Developing the world's most sophisticated program
for mapping endangered species:
An Interview with Steven Phillips of AT&T Labs
Jemery Hance, mongabay.com
August 4, 2008
The findings of the map were surprising, showing pockets of area in Madagascar that deserve protection but had neglected thus far, in addition to larger, more known areas. The new system will aid conservations and the government of Madagascar as they attempt to choose the most important places for protection. President Ravalomanana has committed to protecting 10 percent of the Madagascar's land for its unique wildlife.
Working closely with conservation scientists—and still tweaking his program—Phillips developed software that has quickly become an invaluable tool for saving wildlife in Madagascar—and around the world. Below, he tells mongabay.com how he did it.
Mongabay: How did you get involved in developing the software for the biodiversity map of Madagascar?
Steven Phillips in a tree in Madagascar
Mongabay: How do you make the jump, technologically, from working with telecommunication networks to creating software for mapping regions and wildlife of a country the size of Madagascar?
Steven Phillips: As a researcher at AT&T Labs, I have the luxury of setting my own research agenda. I generally work on algorithms and optimization — finding efficient ways to solve large problems, such as designing and managing continental-scale telecommunications networks. However, it was clear to me that developing a new approach to species distribution modeling entailed research in machine learning, and I hadn't worked in that area before. So, I walked into the office of Rob Schapire, a star researcher in AT&T Research's machine learning group at the time. I described the modeling task to him and asked his advice, and without any hesitation he suggested using a "maximum entropy" approach. We've been working together on Maxent ever since, together with Miro Dudik, who was Rob's first Ph.D. student after Rob moved to the computer science department at Princeton. I've gotten to learn about machine learning along the way, and learnt some ecology too!
Mongabay: How long did the development of the software take?
Steven Phillips: The first version of the software was ready in just a couple of months, but we've continued working on it on and off for about six years, refining it and adding new features. Biodiversity data is very challenging to work with — the most important species for conservation are often the rarest and hardest to find, so there are very few records to use for modeling, and the records have strong geographic collection biases reflecting the difficulty of reaching and working in some of the areas where the species live. This makes the modeling task challenging, and has led us to a number of interesting theoretical questions in machine learning. We've made perhaps a dozen software releases, with the new features deriving both from our theoretical research and from requests from ecologists using of the software.
Mongabay: Can you explain to us how the software works?
Conservation priority zones in Madagascar. (A) Unconstrained multitaxon solution, showing what would have been selected based on these 2315 species if no areas were already protected. Colors indicate priority level: The topranked 2.9% priority areas are shaded yellow (equivalent to the area actually protected by 2002), the next-ranked priorities to 6.3% are blue (equivalent to the area actually protected by 2006), and the nextranked priorities to 10% (equivalent to the conservation target) are red. (B) Constrained multitaxon solution, expanding (red) from existing parks in 2006 (yellow + blue = 6.3% of area) to 10% protection. The red areas are thus those that our analysis selects as the most important areas to consider for expansion of the current reserve network. Image and camption text courtesy of Kremen et al. SCIENCE VOL 320 11 APRIL 2008
Mongabay: Do you think this software could be implemented for conservation efforts in other places of the world?
Steven Phillips: Yes, and it is already being used around the world. It's available free on the web for non-profit and research use, and has been downloaded thousands of times, from about 60 different countries.
Mongabay: Do you plan to continue working with this software? What are some future changes you would like to see?
Steven Phillips: We're getting ready to release a new version of the software, but the new features are quite small now. One topic I'm very interested in is climate change, which is going to cause major distribution shifts. We need to protect species not only where they are now, but where they'll need to be in 50 or 100 years, and we need to facilitate their movement if those areas don't overlap. If we find any general ways of improving the accuracy of predictions of species' future distributions, I'd certainly like to incorporate them into Maxent.
Mongabay: What other projects are researchers in AT&T labs working on?
The leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) is found on the island of Madagascar.
Mongabay: Did you have an interest in Madagascar or wildlife prior to working on this project?
Steven Phillips: Absolutely. I feel very strongly about conservation of wildlife, because my generation has an extraordinary responsibility—a quarter of all species on earth are likely to be driven to extinction during our lifetimes, and we can't just stand aside and watch. Madagascar is of particular interest, both because it is arguably the hottest of the hot spots (areas of the world with a high concentration of rare and endangered species) and because there is political will to protect Madagascar's biodiversity: President Ravalomanana has committed to protecting 10% of the land area in national parks, up from 2.8% in 2003.
Mongabay: Have you had a chance to visit Madagascar? If so, how was the trip? If not, what would you most like to see there?
Deforestation in Madagascar.
Mongabay: The Madagascar mapping project made was the top story in Science Magazine and a video regarding your work from AT&T has made its way to YouTube—did you expect such a response from your work?
Steven Phillips: No, I didn't expect it at all! I'm very happy about the response, both for the high profile given to the work by Science Magazine, and for the enthusiastic support AT&T has given and continues to give to my conservation research.