article / 9 August 2021

Accessible Tech and Real Impact with the WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge

To celebrate our newly-lauched WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge, I spoke with the Edge Impulse team about why uniting the conservation and tech worlds to make funding, tools, training, and support accessible and welcoming to all in conservation tech community is so important. Read about our conversation below, and begin your application for the WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge here by August 15th to join us in this opportunity! Header image: The BearID Project


With every promising new technology comes a challenge for would-be innovators: navigating the inevitable barriers to entry that exist in so many forms across the technology and conservation worlds alike. Conservationists in our community will understand just how limiting factors like steep learning curves, high price points, and lack of training can be when it comes to engaging with new technologies and effectively putting them into practice in the field. In fact, in our 2020 State of Conservation Technology survey, we explored major constraints amongst conservationists who want to engage with technology, and found that overcoming technical barriers was the second most frequently reported user constraint, with 44% of respondents rating it as a ‘major’ or ‘critical’ constraint.

"Lowering the barrier to entry means casting a wider net for people who can enter the embedded ML world to make a greater impact."Artie Beavis

And while so many conservationists share experiences with barriers to entry that can stop great ideas from becoming functional solutions, it's equally important for tech companies who want to engage in conservation to understand the challenges their users face - and take action. Barriers are lowered when we make tools and training more accessible to those who can put those resources to good use. Technology advances faster and faster these days, and it's easy to create hype about its endless possibilities; it's much rarer - and much more critical - to put conservationists' needs at the forefront of tech development and usageEdge Impulse sees their significant, rapidly growing role in the tech world as naturally fitting hand-in-hand with their responsibility to the conservation world.

As Daniel Situnayake of Edge Impulse puts it, "Technologies like embedded machine learning have the most potential when they're in the hands of domain experts—the people with deep understanding of a given field. This is why it's so important to build tools that are accessible to conservationists, not just technologists." Daniel has put significant effort into teaching others how to get started with embedded machine learning, as he did here on WILDLABS last year, and his commitment to helping others learn about these tools is a perfect example of Edge Impulse's approach to conservation engagement.

Our first Fellowship was built alongside Edge Impulse because of their core beliefs in harnessing embedded machine learning's power for conservation's benefit. "When Jan and I founded Edge Impulse, we envisioned that embedded machine learning would have a huge impact on society and our environment. To ensure that it has a positive impact, we included Tech for Good as a fundamental part of our values along with developer enablement and user experience," said Edge Impulse co-founder Zach Shelby when the company became the first machine learning company to join 1% for the Planet and committed to making environmental impact a priority.

In speaking with the ML experts at Edge Impulse and building this fellowship with them, it's clear that they understand the potential for their tools to create incredible, groundbreaking solutions in the conservation world. But they also understand that, for those solutions to exist, conservationists need access, support, and the opportunity to explore ideas that may be beyond their own areas of technological expertise. 

When I sat down with Adam Benzion and Artie Beavis of Edge Impulse last week to discuss why we're so excited about presenting the WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge to the conservation tech community, a more accessible vision of conservation tech was on all of our minds. "Lowering the barrier to entry means casting a wider net for people who can enter the embedded ML world to make a greater impact," said Artie. "So we have to make the complex much more simple. That's how we lower that barrier to entry for those who want to make an entry into conservation technology, but don’t know how or where to start. This fellowship is one way of giving them the keys to conservation tech.” 

Daniel also weighed in on the ongoing importance of shaping conservation tech's future by giving more and more people access to those keys, saying, "There's a virtuous circle of accessibility—as more conservationists become familiar with embedded ML and share their success stories and best practices, it becomes easier for new folks to follow in their footsteps. The goal is to build a self-sustaining community of experts who can help one another solve important problems." 

"As more conservationists become familiar with embedded ML and share their success stories and best practices, it becomes easier for new folks to follow in their footsteps."Daniel Situnayake

Within a community than spans the globe, accessibility and lowering barriers can take on several meanings. In some cases, it means recognizing a need to encourage applications from those who have not always had the same opportunities to learn tech skills professionally. For example, in our soon-to-be-released State of Conservation Technology research, we found that female respondents were 2.33 times as likely as males to rate technical barriers as a primary constraint in engaging with technology - not because these community members are any less capable of acquiring tech skills, or any less interested, but perhaps because they have not always been encouraged onto the same career paths as male counterparts.

In other cases, it could mean addressing high costs of engaging with new technology, something that could easily create barriers for those from lower income communities, those who aren't part of large organizations or institutions with the funding to spare, or those in regions where cutting-edge technology may not be readily available to all. (While funding can help address this issue in the short-term, so can creating tools that are afforable and easy to use without highly specialized training - both important qualities for Edge Impulse's tools.) 

And quite often, it means looking outside the box and recognizing that everyone who works in conservation or technology has something to offer to this community, and to our planet, if given the chance to contribute and make a difference. As we spoke about how our Fellowship can bring new perspectives, voices, and ideas into the conservation tech world, Adam said, "We want this to be an opportunity that is inclusive for everyone, particularly for those who have tried and were not able to access resources like this before. It doesn't necessarily matter where you're from, what your background is - it's about ideas more than anything. Our message has two legs: being a genuine partner in supporting and exploring in conservation, and supporting those who do not have access to resources, welcoming them and empowering everyone to be part of the game.

Throughout the process of designing our first Fellowship, the WILDLABS team was thrilled to engage with a tech partner who believes that uniting conservation with technology is about more than just funding. While grants and awards are vital components of keeping conservation work in motion, this Fellowship aims to offer support that will outlast those funds and stretch beyond one project timeline. The recipients of this Fellowship will receive mentorship from Edge Impulse's experts in applying embedded machine learning to their work, allowing applicants who aren't already skilled with this technology to throw their hats into the ring and dream freely about what they could achieve with their new skills. Likewise, Fellows will also have the support of WILDLABS in connecting them to conservation tech experts, practicioners, and developers around the world - and will be able to share their progress and results with others in the community.  

" We think of this fellowship as lighting a little spark that can be part of a bigger movement toward bringing conservation and tech together."Adam Benzion

"Fellowships like this are a critical piece in connecting tech and conservation," explained Adam. "To let someone learn the tech in a general way, to give someone enough money to spark a new idea, in an open-source way, and let people utilize it - that process is important to the big picture. We think of this fellowship as lighting a little spark that can be part of a bigger movement toward bringing conservation and tech together. It's something that has room to grow, and our interest in conservation is a long-term commitment. We can enable new ways of thinking about conservation tools and how they're made and used.”

Later this week, we'll catch up with the Edge Impulse team to discuss more about how Edge Impulse and the WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge can be a spark for new ways of thinking about conservation technology engagement and opportunities, as we discuss how we're working together toward sustainable ways of connecting conservationists with the technology world. 

In the meantime, you can learn more about applying to the WILDLABS Fellowship: On the Edge here, and submit your application by August 15th to join us in this exciting step toward lighting that spark within our community! 

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