The natural world provides services worth around US$125 trillion a year, according to WWF’s latest Living Planet Report. Yet we as a species have allowed populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians drop by an astonishing 60% since 1970. Next year, new global targets for nature conservation will be adopted by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and according to the UN’s latest report these must encourage ‘transformative change’ to reverse the current unprecedented species decline and give us a chance to restore healthy ecosystems.
While digital technology will not conserve biodiversity on its own, technologies such as satellite transmitters, drones and acoustic monitoring devices are already being deployed and hold great potential. To mark the UN’s International Day for Biological Diversity, we asked Stephanie O’Donnell, Community Manager at WILDLABS, to share her thoughts on the current state and future of conservation technology.
How did you get interested in conservation technology?
I spent a lot of time in the middle of nowhere using radio trackers and camera traps to monitor critically endangered species as a wildlife biologist in Australia. Around 8 years ago, I was using satellite-based GPS trackers to monitor the movements of a small marsupial called a quoll. The problem was that each tracker cost about $1,000 as they had to be quite small, and the collars would collect data perhaps once an hour and would last just a week or two before I had to get them back and then send them to the US for new batteries. At the same time though, I realised that I had an iPhone in my pocket that was cheaper than just one of these collars and could do far more. In other words, the technology that was available to conservationists trying to protect critically endangered species in the wild was vastly different and inferior to that available to regular consumers.
What is WILDLABS and how did it start?
The founding partners of WILDLABS noticed a related problem for conservationists: that they weren’t talking to each other, had no way to talk to each other, and had even fewer links to technologists, to solve common tech-related problems. They decided to create a space where conservationists and technologists could come together to talk about this stuff. They created WILDLABS as a global, open, online space where conservationists and technologists could collaborate, make use of limited resources, and prevent precious time and money being wasted.
As part of the programme, WILDLABS now also sets conservation technology challenges and arranges in-person workshops, hackathons and networking events. For example, in the UK we’re currently running workshops with the Foreign Office, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and a number of SMEs through the Digital and Satellite Applications Catapult to develop technology applications that will help to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.
What conservation technology projects are you most excited about?
The Audiomoth is a new acoustic monitoring device developed at Southampton and Oxford Universities that can record uncompressed audio at 384,000 samples per second and is the size of a credit card. A year ago if you wanted to listen for a species you'd have to pay around $800 for a single recorder. Now though, individual community members who need 10 or 100 recorders each, are coming together through WILDLABS and putting in a group order – and this means they are able to buy devices for $50 or less. Also, because Audiomoth is employing an open source design, the developers can take advantage of this same active community and continue to develop the technology including fixing any bugs. Access to this device is giving us so much data and so much capacity to monitor species that we just didn’t have before. I’m involved in a lot of conversations around open source technology and for me, this area – where you have collaborative business models enabling the development of bespoke hardware options – is really interesting.
What other developments are happening in conservation tech?
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, home to the world’s last two northern white rhino, and the only place in Kenya where you can see chimpanzees. Flora and Fauna International (FFI) helped to establish it in 2004 and this month, with Arm, they are supporting the conservancy to launch a new tech laboratory that will address a number of common problems in conservation technology.
The conservancy already has good relationships with the local community and so the tech lab is exploring how technology can help maintain these relationships. They are exploring the role technology can play in terms of providing education and creating opportunities in the local communities. And they are also using technology to monitor where animals go inside and outside the conservancy boundaries to help find solutions that alleviate human-animal conflicts. When elephants, for example, eat locals’ crops this degrades trust in the conservancy and can lead to retaliatory killings.
The vision is that it will become a regional centre of excellence that solves local problems but is also a space where technologists and conservationists can test solutions that will benefit the broader conservation community more generally. The lab will build local, on-the-ground capacity to deploy technology and allow technologists to create designs that are rugged, appropriate for the setting, and fit for purpose. And be a place where other conservancies can come and learn from the expertise that’s built up there.
The project is particularly exciting because sustainability is at its heart. All the projects are being conceived with a view to them being there in the longer term.
How might conservation tech develop in the future?
We’re shifting from being data poor to being data rich, and this raises the question: what shall we do with this data? Partly we need to consider how we make the data shareable so we can use it to build up a picture of what's happening to species at a global scale. But there’s also interesting work emerging around the analysis of data and machine learning.
A recent example from WILDLABS: a bear conservationist with a big network of camera traps deployed across Canada, who still manually processes her images one by one, met a machine learning expert who enjoys watching live bear cameras. These two individuals have now formed an NGO that is working out ways to write smart algorithms to process the camera trap data automatically, and so more efficiently track the movements of individual bears.
There are larger scale initiatives in this area too. Microsoft's AI for Earth programme is using deep learning techniques to automate the processing of wildlife survey data and computer vision models to identify species from crowd-sourced data. Google’s AI for Social Good initiative includes a partnership with the Zoological Society of London to track endangered species. With machine learning we are starting to make tools accessible that are so alien to conservationists in the field that they are like magic. If you have an interest in conservation technology and would like to get involved, you can sign up to WILDLABS through their website.