Bringing Conservation Technology to Life

We are living in the midst of a pretty exciting era. Never before has humanity been more educated, more connected, more enabled, or more empowered than we are today. There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of technology for conservation, but as National Geographic Emerging Explorer Shah Selbe explains, there are some fundamental lessons we need to keep in mind. 

Date published: 2016/02/17

Technology, in it’s broadest definition, has improved the lives of nearly every person on this planet whether through medicine, improvements in productivity, better food availability, or in helping us live more fulfilled lives. While there remain valid concerns about some technology, all this innovation has also created an opportunity to help restore some of the mistakes of previous generations. The pace of technology development has the opportunity to potentially reverse impacts from climate change, overexploitation of resources, and humanitarian development gaps.

In just 20 years, the functionality of all those devices now fits inside an iPhone. Source

Fortunately, this technology has become cheap and pervasive enough that we can start to leverage it in new and exciting ways. Our efforts in conservation can now be accelerated and amplified through the use of technologies adapted or designed specifically for that use. As a conservation technologist, I work on doing exactly that. These efforts started back during graduate school at Stanford University while working with the Center for Ocean Solutions to find new ways to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. Since then, I have had the opportunity to work on some incredible projects (both terrestrial and marine) with NGO and government partners across the globe.

Recently, we have seen some fantastic initiatives emerge from the conservation world as they try to find the place of technology. Mongabay started Wildtech to document some of the great work going on in this space. WILDLABS was created by United for Wildlife as an online community for conservation technology practitioners and solution-seekers. Innovative thinking can be found at places like the National Geographic SocietyVulcan, Pew Charitable TrustsConservation X LabsMicrosoftGoogle, and many more. WWF’s recent Fuller SymposiumWired in the Wild, focused entirely on this idea of conservation technology through a great speaker line-up (watch the videos here).

Despite reports that we are in the midst of the Anthropocene and suffering from the sixth mass extinction, there are some big successes emerging in conservation. More of the world’s oceans were protected in 2015 than any other previous year. We had a number of big wins against illegal fishing operations, many of which relied largely on technology. There is reason to be optimistic about the future of ocean conservation, but we have to keep certain fundamental lessons in mind:

1. Technology is only a tool.

Often times, the excitement around a new technology can cause expectations to run wild and a techno-savior complex to emerge. This can be damaging, since failures or poor execution can cause an unnecessary stigma to form around that technology. We saw this happen with the implementation of “appropriate technology” in the humanitarian space.

Technology is only a tool, whose power rests in helping us meet conservation policy objectives and ensure that our protected areas are actually protected. As we do with the scientific method, engineering projects can only be considered useful once they are validated and tested in the field. This means that often times the solution can be much lower tech than one would expect. The insight we gained from the work we did with the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo project in Barbuda was a great example of that sort of thinking.

The Waitt Institute’s Ayana Johnson and myself discussing marine reserve solutions with Barbudan fishers.

Photo: Will McClintock

2. Think outside the box.

Technology development, as a result of advances in computing and connectivity, has opened opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible even just five years ago. The prevalence of smartphones has resulted in massive development and miniaturization of sensors, computing chips, batteries, cameras, and many of the other units that can go into conservation hardware (like animal trackers or scientific survey equipment). The spread of cellular networks and wifi has allowed us to bring the Internet of Things to protected reserves. Miniaturized satellites have enabled us to watch over areas for far cheaper than traditional satellite imagery. Even cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, biohacking, virtual/augmented reality, and other technology can all play an instrumental part in how we manage the conservation crises of the future.

The Earth is in the midst of its sixth great extinction—and the first one caused by a single species: us. PopTech Fellow Shah Selbe discusses how “the internet of environmental things” enables conversationists to better monitor the heartbeat of the world’s ecosystems.

Video: PopTech

In creating technologies that can help with conservation, it is helpful to keep these capabilities in mind. We have to think beyond just creating digital versions of the paper worksheets we use today. Big data works differently and offers possibilities if we were to frame our solutions with that in mind. Conservation algorithms can help our efforts be more successful.

3. Collaboration is fundamental.

Conservation is not a zero sum game. Far too often, competitive conservation efforts target the same causes or areas in a race to see who can show results first. This has often resulted in a polarizing effect amongst conservationists and left the cause worse off as a result. This is particularly true with respect to technology development. Many of the efforts around the use of drones or satellite surveillance could have resulted in much grander outcomes if we pooled our resources and expertise across organizations. In the humanitarian space, drone efforts have focused on collaboration and knowledge sharing through organizations like UAViators. If conservationists had done the same, perhaps our drone efforts would have been more successful in stopping poaching.

SoarOcean, my conservation drone project funded by the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions is a partner to UAViators.

Photo: Shah Selbe

4. Open source is part of the answer.

Open source, as a development methodology, is focused around universal access to the product’s design, blueprints, and/or software code. By allowing redistribution of that technology effort, the user community has an active role in development and improvements. This is a powerful paradigm and has had a transformative effect in creating industries. We have open source to thank for the internet, consumer drones, Wikipedia, 3D printers, Android smartphones, Creative Commons, and much more.

Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s are a large part of the connected ecosystems we work on in Botswana, Namibia, and Angola.

Photo: Shah Selbe

As a general rule, all my conservation technology projects are fully open source. One example of that is Undersea Connection, a National Geographic-funded collaboration I have with Rainforest Connection’s Topher White and marine conservationist Jess Cramp, focused on using old donated smartphones to create low cost hydrophone monitoring networks. Open conservation technology can be used by the entire conservation community to be more successful in the work we do.

5. Engaging the public makes us successful.

Conservation work tends to be compelling and engaging to the public. Most people seem to be drawn to stories of discovery, adventure, wildlife, and exploration of remote places. Even just a little public engagement can have a transformative impact on a conservation project. We have seen successes in adoption of citizen science tools like iNaturalist or OpenExplorer and public engagement campaigns that went viral. Today’s technology tools make this much easier. Our Into The Okavango expedition took this digital engagement to a whole new level. We shared every piece of data we collected in real time, including GPS location, environmental sensor readings, water quality, wildlife sightings, biometrics, habitat photographs, and more to any researcher, citizen scientist, artist, student, or interested person that wanted it (through access to the IntoTheOkavango.org API). The reaction to this was phenomenal. We had tens of thousands of followers join us on Twitter and Instagram, including an astronaut that was on the International Space Station. All the tools we used to do that are being released as the Open Data Field Kit (all open source software and hardware), so that any conservationists or scientists can easily do the same.

6. “Field engineering” is inevitable.

One of the most important rules of design is to remember the needs and wants of the end user. Far too many technology projects are “designed in a vacuum,” which tends to result in an ill-suited solution. The ability for the technology to fit into the cultural, political, economic, ownership, and logistical (maintainable and operable) intricacies of the target region are fundamental for it’s success. I learned this lesson repeatedly during my time with Engineers Without Borders as we repaired the mistakes of previous philanthropic engineering projects. Regardless of the amount of preparation and thinking that goes into these solutions, there will always be surprises when out in the field. This means that there will always be some design changes on-the-fly, or what I like to call “field engineering.” The more prepared you are, the easier these get to deal with.

Working with Engineers Without Borders in Southern Tanzania.

Photo: Shah Selbe

Time and time again, I encounter passionate conservationists that are lack the tools to be as effective as they would like to be. Technology can help this. If we collaborate and share things openly, we can start to reverse some of the trends we see associated with mass extinctions and over exploitations. Conservation technology can be leveraged to help us be smarter about how we solve these problems.

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About the Author

Shah Selbe is a Conservation Technologist and an Emerging Explorer with the National Geographic Society. He was the Lead Engineer, Into The Okavango, and spent 10 years as a rocket scientist building spacecraft.

An abridged version of this was posted to the Virgin Unite blog as part of their 2016 Davos (World Economic Forum) coverage. This blog also originally appeared on Shah Selbe's medium page and has been posted here with permission. 

Join Shah in the WILDLABS.NET community to learn more about his diverse work in conservation technology.