Technology for Conservation
Conservation has, traditionally, been one to shy away from the use of emerging technologies and industry partnerships. Our sector often relies on human resources and has a track record of being insular. But the challenges that conservation faces should push us all to reach out for new ideas and ways of doing. Several projects prove the success of embracing new technologies and can be an example of how to move forward. This new path can help us secure the future of the planet.
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In my eyes, there are four primary challenges that stand in the way of achieving more in conservation. These challenges revolve around data, time, inclusivity, and funding.
Our sector spans every corner of the planet. From the mountain tops to the oceans, conservationists observe, analyze and report on the state of our world. Understanding land change, species occurrence and ecosystem health, however, requires vast amounts of data to be collected. This data must then be analyzed, reported on and shared before action can take place. While GIS and field cameras have greatly improved the speed at which we collect data, they are not perfect solutions. Field cameras often store endless numbers of irrelevant photographs; thousands of pictures of grass swaying in the wind serves no purpose in the search for an illusive species. While technology has improved our ability to collect more data rapidly, improvements can still be made to decrease the time spent sorting through this data.
The issue of data brings me to the next challenge: time. Conservation is a time sensitive sector - a species does not wait for a convenient time to become critically endangered. Unfortunately, our sector is limited by human resources. There are only so many hours in a day that a human can put towards conservation work. In addition, conservation is impacted by seasonality. Migratory species and plants that bloom in specific months dictate when data collection and other conservation work can occur in a particular place. I'm sure many grad students can attest to the challenges that seasonality brings to their research.
Closely linked to this issue is the insular nature of conservation. As many millennial conservationists have experienced, beginning a career in this sector is a financial struggle. Almost all conservation jobs require a Bachelor's degree and many require graduate degrees. After graduating, new professionals must accept unpaid or low-paying internships to gain enough experience to qualify for higher paid positions. To paint a clearer picture, the following is my personal experience with conservation-related jobs and education:
Unpaid volunteer habitat restoration work as a high school & undergraduate student
Unpaid student researcher at San Francisco Zoo
Paid roughly $3,000 for a field course to learn monitoring techniques (thanks dad)
Paid for 4 years at San Francisco State University (thanks dad)
Earned a total of $600 for 7 weeks of raptor migration work
Earned $3,000 total for 6 months of a california condor internship
Earned $15/hour for a part-time, 6 month habitat restoration internship in the SF Bay Area
Paid for Oxford MSc (thanks dad)
Unpaid volunteer work with World Wildlife Fund
Currently earn $2200 / month for a 10 month Climate Corps fellowship ($1100 of which is spent on rent/utilities)
Will earn $2400 / month for PhD stipend at UC Santa Cruz (~$1800 of which will be spent on rent/utilities)
I am in a situation that enables me to take on this journey towards a career that I truly care about. But many young, passionate people are unable to join this field due to financial constraints. But technology can help this. It is no secret that jobs in Silicon Valley and the tech industry more broadly pay much higher salaries. When the conservation sector begins to establish more partnerships with industry, it opens the door to more conservationists. No longer will people need to decide between helping preserve nature and earning a livable income. This greater integration of other jobs with environmental preservation depends on the conservation sector extending a hand over industry lines and shifting our thinking of who a conservationist is.
The final challenge I'll write about today is the problem of funding. Conservation is underfunded by billions of dollars, yet enough capital exists in the world to fulfill project needs. Like our problems with insularity, the conservation financial crisis can be solved when we shift our thinking. While most conservation work does not generate a profit as we currently know it, the preservation of ecosystem services and keystone species avoids spending money on potential issues, such as pollination and natural flood control. When we learn to frame our outputs as investable gains, we can attract new income to finance our important work. We should look to businesses and the tech industry to learn from their financial successes.
Conservation with Technology
I am not here to argue that emerging technologies will solve all of the challenges I listed above. However, I do believe that reframing ourselves as cuttingedge thought leaders will ease our issues and lead us to more efficient conservation work. The following gives an overview of a few inspiring examples of cross-industry collaborations and emerging technology applications that better our conservation practices.
Open Acoustics Devices, a partnership between the universities of Oxford and Southampton, have developed AudioMoth. This small device can be attached to trees to revolutionize how bioacoustic data is monitored and analyzed. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the small device will listen for and record only the sounds researchers are listening for, such as a particular species of bird. Additionally, AudioMoth can be used to detect illegal poaching and logging by listening for gunshots, chainsaws and vehicles. AudioMoth drastically decreases the amount of time required to sort through audio files to find answers to research questions and focus conservation efforts.
The Plastic Tide is a UK-based initiative that utilizes drones to collect data on ocean pollution. Not only is this a great example of reclassifying drone pilots as conservationists, but it also revolutionizes how we monitor plastic pollution. The Plastic Tide flies a drone over a beach, recording footage of the sand and any debris present. These images are uploaded to Zooniverse, a citizen science platform where volunteers can identify plastic pollution in the photographs. This work trains an image recognition algorithm so that plastic detection in beach footage can one day be automated. This work greatly decreases the number of hours required in pollution monitoring, meaning data-backed policies can be introduced faster.
The Internet of Elephants has introduced two mobile applications that transforms education and nature connections. Using augmented reality, Safari Central and Wildeverse bring endangered species and the Borneo rainforest to users located anywhere in the world. Safari Central allows users to take selfies with pangolins or add an elephant to a family photo. Wildeverse teachers users to track an orangutan through the rainforest, giving users an insight into the life of a field biologist. Augmented reality is especially important in maintaining a connection with nature during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders.
The data trail left behind from the geolocation tags on Instagram posts and the information logged when using Google can be incredibly beneficial to conservation. Culturomics, or the study of human culture using Big Data analytics, can help improve the efficiency of conservation campaigns and education. Geolocations can be used to understand where people are taking the most photographs in a particular place. For instance, an educational board could be installed in a location where many people are taking selfies in a National Park to maximize exposure. John Mittermeier from the University of Oxford demonstrated how analyzing Wikipedia page views can give insight into how we connect with nature in this paper. Mittermeier analyzed over 2 billion Wikipedia page views to understand species popularity and search association with seasonality. He found that species page views coincided with the migration season of certain birds, indicating that people notice the arrival of migrating birds. Additionally, he saw spikes in Great White Shark page views during Shark Week. Comparing page views can also enable conservationists to focus their educational campaigns by gauging how well-known a species already is.
The Bounties Network is a blockchain-based platform that enables users to pay for tasks upon proof of completion, such as designing a new website. Bounties Network extended the scope of their platform during a pilot in the Philippines. A Bountie was listed to raise money to remove plastic from a beach. Volunteers were then recruited to participate in the beach clean-up. Upon proof of volunteering by uploading a photograph with the trash they removed, some cryptocurrency was automatically distributed to their digital wallets. This use case not only incentivises positive behavior, but also brings in new funding for environmental protection by appealing to the cryptocurrency market.
Another blockchain-based technological innovation involves the payments for ecosystem services (PES) scheme. This scheme pays community members for their actions to protect a vital service provided by nature. My colleague and friend Daniel Oberhauser focused his Oxford MPhil disseration on moving an existing PES project, WWF-Namibia's Wildlife Credits, to a blockchain-backed system. In my MSc dissertation, I explored the feasibility of connecting Google Earth Engine (GEE) with blockchain smart contracts, or code that automates conditional actions. I found that conservationists can use satellite imagery and GEE's analysis features to automate actions based on predetermined conditions, such as a specific date or location. Oberhauser expanded this discovery to use GEE to automatically analyze land change in a specified area in Namibia each time new satellite imagery became available. When land change remained under a prespecified amount, cryptocurrency was automatically transferred to a digital wallet. The idea is that these wallets would belong to community leaders that refrain from developing an elephant corridor, or the land elephants use for migration. This technological advancement automates the distribution of funds to those making vital conservation decisions with little human interference.
While the previously mentioned applications are not free from limitations, they certainly represent the future for conservation. Each project found novel use cases for existing technologies and applied them to environmental conservation. Further, these projects incorporated new ideas concerning how conservation is practiced, who we consider a conservationist, and where conservation funding stems from.
The following is a list of resources for anybody interested in learning more about conservation technology or for those who want to jump into a new project. This list is no way exhaustive -please feel free to post a comment or contact me with any specific questions. I encourage anyone interested to begin participating in online forums or hackathons to ensure the environmental voice is heard in technological discussions.
WildLabs - WWF's virtual forum and resource list including webinars and opportunities to become involved
Conservation X Labs Digital Makerspace - A space to connect with others on conservation technology projects and compete for prizes
Oxford's Technology Empowered Conservation Series - 7 recorded lectures about conservation technology
ConsenSys Webinars - Blockchain-specific webinar series
Blockchain for Nature & People - a sneak preview for the blockchain report I am currently writing with WWF Panda Labs and Ecosulis
Decentralized Impact Incubator - an example of a hackathon focused on finding blockchain solutions to environmental problems
Evite - an example search page for hackathons in the SF Bay Area; a quick look reveals a hackathon focused on finding climate change solutions
While I have focused on incorporating emerging technology into conservation, I do not see this as the necessity to move conservation forward. What I do see, however, is the great opportunity to form new partnerships and collaborate with those we traditionally have not. Speaking with Silicon Valley is just a starting place. It is critical for conservationists to expand their thinking, to step outside of their comfort zones and to strike up a conversation with someone in a completely different career than ourselves. Only then can we find new ideas that can completely transform the way we conserve nature.