research’ lead for the University.

Matt Fry, Senior Research Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute and Environmental Informatics Manager at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Matt leads a group of scientists, data managers, analysts and software developers working on projects to deliver UKCEH science and data to users. Increasingly data management and analysis includes applications of AI methods. At the Alan Turing Institute Matt is leading projects on Autonomous Systems for Automated Biodiversity Monitoring, development of applications for sensor network optimisation, and digital twins.

James Finnigan, Senior Evidence Advisor

Harriet Housam, Data and Information Technical Specialist

Both at the Environment Agency, working with Defra on the Natural Capital Ecosystem Assessment

James Finigan and and Harriet Housam work in the The Environement Agency’s Strategic Evidence Design & Assessment team, designing and implementing the EA’s future large scale, data, monitoring and evidence requirements.

Before joining the EA as a groundwater resource technical specialist, James was a hydrogeologist in the UK and Australia. After joining Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office, he became a senior advisor in the Environement Agency in 2018.

Harriet is a Data and Information Technical Specialist currently specialising in data management and analysis for the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment programme.

Jenna Louise Lawson, Ecological Network Coordinator at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Jenna is a biodiversity scientist specialising in the use of technology, such as acosutics, cameras and robotics, to monitor and conserve biodiversity. Jenna completed her PhD at Imperial College London in 2021 where she used bioacoustics and machine learning to monitor the Geoffory's spider monkey and investigate the effects of palm and teak plantations on biodiversity. She then spent two years working for the Robotics department at EPFL in Switzerland and Imperial College London where she used robotics and acoustics to monitor freshwater and forested ecosystems across Europe. At UKCEH Jenna manages an international network of automated biodiversity monitoring equipment being used to understand the effects of anthropogenic change within tropical ecosystems and the impacts of sustainable farming on biodiversity in the UK.

Alberto Arribas Herranz, Head of Ocean Informatics at National Oceanography Centre

Alberto Arribas is the Head of Ocean Informatics at the UK National Oceanography Centre (NOC). Alberto holds a PhD in Climate Modelling (UCM, Spain) and a Diploma in Strategy and Innovation (Univ. Oxford, UK). He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Reading Atmospheric Science department. Prior to NOC, Alberto worked at Microsoft as the Europe Lead for Sustainability Science and established Microsoft’s Climate Research Initiative. At the UK Met Office, Alberto led R&D for near-term climate prediction and founded the Informatics Lab, an innovation department where he led several research projects with top teams in the Technology industry (DeepMind, Microsoft AI for Earth, AWS). His research has been published in over fifty papers and received various awards. He is a member of the European Environment Agency (EEA) Scientific Committee; Member of the UK Natural Environment Research Council Digital Environment Steering Committee; Expert reviewer for the UK Parliament Office for Science and Technology; Expert Reviewer for the European Commission in the area of Future and Emerging Technologies.

Paul Harris, Principal Research Scientist at Rothamsted Research

Paul Harris has been the project lead for the North Wyke Farm Platform, National Bioscience Research Infrastructure since 2017. His research interests include statistical and mathematical model developed and applied to a wide range of processes.

Paul's presentation will describe the methodological progress in the creation of three demonstrator farm Digital Twins informed by the open and globally unique datasets of three instrumented research farms at Rothamsted Research’s campus in Devon UK. Conveniently, the same experimental site has a rich history of agroecosystem model application and development, including process-based hybrids with AI. This dual aspect enables the research farms to be ideally suited to their Digital Twin development for eventual transference of developed concepts and digital structures to real, on-farm Digital Twins.

Andy Hodge, Chief Executive Officer at Aquascope

Aquascope is highly innovative company that use an advanced process-based river basin model, supported by AI Machine Learning, sensor and sampling ground truthing and satellite EO space truthing to build digital river basins. The approach incorporates all aspects of a river basin, including historical data, to produce a live, SaaS platform where clients can access high quality and verifiable data for business planning, impact analysis, and pollution attribution. 

Francesca Mazzi, Lecturer in AI, Innovation and Law at Brunel University

Dr Francesca Mazzi holds a position as a lecturer in AI, innovation and law at Brunel University London. Previously, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, leading the project “AI for SDGs”. She has a Ph.D. on patent and AI in the pharmaceutical sector. She edited the volume “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence for the Sustainable Development Goals” with Professor Luciano Floridi.

Dr Mazzi's presentation will delve into the connection between AI and SDGs, examining their intersections and defining two basic approaches. Namely, assessing the sustainability of AI itself, and evaluating how AI might influence sustainability goals. The discussion will then shift to the governance challenges surrounding AI, debating the integration of sustainability considerations into AI regulations, with reference to the AI Act. Lastly, the presentation will explore use cases that directly or indirectly affect SDGs, emphasising the complexities of impact assessment in this context.

Adrian Friday, Professor of Computing and Sustainability at Lancaster University

Adrian Friday is Professor of Computing and Sustainability at Lancaster University, UK. His work focuses on the energy and environmental impacts of ICT and digital systems. Prof. Friday's past work in this area has included understanding energy use in the home, thermal comfort, sustainable food shopping; and understanding last-mile logistics to promote sustainability.

In Prof. Friday's talk he will discuss the magnitude of the challenge facing us: Why he believes technology is important in addressing this; where the environmental impacts of ICT come from, and how this may relate to the growth of AI. He will conclude with some closing discussion on what to consider to ensure that ongoing and future work on the environment is mindful of the growing and possible unintended impacts due to embedding AI and ICT in its methods.

Jonathan Taylor, Principal Fellow - Observations at the Met Office

Jonathan Taylor is responsible for setting the long term observations strategy for the Met Office that will enable it to deliver its aspirations to advance weather forecasting and improve our understanding and monitoring of climate science. This presentation will explore the impacts and opportunities that AI presents for operational weather forecasting. Weather forecasting requires a detailed knowledge of the environment across the globe and observations are a fundamental input. AI combined with the growth of the Internet of Things offers huge opportunities in utilising complex observations and the potential to link the weather forecasts to their impacts on society.

Cassandra Gould van Praag, Senior Research Community Manager at the Alan Turing Institute

Cass is the Senior Community Manager for the Environment and Sustainability Grand Challenge, and part of the Research Community Management team within the Tools, Practices and Systems Research Programme. She works with the E&S Community to support engagement with best practices for reproducibility, interoperability and impact. She also scaffolds the growth of connections between members, to facilitate knowledge exchange, community-generated outputs and shaping of the Environment and Sustainability ecosystem. Prior to Turing, Cass was the Community Engagement Coordinator at the University of Oxford Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN, 2020-2023), where She provided training, advice, on open science best practice, and opportunities to contribute to infrastructure development, and lead oversite of technical planning of new computational infrastructure. Cass’ has a PhD in Informatics (2014) and conducted postdoctoral research in Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (2018-2020) and the University of Sussex (2014-2018).

Cass's talk will be on the Community management strategy and activity of the Alan Turing Institute Environment and Sustainability Grand Challenge. This strategy is designed to scaffold engagement with this programme of work, and between community members. This scaffolding is the mechanism by which we can bring varied (and under-represented) researchers into conversation to distil and communicate best practices, and foster conversation about the complex spaces we work in, while directing and responding to those challenges. She will propose that resourcing of formal management of a community, and community-centred collaboration, are essential to equitable and impactful AI in the environmental observation sector.

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The conference graphics incorporate images sourced from including some that require attribution. We thereby specifically acknowledge the work of Antony Caravaggi, Shyamal, Andrew A. Farke and Chris Huh and we are indebted to all contributors to Graphics by Andrew Sier, UKCEH.