- Emerging technologies and collaborative effort to prioritize, develop and test them can help tackle myriad biodiversity research and conservation challenges, as overviewed in two recent papers.
- These reviews prompt the question of how to provide resource managers with the information they need to evaluate which tech options will work best in their situation.
- Rugged environments and conservation activities provide challenging testing grounds for new technologies – can your company’s device pass the conservation survival-of-the-fittest test?
Technology has played a major role in both advancing civilization and bringing the earth to the onset of its 6th major extinction event. But almost universally, technological advances seem to exhaust resources rather than conserve them. Two new publications focus on what can be done to change this lopsided application of emerging technology.
“It is clear that the future of how we monitor, manage, and conserve biodiversity will be driven by technology solutions,” says Lucas Joppa, a scientist at Microsoft Research and author of both of the papers. “The problem is that there isn’t any time to waste, and now we need to concentrate on getting all the important actors to work together to accelerate the inevitable.”
“The challenge is to use technology more wisely, connect different technologies and get appropriate technologies into the hands of those who can use them more effectively,” says Stuart Pimm of Duke University, lead author of a recent multi-institutional overview of technologies for biodiversity conservation.
Likewise, harnessing technology to protect the earth “…will depend on the ability of the conservation sector to build a community of practice, come together to define key technology challenges and work with a wide variety of partners to create, implement, and sustain solutions,” writes Joppa in a complementary paper, “Technology for nature conservation: an industry perspective.”
Joppa (2015) urges the conservation community to enhance collaboration among practitioners and with other sectors, and he suggests steps to best realize the potential of the broad range of computational technologies now available to help conservation wildlife and wild places.
The two papers identify some of the major challenges facing conservationists, researchers and resource managers and highlight areas where deploying and collaborating on new technologies could offer potential solutions.
Emerging technologies can help address conservation challenges
Pimm et al (2015) present several current technological trends and breakthroughs — from automated smart cameras to crowdsourcing to cubesats — with potential to strengthen biodiversity research and conservation work, including monitoring species and land-use change, processing data and communicating results.
Throughout, the authors highlight several broad intellectual challenges facing the conservation sector with respect to new technologies:
- Where might improvements in technology make dramatic changes for species conservation?
- Where might conventional technologies remain problematic despite improvements?
- How can the conservation community use technology to engage a broader group of participants in monitoring biodiversity?
- How can scientists organize and maintain quality control of ever-increasing amounts of data from a wider variety of sometimes unconventional sources?
By citing several emerging technologies that might address each of these questions, as well as some of the common obstacles field teams face in deploying them, the review provides food for thought for both users and potential developers of various tech options.
Critical Analyses Needed
The review’s list of technologies, compiled to “capture the pace and scope of their development,” in turn raises the question of how to provide resource managers with enough information to evaluate these options and determine which will work best in their particular situations. Knowing how, where and when to use an unfamiliar technology is as important as obtaining the device or system. Technology users looking for better, faster and easier ways to track animals, locate rangers, map forest cover, identify species, analyze data and fund their work must not only know the possible options but also the relative (and absolute) costs and benefits of each.
For example, drones equipped with high-resolution cameras may be useful for monitoring land-use change or surveying animals or plants in open habitats but inadequate for the same task in closed canopy forest. Where can a resource manager learn about and compare the available drone platforms and sensors that match his or her habitat and budget, while avoiding the salesperson with the “perfect solution”?
Come together, here’s how
To help answer this and similar questions, Joppa (2015) suggests instituting a community of practice as a mechanism for compiling information. Through forums and other venues, conservationists must work together and with the tech and other sectors to meet the challenges posted by Pimm et al (2015). Such a community must address the fact that the main sources of technology innovation are based in a private sector with little incentive to cater to the needs of conservationists. From the perspective of private industry, Joppa reminds the conservation community that, given its small size and specialized tech requirements, their efforts will be more effective if groups can agree on the core priorities and critical resources that are needed most and partner with other sectors — including information technology, communications, defense and law enforcement — to attain them.
Joppa suggests two ways the conservation community might creatively engage the tech sector beyond soliciting charitable donations. First, encouraging corporations and foundations to fund a pool of relevant engineering resources would allow conservation practitioners to access the valuable skills and ideas of the technology industry.
Second, given the harsh environment of many field conservation projects, using study and conservation areas as challenging arenas to test the durability of new technologies would engage the tech sector and ensure that new designs were easy to use, light and rugged enough to serve the needs of field conservation projects as well as larger consumer audiences — a sort of survival-of-the-fittest test for new devices.
To enable technology to really benefit conservation, Joppa calls on the conservation and technology sectors to create an interdisciplinary community of practice that will help groups converge on core goals and technology requirements and collaborate with other sectors. His paper touches on several ongoing efforts to collaboratively apply technology to conservation — including the Technology for Nature initiative, the SMART partnership and the United for Wildlife consortium — and suggests others, including “…a centralized website at allows individuals and organizations to post their projects, experiences, and difficulties, and find others with relevant experience…” to help create such a community.
Since greater collaboration within any sector is a lofty but difficult goal — rapidly evolving fields tend to be driven by individualists competing for the next breakthrough, and competition exists among Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, and Google, as well as among conservation NGOs — organizations will likely continue to focus their resources on their own projects.
Second tier efforts, such as wildtech.mongabay.com, online discussion forums, such as DIY Drones for drone developers, or listservs, such as University of Maryland’s Ecolog, may help to harvest the creativity and achievements of one-off efforts and synthesize and communicate them to the rest of conservation community in order to achieve better collaboration.
The wildtech.mongabay.com website has taken a first step towards that objective, with a series of assessments of UAV platforms and sensors for anti-poaching, and we envision a steady stream of these synthesizing articles developed together with invited contributors. More such spaces are needed to keep up with the rapidly evolving field of technology for field research and conservation.
Work together. Be creative. Prioritize. Keep an open mind. These are the key recommendations from researchers in academia, government and the for- and non-profit sectors to harness rapid, global technological innovation to improve conservation outcomes.
Both papers speak broadly about new technologies and the collaboration needed to best apply them to conservation. If you have personal experience with particular technologies or collaborative efforts to apply technology to conservation and research, start or join the discussion at our Forum.
Lucas N. Joppa. 2015. Technology for nature conservation: An industry perspective. Ambio 44: 522-526.
Stuart L. Pimm, Sky Alibhai, Richard Bergl, Alex Dehgan, Chandra Giri, Zoe Jewell, Lucas Joppa, Roland Kays, Scott Loarie, 2015. The Technologies to Conserve Biodiversity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.08.008