Drawing a picture of the Earth's surface

Jan Dirk Wegner uses artificial intelligence to research different aspects of the Earth's surface. In doing so, he hopes to help raise people's quality of life and protect the environment. His work has now earned him a place in the World Economic Forum's Young Scientists community.
Jan Dirk Wegner at Irchel Park in Zurich: “For me, environmental protection and quality of life go hand in hand – they belong together.” (Photo: ETH Zurich / Stefan Weiss)

How is biodiversity changing around the globe? How can chocolate be produced in a more sustainable way? What's the current state of Swiss farmland? Jan Dirk Wegner is looking to get to the bottom of questions like these. His goal is to raise people's quality of life around the world while also protecting the environment. It may sound like a lofty goal, but Wegner isn't going it alone. In order to achieve these aims, he founded the EcoVision Lab at ETH Zurich three years ago.

The lab's team of ten develops computer applications that automatically analyse ecological data sets. This allows researchers to measure parameters such as biodiversity on a global scale. Their analyses are based on remote sensing methods (contactless exploration of the Earth's surface) as well as photogrammetry (extracting information about physical objects from photographs). The data comes from diverse sources, ranging from satellite images to radar and weather information to data from the field. “The goal is to obtain different perspectives on the Earth,” explains Wegner. Artificial intelligence then analyses all the different data sets and automatically generates world maps that show parameters such as biodiversity, agricultural use or deforestation.

Fighting famine with software

“I want my research to move things in the right direction and help our planet take a step forward,” says Wegner. However, he and his team realise that this is hardly possible to achieve from their lab in Zurich. For that reason, they have made EcoVision Lab's software, with all of its functionalities and algorithms, freely available for download and use by public platforms anywhere in the world. “These programmes are highly automated. The results are therefore objective and comparable,” explains Wegner. This means that scientists can obtain meaningful insights on a global level regarding critical issues such as biodiversity.

«Research in and with developing countries offers a range of exciting research questions that have the potential to make a positive impact on the people living there.»      Jan Dirk Wegner

Wegner says that making the software freely available goes beyond the goal of having comparable data sets: “I believe that remote sensing and machine learning have great potential to drive development in impoverished regions. Take farmland as an example – we could use satellite images and artificial intelligence to estimate yields and strike back against famine.”

Inspired by the Dalai Lama

Wegner was first drawn to physics and philosophy as fields of study. This combination was not possible, however, so he needed a plan B. As his father was a geomatics specialist with his own surveying office, he decided to study geodesy and geoinformatics. After completing his studies at Leibniz University Hannover, the German-born Wegner knew that he wanted to go into research. “When I was studying, I wanted more freedom to pursue my own ideas, but it was often just about working through assignments and tests, which wasn't my style,” says Wegner. “What I really wanted to do was be innovative and develop things that are useful to people.”

One of his sources of inspiration? The Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader visited Wegner's hometown of Oldenburg in 1998, and Wegner – then just 16 years old – had the opportunity to meet him and listen to his speech. “He truly impressed me with his balanced yet enthusiastic manner and his commitment to social issues,” recalls Wegner.

After completing his doctoral thesis and backpacking through South America, he decided to come to ETH, where he received a scholarship for postdocs initiated by the university to promote up-and-coming researchers. Since then, he has been part of Konrad Schindler's Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing research group, where he dedicates himself to issues close to his heart.

Just say no to illegal chocolate

Supporting less privileged regions is especially important to Wegner, which is why his EcoVision Lab is part of the ETH+ initiative “ETH for Development” (ETH4D). The programme develops alternative approaches for fighting poverty and trains future leaders who advocate for sustainable development around the globe.

As part of ETH4D, the EcoVision Lab is working together with Zurich-based chocolate producer Barry Callebaut – one of the world's largest – to stop deforestation with the use of artificial intelligence and satellite data. The software developed by Wegner's team uses satellite images to detect where cocoa is being illegally grown in nature reserves. Chocolate producers can then use this data to stop buying beans from these areas and to try to encourage farmers to seek out alternatives to illegal cocoa cultivation. ETH4D provides a network for this important initiative.

«I'm aware that at first glance, artificial intelligence doesn't seem to have much to do with the environment, but this combination truly has great potential.»      Jan Dirk Wegner

“Research in and with developing countries offers a range of exciting research questions that have the potential to make a positive impact on the people living there,” explains Wegner. He says that working with creative minds outside of the Western world has shown him new ideas and ways of thinking. For this reason, he actively involves people from developing countries in his research and provides them with access to the necessary data analysis software.

Success through diversity

Wegner has now been made part of the 2020 class of the World Economic Forum's Young Scientists community, which admits an international group of 25 exceptional scientists from diverse fields every year. Membership in the community is a three-year journey and offers access to a network of movers and shakers from the public and private sectors, the scientific community and civil society.

This network is essential to Wegner, the EcoVision Lab and the research conducted there. “If we want to stop illegal cocoa farming in Ghana, I can't do it alone,” explains Wegner. “I have to rely on the government or NGOs who support this goal.”

Interacting with researchers from other disciplines and with policymakers, businesspeople and representatives from civil society also has an enriching effect, he says: “The more creative minds you involve, the more perspectives you get.” Wegner's research involves combining diverse sets of data in order to get a full picture of the Earth's surface, but for him, diversity and interdisciplinarity are also keys to success in a broader sense.

“I'm aware that at first glance, artificial intelligence doesn't seem to have much to do with the environment, but this combination truly has great potential,” he says. Wegner firmly believes that when different disciplines work together, synergies arise that can be used to find global solutions to improve people's lives while at the same time protecting the environment.