AWS Public Sector Blog

Addressing environmental challenges with the AWS Cloud

frozen river with waterfall in woods

Azavea believes in the power of geospatial technology to improve communities and the planet. Azavea has been exploring the power of this technology to help their clients answer complex questions in a wide range of domains from urban ecosystems, infrastructure planning, and economic development to water, energy, and climate change.

As part of the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI), we invited Jessica Cahail, product manager at Azavea, to share how her organization is using Amazon Web Services (AWS) and open data to develop tools that help users address environmental challenges and deliver knowledge to support decision making.

Enabling tribal communities to access to climate information

Despite being home to nearly 70 percent of the nation’s population, there are relatively few resources readily available to rural, tribal, and hard-to-reach communities as they assess and attempt to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Assimilating climate information into climate resilience plans requires specialized knowledge and expertise as well as data analysis capabilities. While some major cities have sustainability departments that own some of that expertise, most rural communities have municipal employees that address sustainability as only part of their job. To address this challenge, Azavea used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to develop a low-cost climate change adaptation planning tool, Temperate, designed for small- to mid-sized communities that lack dedicated resources for climate change planning and the development of action plans. To use the tool, users are not required to have any scientific expertise or other specific background knowledge. For one of our long-term subscribers, Carol Davis, sustainability manager for the town of Blacksburg, Virginia, Temperate enabled simpler compliance with the reporting requirements of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. According to Carol, Temperate is, “a concrete, step-by-step guided process where before it just felt too big and too overwhelming to try and figure out how to do it.” Armed with data, Carol is now able to include climate vulnerability and risk as talking points in the general community engagement presentation she gives to hundreds in her town throughout the year.

While we first began our efforts to tackle the issue of access to climate data at the national level in 2015, the data were not readily available. Through its AWS Open Data Sponsorship Program, ASDI made applications like Temperate and the underlying Climate API possible by hosting climate change datasets like NEX-GDDP (NASA’s Global Daily Downscaled Projections) and making it available to anyone in the Registry of Open Data on AWS. In addition, access to AWS Cloud Credits for Research allowed us to offset the cost of prototyping our system, and offer an affordable subscription to access Temperate. The application is hosted on AWS and leverages key services including Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) for servers, Amazon Relational Database Services (Amazon RDS) for PostgreSQL for the database, and Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for storing data and map layers.

Most recently, thanks to a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, we began to focus on the climate change adaptation needs of rural, tribal, and hard-to-reach communities. Using California locations to pilot our ideas, we created the capability to visualize the spatial extent of wildfire risk, map air quality, or display the total precipitation days at the county or local level. We continue to enhance the tool to better serve these communities by developing key partnerships. For example, we partnered with Angela Hacker, chief executive officer of Prosper Sustainably, to collect feedback from tribal communities like the Pala Band of Mission Indians in southern California.

“Temperate is an extremely useful tool for Tribes that are developing climate vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans. I’m excited that Pala has had the opportunity to work with Azavea on enhancements that are important to tribal communities,” said Shasta Gaughen, environmental director and Tribal historic preservation officer at Pala Band of Mission Indians.

Leveraging our experience with water

Azavea screen shotsMuch of Azavea’s environmentally focused work is centered around water and we have developed a series of AWS Cloud-based tools to help meet water-related needs and applications. For example, we developed Model My Watershed for the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania. Model My Watershed provides educators, students, local decision makers, and the general public access to scientific data on land use, soil, and water in an understandable format that supports advanced decision making. Open data sets including info from the National Land Cover Database, the National Hydrology Database, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Survey, and other sources contribute to models that analyze how conservation and development decisions impact stormwater runoff and water quality in selected watersheds. This tool is hosted on AWS and leverages key services including Amazon EC2, Amazon RDS, and Amazon S3.

Our long-term relationship with the Philadelphia Water Department resulted in several applications including the Stormwater Credit Explorer, which helps private property owners reduce the amount of runoff coming from their properties, save money on their monthly stormwater bill, and help clean our rivers. For the Morgantown Utility Board (MUB) in Morgantown, West Virginia and its partner Downstream Strategies, we built a decision-support system called Monitor to help evaluate threats, locate hot spots, prioritize response efforts, and develop response strategies to potential chemical spills with the aim of protecting source water protection.

Most recently, thanks to a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we began working on a research project to explore the potential for using deep learning, optical imagery, and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data in combination to delineate flood extent. This project uses Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data hosted on the Registry of Open Data on AWS and aims to produce rapid and accurate flood inundation maps to enable first responders, humanitarian relief organizations, and other decision makers on the ground to effectively route resources and identify highly impacted areas, both during and following extreme weather events. The developed models will also form the foundation for an automated flood extent forecasting system that will support long-range planning and community resilience efforts that can proactively save lives and reduce the potential for human, economic, and environmental impact before a disaster ever occurs. Between storage for the terabytes of data involved in producing the training datasets and the processing power necessary to run the resultant models quickly, this project would not be possible without AWS services.

Investing in sustainable impact projects

We believe Azavea’s commitment to environmental projects is more important now than ever before. We hope to continue to partner with AWS to highlight important data resources that can facilitate widespread use of authoritative data about our environment’s past, present, and future as we all come to terms with the simple truth—we all need to adapt.

Learn more about ASDI and read more ASDI stories.