AI Expert Joins Chesapeake Conservancy's Conservation Innovation Center

by | Oct 29, 2019

Annapolis, Md. “ Kumar Mainali, an expert in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), has joined Chesapeake Conservancy's Conservation Innovation Center's technology team. The position is funded by a grant from the Grayce B. Kerr Fund. Mainali, a geospatial data scientist, holds a Ph.D. in ecology and M.S. in statistics, both from the University of Texas at Austin. He then joined the University of Maryland's department of biology as a postdoctoral associate where he was advised by Bill Fagan, professor and chair of the department. His research career includes 31 projects in conservation biology, ecology, biogeography, climate change, human microbiome, animal behavior, and remote sensing. At Chesapeake Conservancy, his focus will be on accelerating the science behind our precision conservation data.

I am thrilled to join the Conservation Innovation Center's team. I am passionate about working on burning issues of conservation and environment. These are by far the most rewarding and where AI holds great promise to accelerate our impact, said Mainali.

AI for the Bay As a Model for the Nation

Kumar hit the ground running and is already working on a broad range of projects. He is applying the most powerful algorithms of artificial intelligence toward solving important environmental problems in the Chesapeake and beyond, said Chesapeake Conservancy Director of Conservation Technology Jeffrey Allenby. We are very grateful to Grayce B. Kerr Fund for funding this position, which will magnify the power of our data through the use of deep learning.

It is quite rare for a nonprofit to have an AI expert in-house and this investment is an indication of how the Conservation Innovation Center is emerging as a powerhouse in data-driven conservation across the country. Thank you to the Grayce B. Kerr Fund for believing in our innovative work in precision conservation and taking our efforts to the next level, said Chesapeake Conservancy President & CEO Joel Dunn. Our goal is to arm all organizations–here in the Chesapeake and beyond–with access to the most accurate data available. Information is power, and the smallest nonprofits or local governments will have the same access to this information as those that are more well-funded. This is the democratization of data, and it will empower precision conservation.

One of the first projects Mainali will tackle uses AI to identify the land cover type of every square meter of the Chesapeake Bay. Through machine learning, he is teaching the computer to detect a forest, shrub, or a tree over a sidewalk or a building at a fine spatial scale and with very high accuracy. Mainali is also conducting an analysis of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, crunching time series data of water quality from various locations.

Colorado Calls on CIC's Expertise

Mainali's expertise is already being shared outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including a project concerning water flow management in Colorado in an area where water is a scarce resource. To help manage the demands of water for agriculture and wildlife, Mainali wrote algorithms that optimize the water flow and release from reservoirs by various agencies. These algorithms will be used for informed decision making about sharing the responsibility of water release from multiple reservoirs on a daily basis.

Chesapeake Conservancy is a small but mighty nonprofit that has proven that anyone with a big idea can change the world. Their approach to data driven conservation in the Chesapeake has caught global attention as their model has the potential to be replicated worldwide, said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft's chief environmental officer. We look forward to seeing where the power of AI takes their work next.


Chesapeake Conservancy's mission is to conserve and restore the natural and cultural resources of the Chesapeake Bay watershed for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. We empower the conservation community with access to the latest data and technology. As principal partner for the National Park Service on the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, we helped create 153 new public access sites and permanently protect some of the Bay's special places like Werowocomoco, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, and Fort Monroe National Monument.


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