Summary

The Solution

New technologies like AI and satellite imagery are creating new opportunities for conservation easement stewards to reduce manual work and human error while improving conservation and compliance management workflows.

Natural Resources Conservancy (NRC) partnered with Makepath to create Orbo, a tool to monitor conservation easements. 

Orbo uses Planet satellite imagery and AI to help make sure that only permitted uses are occurring and reduces manual workflows in easement monitoring.

With Orbo, you can set the area you want to monitor and upload the easement documents. The system automatically extracts the easement restrictions and other key information from your documents, helps you manage reporting and other processes, and alerts you to potential violations.

The Challenges

Conservation easements are a mechanism to safeguard important land for future generations while providing valuable tax benefits. 

The landowner agrees to limit certain uses of their land, such as development or logging, to protect its natural or cultural values.  In other words, some activities and enhancements are permitted, while others are not.

Monitoring conservation easements in person is time-consuming, painstaking, and expensive. Every easement is different, which makes compliance difficult. 

Landowners need cost-effective ways to monitor their properties. Also, new easements are typically created at the end of the tax year in a short window of time, making it difficult to scale. Both processes – creating easements and monitoring easements – require manual efforts which can introduce error and risk.

You can sign up for the Orbo Waitlist here.

In this case study, we will dive into the user-centric design process we utilized to decide what to build and how to build it.

User-Centric Design – User First, Technology Second

It’s seductive to fall into the trap of putting technology first, especially when technology is advancing so fast and offers so many new functionalities and opportunities.

The challenge with Orbo was to apply cutting-edge technology in a way that stakeholders would actually interact with it. This depends on their view of the world, their goals, their context, their workflows, their devices, and other factors.

We dove deep to understand the user, starting with a blank slate. This meant discarding any preconceived notions we may have had of what a satellite-based monitoring system should look like.

The Orbo + Makepath Partnership

The NRC and Makepath teams were both at Planet Explore 2023 in Washington D.C., where people from around the world converged to discuss the latest advances in satellite imagery.

Among them was Trevor Moore, Director of Conservation Stewardship for NRC: “We were in the office until 1 AM every night between Christmas and New Year’s last year,” he shared during the event .

“We had to manually prepare and send out annual reports for all the projects we were monitoring.”.

There had to be a better way–how could we use state-of-the-art  technology in a user-friendly way to make monitoring land as seamless as using a doorbell camera in your home?

Where to Start?

NRC was monitoring over 150 different conservation sites “by eye,” with a person having the unenviable task of looking through all the images on a periodic basis. 

The team then had to sit down and manually compile information from these images and various other sources into formal reports.

Additionally, new easements were being added to the queue monthly, which meant ingesting new data that may or may not be formatted the way NRC preferred.

NRC chose Makepath as a partner to build Orbo, a scalable, AI-powered system to monitor land at scale, while making sure the appropriate stakeholders are always up to date as to what’s happening in the easements they care about.

Orbo Systems and Makepath took a user-centric design approach to the problem. 

From the beginning, Trevor had a clear vision for the process: “We wanted to make sure that the technology served the user and solved their pain, avoiding using technology for its own sake.”

The NRC team knew that every easement has its own peculiarities and rules. The Orbo platform needed to keep track of rules for individual areas of interest. The platform also had to make reporting significantly easier.

Under the hood, the NRC team wanted to leverage satellite imagery from Planet, cutting-edge AI, and computer vision technology to address what they knew to be a critical need for conservation organizations.

Before Satellites: On-the-Ground Monitoring

Image generated by OpenAI’s DALL·E. (2024).

Historically, conservation easement monitoring has presented significant challenges for land trusts and similar organizations. 

On-the-ground monitoring used to be the only option, and each property had to be inspected at least once per year. This meant extensive travel and time commitment, especially for remote or difficult-to-access locations.

These inspections were often performed in all-terrain vehicles, low-flying aircraft, and/or boats. The mission was to determine property boundaries, physically mark them, and address issues such as encroachments and trespassing. Photos were sometimes taken by daredevils hanging out of the window of a single-engine Cessna.

In some cases, land could not be placed under a conservation easement, simply because monitoring would have been too complicated and expensive.

While the need for on-the-ground monitoring will never be completely eliminated, the rise of commercially available Earth Observation (EO) data is a game changer for these organizations and will provide solutions to help them better protect the land for which they are responsible.

New Technologies – New Challenges

Now that EO data has become available, the question is: How do you use EO data effectively

Satellite images have historically been difficult to obtain, and the process of matching them up to land boundaries over a consistent timeline required technical staff trained in GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

The First Crack at a Solution: Manual Satellite-Based Monitoring

Image generated by OpenAI’s DALL·E. (2024).

Monitoring conservation easements with satellite imagery has helped NRC cut down on travel time and cost. But it still involves several manual steps for the team: 

First, organizations like NRC subscribe to a service to access the necessary imagery, which has historically been infrequent and unreliable (although that is rapidly changing).

A team member manually compares those images, looking for changes on the property since the last review. 

If the team flags any potential changes during this process, they need to check the perceived change against the easement’s rules, often digging through documents in file boxes and digital archives. All of these findings then need to be shared and discussed with landowners and other stakeholders. 

All of this work culminates at the end of the year when year-end compliance reports are due for each easement. The NRC team then needs to download the relevant imagery and combine it with summaries of all events and interactions associated with each property.

This manual process, while more efficient than solely on-the-ground monitoring, still requires significant manual efforts, attention to detail, and coordination.

Outgrowing the Manual Process

Orbo was created out of necessity. As the NRC portfolio expanded, managing it with these manual processes became increasingly complex. 

“It was feasible, if strained, to handle 20 projects. But once we had to oversee over 150 projects, the team was overwhelmed” shared Robert Gregory, Executive Director and Founder at NRC. 

“Reporting season meant long hours and late nights. To sustain growth, we faced the need to hire additional staff,” added Daniel Williams, Director of Business Development at NRC.

The NRC Team shares a moment at a staff retreat during a visit to a conservation easement near Key Largo, FL.

Figuring out What to Build – Identifying User Needs

NRC and Makepath started by engaging in a Discovery Package, where both teams focused on crystallizing the user’s needs. 

Exactly who was the user? What specific actions did they want to take in the system? What data was available to deliver on these needs?

Several groups of users interact with conservation easements, including land trusts, people living on easements, conservation organizations, and environmental agencies. 

The first step was to define a primary champion user persona.

Based on NRC’s insights and experience in the market, NRC and Makepath settled on land managers who are responsible for monitoring and managing conservation easements on behalf of land owners such as land trusts or individuals. 

The next step was to gather insights from these users. This was done through individual user interviews and questionnaires over several weeks. 

It was an intensive process that confirmed several of the initial hypotheses and assumptions but also added several crucial details and insights. 

Key challenges that we identified for Orbo’s primary users during this phase include:

  • Logistical challenges and high cost for on-the-ground monitoring
  • Difficulty in accessing remote or difficult terrains
  • Need for accurate and timely data about the status of easement properties
  • Need for organizing all relevant data in a central location
  • Need for finding and accessing data quickly to generate reports and support audits

Developing Orbo: A User-Centric Approach

Long before Makepath’s engineers started writing the first line of code for Orbo, we initiated an iterative design process through Makepath’s Design Package. 

Based on the insights gathered from users during the Discovery Phase, we developed initial design concepts and prototypes. These were then tested and reviewed with users to gather feedback and refine the product ideas.

While Orbo uses a lot of geospatial data, user input made it clear to us that Orbo is not a map-based application

Instead, everything is centered around the unique characteristics and events that happen on easement properties and how users interact with this data.

The design of Orbo was guided by the insight that users are not interested in maps or satellite images per se.

They are interested in the information contained in these images and how they can use this information to make decisions in their daily property management tasks.

The central unit of Orbo is the conservation easement, not the satellite image. 

This is obvious in hindsight, but it was not so in the early stages of the project.

Multiple rounds of reviews and improvements led to an intuitive design centered around the users and their concrete, daily tasks. This design process resulted in a set of wireframes and design mockups together with a design documentation that outlined the core concepts and key features of Orbo.

Below are some of the early wireframes and concepts that we developed during the Orbo development process.

Early Easement Detail View Wireframe

Early Wireframe for the Issue Management Workflow

The Makepath team then started implementing these designs in small, iterative sprints. At the end of each sprint, Orbo’s test users were able to use the application for more and more tasks in their daily workflows. We incorporated the feedback they provided directly into the next sprint.

Making features available to users as soon as possible and interfacing with users directly brought several key insights that shaped the development of Orbo:

For each easement, the many different kinds of data that users need in their daily work are organized in a central timeline. This timeline is fully searchable and combines manual entries from users with entries generated by automated systems, such as change detection alerts for potential violations of easement rules.

Central Timeline

  • An automated information extraction system reads and interprets conservation easement documents to extract relevant details such as the acreage and locations of the properties and the rules and restrictions that apply to each property. This information is oftentimes only available in scanned PDFs or other non-machine-readable formats. Orbo’s information extraction system uses a combination of text and image processing AI systems to make this data accessible and searchable.
  • Users can choose from several guided workflows for common tasks such as generating annual reports or working through easement compliance violations with land owners. Behind the scenes, these workflows use all the data available in Orbo and leverage state-of-the-art AI technology to identify and summarize the right information automatically.

Automated Report Generation Workflow

  • An automated computer vision system monitors satellite images for changes in the properties. This system generates alerts for potential violations of easement rules, such as new structures or roads. Users can review these alerts and decide how to act on them, using notes and other collaborative features directly in Orbo.

Automated Monitoring

Implementation and Impact – What’s Different with Orbo

With Orbo, NRC has streamlined the land monitoring process, substantially reducing the frequency of new hires—a crucial change for non-profits where funding is unpredictable and operational costs, particularly staff salaries and benefits, must be tightly controlled.

“The collaborative aspect has been a surprise. Initially this was going to be a tool for one person, the person responsible for the monitoring of the easement. Now it has become the center of how we operate our organization,” said Abby Hoffman, Director of Operations at NRC.

“Our collaboration has become easier, we have streamlined our workflows. We no longer have information hidden in emails, shared folders, people’s personal devices, and sometimes even paper files (which had to be scanned and uploaded),” she added.

Trevor also shared: “Aggregating everything into one report was laborious and time-consuming. Now with Orbo, report generation feels smooth and painless

“To have all interaction with landowners, other orgs, our team members, and other stakeholders all ready to go in one place has saved us a lot of time and hassle,” he concluded.

What’s Next – Future Developments and Enhancements

“We are just getting started. We have begun onboarding other organizations that need to monitor land. We are excited about working closely with early users to gain further insights and refine the product,” shared Trevor.

Some planned future improvements include:

  • Company-Wide Analytics: Collated data from projects across each portfolio will offer deeper insights into the conservation values each organization protects.
  • Task Lists: Administrators will be able to manage projects more effectively by creating custom tasks and assigning them to users.
  • Inter-Organizational Alerts: In some cases, multiple organizations are responsible for the same easement. We will empower multiple organizations to access the same project so that data is shared, and that collaboration across organizations is as easy as possible.
  • Direct Messaging: This will keep all communications on the platform, eliminating the need to switch to email or text.
  • Smarter Change Detection: We will enhance our change detection technology to provide more detailed insights into the nature of changes and their implications for the restricted uses of each property.

“I feel like we are constantly in a Discovery Package,” shared Trevor. “We are always learning, and we are continuously growing our understanding of the problem and how to solve it,” he added.

“Makepath is proud to be a partner in developing Orbo. We appreciate the NRC team’s commitment to user-centric design, and their vision in turning their vision into a working product,” said Pablo Fuentes, Co-Founder and Principal at Makepath.

If you are interested in smarter remote land monitoring, you can sign up for the Orbo Waitlist here.

If you are interested in developing a custom user-centric geospatial application, you can contact Makepath here.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Trevor Moore, the NRC/Orbo team, Chris Wilson at Planet, and the Makepath team for reading versions of this Case Study and contributing to making it better.