AWS Public Sector Blog

Promoting biodiversity conservation with open data and the cloud

September 8, 2021: Amazon Elasticsearch Service has been renamed to Amazon OpenSearch Service. See details.

NatureServe has been the leading source for biodiversity data in the Western Hemisphere for nearly 50 years. Working with a network of 100 biodiversity information centers and 1,000 conservation scientists, NatureServe identifies and understands the most important places to prevent species extinction and ecosystem loss. They provide land use decision-makers in federal and state agencies, industry, academics, and nonprofits with information to meet both regulatory and biodiversity conservation needs.  

As part of the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI), we invited Lori Scott, chief information officer (CIO) at NatureServe, and Sean O’Brien, president and chief executive officer (CEO) at NatureServe, to share how their organization is using Amazon Web Services (AWS) and open data to promote biodiversity conservation.

The need for precise species distribution data

Economic development places demands on natural resources to support activities such as energy generation, transportation infrastructure, mineral extraction, real estate development, and more. For the government to create compliance and environmental safeguards to protect sensitive species, they require sound scientific evidence about the location, conservation status, and threats to these plants, animals, and habitats. Too often, state and federal wildlife authorities use coarse, low-precision range maps when determining where sensitive species occur, which can overpredict species habitats, and cause unnecessary conflict. For example, range data for threatened and endangered species available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is often provided at the county level. This lack of precise species distribution information contributes to the cost of project planning and permitting and can undermine environmental restoration or mitigation efforts.

NatureServe and its network collect and maintain data on the conservation status and location of threatened and endangered species, developed over decades of field data collection. But these data have been underutilized in environmental review decision-making processes due to challenges surrounding awareness, access, and reliable or seamless integration with other systems.

To address these challenges, we developed an online spatially explicit tool on Amazon Web Services (AWS)—NatureServe’s Environmental Review Tool. The tool can be customized for each jurisdiction’s regulatory environment to inform land use decisions from the earliest stages of planning to the end of a project’s lifecycle. The tool helps guide proactive conservation decisions, advises on compliance with environmental regulations, and considers the impact that plans for economic development may have on biodiversity.

NatureServe Environmental Review Tool powered by AWS

To build a solution that scales, delivers, and is easily replicated for each state, we turned to AWS. We use Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to host servers for production, staging, and development. We also use Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) services so production environments remain separate from development and staging environments. For the Environmental Review Tools that receive the highest usage, we utilize Elastic Load Balancing to distribute incoming application traffic across multiple Amazon EC2 instances.

Over the past five years, we have deployed this solution to more than 10 states in the US that provide environmental review for over 35,000 projects each year and serve hundreds of thousands of exploratory sessions annually. Using the NatureServe Environmental Review Tool, state natural resource agencies can help ensure sustainable development in real estate, transportation, energy, agriculture, and other uses by reducing harm to endangered species and habitats while saving thousands of hours of staff time.

In 2020, we released a new version of NatureServe Explorer, our free, searchable public database that provides authoritative conservation information on more than 100,000 plants, animals, and ecosystems in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Powered by AWS, Explorer uses Amazon Elasticsearch Service (Amazon ES) to provide secure and scalable search APIs, Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for data storage, and Amazon EC2 for server hosting. Using a data pipeline built with the Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) and Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS), we also automated data publishing from our proprietary biodiversity database to near real-time. Where the old NatureServe Explorer would be refreshed only once per year, the new solution provides users on-demand updates whenever our scientists have a new batch of data to share with the world.

Working backwards to scale impactful solutions for conservation

We are partnering with the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) (an AWS Cloud Innovation Center) to tackle the challenge of scaling these two existing solutions—NatureServe Explorer and the Environmental Review Tool—into a nationwide online assessment platform to streamline environmental risk assessment. The platform will promote better planning for biodiversity across the country. This summer, NatureServe software developers are collaborating with the AWS DxHub interns to prototype the solution using AWS technologies to provide industry and regulatory users with a one-stop data and analytics shop for multi-jurisdiction conservation assessment and land use projects.

Using AWS, NatureServe puts critical information about biodiversity in the hands of both industry and the public sector, facilitating a public-private partnership that secures positive outcomes for those managing environmental regulations, as well as for the sensitive species and ecosystems these regulations are designed to protect. The technology driving NatureServe Explorer and the Environmental Review Tool helps facilitate access to data that is essential to building a more sustainable future for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Learn more about NatureServe.

Learn about the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative, its open data catalog, and opportunities to engage.

The content and opinions in this post are those of the third-party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

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Lori Scott

Lori Scott

Lori Scott serves as NatureServe's chief information officer (CIO) and vice president for products. She oversees NatureServe’s technology team, with a portfolio that includes software product development and user support for mission critical enterprise information management and delivery systems. Since joining NatureServe in 2000, Lori has led the successful transformation of the organization’s core biodiversity data platform Biotics 5 and its public information delivery platform NatureServe Explorer. Lori’s team supports NatureServe’s Network of Natural Heritage Programs with implementation of sophisticated online tools to automate environmental review and to manage and direct treatment for invasive species in their jurisdictions. Her team was recognized with the IDG CIO 100 Award in 2016 and the Computerworld Premier 100 Technology Leaders Award in 2017.

Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien

Sean O'Brien is the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of NatureServe. He brings more than 20 years of expertise in nonprofit leadership. For nearly 10 years, he served as the executive vice president and chief operating officer at James Madison’s Montpelier where he directed the organization’s operations with a focus on fundraising, budget management, and strategic planning. Sean also worked to protect the over 2,600 acres of fields and forests at Montpelier, including 200 acres of old growth forest. He is a graduate from the University of Virginia with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, and holds a Ph.D. from the same institution in environmental sciences with a focus on tropical forest ecology. He was awarded a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship in Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Center for Energy and Environmental Studies.