AI for good: Tech company and nonprofits track river pollution and deliver clean water

DataRobot offers training and support to help organizations build sustainable solutions for environmental problems.

data environment forest

Image: GettyImages/Christopher Kimmel

Volunteering for a day to help a nonprofit with a tech project is nice. Teaching the organization's team members to build and manage their own tech solutions in the long term is sustainable. That's the approach DataRobot took with its AI for Good program

The artificial intelligence company started the program in July 2019 after working with the Global Water Challenge in 2018. DataRobot team members analyzed more than 500,000 data points to predict future waterpoint breaks in rural communities in Africa. 

Chandler McCann, general manager and data science practice lead for the public sector and head of AI for Good at DataRobot, said the company wanted to offer nonprofits more than a one-time event like a hackathon or a difficult-to-maintain custom-code solution. The goal of the program is to help organizations create meaningful AI systems that are easy to use and self-sustaining. 

"After formalizing the program, we partnered with GlobalGiving to tap their extensive history and expertise in working with networks of NGOs and nonprofits to help us facilitate the design of the application process and vet applicants," he said.

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One project in the first cohort in the AI for Good program focused on water quality. Anacostia Riverkeeper, a group that monitors water quality in the Chesapeake Bay rivershed, built a system to predict E. coli levels in the waterways in one of the first times AI has been used to predict water quality across the whole Chesapeake Bay region.

McCann said the solution was developed collaboratively between the team at DataRobot and the nonprofits.

"DataRobot subject matter experts work closely with AI for Good beneficiaries to evaluate the problem they're trying to solve, ensure it's appropriate for AI, and then begin to train employees and build models to work toward a solution," he said. "Subject matter experts are always on hand to help, guide, and refine the process of getting the models up and running, as well as how the organization can optimize results and expand the deployment."  

DataRobot team members also train the teams who will use the platform to ensure they have the skills they need to maintain the project over time. McCann said the program has been a real proof point that AI can have a positive impact on the world.  

"These are use cases that we as a company may have never experienced if we didn't create this program to help nonprofits and NGOs," he said.  

Nonprofits apply to participate in the program and applications are open now for the second cohort. The application has four sections: Organization summary, project description, implementation and optional supporting information. The deadline to apply is April 30.

 The AI for Good team at DataRobot evaluates applications on three dimensions:

  1. Impact: How will a proposed project impact a community and the people who live in it?  
  2. Framing: Does the project take on a compelling challenge and what data supports the solution?
  3. Readiness: Does the organization have the capacity and support from leadership to make the project successful?

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...