Disruptive Technology: Embracing the Transformative Impacts of Software on Society

When Victoria Espinel, President and CEO of BSA | The Software Alliance, spoke at the WWF Fuller Symposium, she took us on a whistle-stop tour of case studies where software and data are transforming our understanding and capacity to protect the natural world. The current opportunities are varied and inspiring, but she concludes by emphasising the need for continued innovation and advancement. 

Date published: 2016/03/10

BSA | The Software Alliance represents some of the world's largest software makers, including Adobe, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Intel and many others. As the President and CEO of BSA, Victoria Espinel is uniquely positioned to lead a tour through some of the most exciting examples of how software and technology can improve wildlife conservation efforts. Watch Victoria's talk below, or continue reading to find out more about the innovative projects identified in her presentation. 

Intel: Antipoaching Rhino Chip

Intel’s super-tiny Quark SOC is being pressed into service in southern Africa to help save critically endangered black rhinos animals which poachers are pushing to the brink of extinction. Intel has contributed a number of credit-card sized Galileo boards which are affixed to the animals by way of a rhino-proof, Kevlar-based ankle collar. The low power board features 3G communications, onboard storage features and includes a durable solar panel to recharge the board's battery. Cellular provider Vodafone has also contributed to the project, with each collared rhino's geo-location and movement data encrypted (to ensure poachers cannot get to it) and then sent into the cloud. When the wild animals are sedated for their collar fitting, teams embed a tiny RFID chip in each animal’s horn. If the Galileo board detects a break in proximity between ankle and horn, anti-poaching teams can be alerted with helicopters, drones and ground-based vehicles to apprehend the poachers.

The credit card-sized Intel Galileo boards—complete with 3G communications and onboard storage features— are affixed to rhinos by way of a rhino-proof Kevlar-based ankle collar. If the Galileo board detects a break in proximity between ankle and horn (which is embedded with a tiny RFID chip), anti-poaching teams can be alerted with helicopters, drones, and ground-based vehicles to apprehend the poachers.

(Photo credit: Intel Free Press)

IBM: Predictive Analytics Software Improves Conservation Measures for Grevy's Zebra

IBM is helping Marwell Wildlife in northern Kenya to secure a future for Grevy's zebra, an endangered species with less than 2,500 individuals in the wild. IBM's predictive analytics software is able to combine huge amounts of complex data from aerial surveys, camera traps, radio collars on the zebras and information collected through interviews with local nomadic herdsmen about their the attitudes, behaviour and knowledge of the local species. The software identifies trends and patterns from the data, allowing conservationists to pinpoint the main threats against the species and focus limited resources on these areas. 

For example, one of the main reasons for hunting is to produce traditional medicines from the zebra's body fat. If herding communities were able to access modern medicines then the need for hunting would be much reduced.

Dr. Guy Parker, Head of Biodiversity Management at Marwell Wildlife, explains, "In the case of the recent interview survey, the software enabled us to determine peoples' attitudes towards the Grevy's zebra. Furthermore, we were able to determine what influence factors such as education level, age, location, and wildlife benefits had upon peoples' attitudes. This is the kind of complex multi-variate analysis that the IBM predictive analytics software is designed to tackle."

UC Santa Cruz: SMART Collar 

Scientists at UC Santa Cruz have developed a Species Movement, Acceleration and Radio Tracking (SMART) Collar to study puma movements and caloric needs, similar to a Fitbit. The collars include a GPS unit, accelerometers, and a magnetometer to provide detailed data on where an animal is and what it is doing. 

After callibrating the collars with captive pumas, the team were able to were able to continuously monitor the movements of mountain lions in the wild and determine how much energy the big cats use to stalk, pounce, and overpower their prey. These findings help explain why most cats use a 'stalk and pounce' hunting strategy. 

The researchers were able to quantify, for example, the high energetic costs of traveling over rugged terrain compared to the low cost of "cryptic" hunting behaviors such as sit-and-wait or stalk-and-ambush movements. During the actual pounce and kill, the cats invest a lot of energy in a short time to overpower their prey. Data from the collars showed that mountain lions adjust the amount of energy they put into the initial pounce to account for the size of their prey.

The team now wants to look at mountain lion energetics in a range of different habitat types. In particular, they are interested in how human land use and habitat fragmentation may be influencing the energetic demands on mountain lions in the wild. They also have projects using the new collar technology to study other large carnivores, including wolves, polar bears, and Weddell seals.

For more information, visit the Santa Cruz Puma Project website

Before the UC Santa Cruz research team could interpret the data from their SMART collars deployed on wild mountain lions, they first had to perform calibration studies with mountain lions in captivity. This meant, among other things, training mountain lions to walk and run on a treadmill and measuring their oxygen consumption at different activity levels. 

Video Credit: UC Santa Cruz

Microsoft: Mataki Collars

The Mataki project, powered by Microsoft in partnership with Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and University College London, is an open source, low cost tracking platform. The project team aims to make the Mataki system as open and accessible as possible, believing that providing access to low-cost, flexible hardware is the best approach to encourage innovation in tracking approaches and to enable researchers to address novel questions at important scales.

A key innovation that makes the Mataki tags particularly useful for conservation is that the tracking technology is wirelessly enabled, meaning that researchers can retrieve the data without having to physically recover the device. In the RSPB Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME) Project, Mataki tags have offered the team the opportunity to get data from colonies that are difficult to work in with more conventional (archival) tags, and allow a much higher rate of data retrieval and less disturbance to colony nesting seabirds. Seabird tracking is a game changing technology, revealing feeding hotspots, overlap with offshore development and areas where seabirds are at greatest risk of interacting with fisheries.

The RSPB projects FAME and STAR (Seabird Tracking and Research) are twin projects which have organised the tracking of seabirds on the coast of Britain and Ireland from 2010 to present. Data from FAME and STAR are publicly available and can be accessed by emailing RSPB’s conservation data management unit [email protected] who also hold an up-to-date list of the tracking data available.

UK seabirds have undergone severe declines in recent years, and it is thought that these declines are related to where and what these birds are eating. The RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) team aims to identify through tracking technology, including Mataki tags, where seabird foraging hotspots occur and what makes them important.  

Microsoft: Remote scent releasing kits

Weather can be a challenging consideration when trying to track animal behaviour. In areas like the Pacific Northwest in the United States, high snowfall makes access difficult during deep winter. Scientists monitoring elusive animals like wolves and lynx over winter keep track of them with remote camera traps, using scent as a bait to attract the target animals. Even though the camera traps are triggered remotely by the animal's movement, the bait still needs to be replenished every few weeks, which is not a simple task in these remote areas. 

A researcher at Microsoft, Mike Sinclair, came up with a piece of tech to overcome this challenge. He has developed a processor board that can withstand extreme cold, operates using rapid energy consumption at times when it needed, and goes into very low energy mode at all other times. Mike gave the processor board to conservationists, who then integrated it into a bear-proof metal kit that housed the scent. These kits have a battery that lasts for eight months and operate on a timer system. This innovation has enabled researchers to monitor animal behaviours with the scents through the entire winter, even though they are not able to go and access the devices themselves. 

IBM: The Jefferson Project

Data on a grand scale is transforming our understand of the ecology of large lakes and the impact of humans on these ecosystems. The IBM Jefferson Project is deploying Internet of Things technology to transform Lake George in New York into the 'world's smartest lake'. The data gathered from sensors around the lake enables scientists, policy makers and environmental groups to understanding how water, contaiminates, invasives, human impacts and other threats are affecting the environment. As just 3% of the planet's water is fresh and two thirds of this is frozen, the team hopes that this ninnovation will provide a blue print for generations to come for preserving our lakes, rivers and streams. 

Jefferson Project Director Rick Relyea (right) and IBM Research Distinguished Engineer Harry Kolar (left) examine a visualization of a computer generated model of lake water circulation in Lake George, as part of The Jefferson Project at Lake George, a three year effort to deploy Internet of Things technology to create the "world's smartest lake." (Credit: Feature Photo Service for IBM)

Autodesk: 3D Coral Reef Models

Coral reefs cover less that 0.1% of the ocean floor, yet contain levels of biodiversity that rival the rainforests. Despite their crucial role, coral reef research and education are still in their infancy. There are no reliable and cost effective methods of determining coral growth, an extremely basic and essential parameter for understanding the health of a coral reef ecosystem. Corals exist in 3D space, and current methods of measuring coral growth rely on simplistic 2D measurements. 

For the first time ever, a team of marine scientists is utilizing photogrammetry (the science of making measurements from photos) to capture entire segments of coral reefs and turn them into highly detailed 3D models, allowing accurate measurements and monitoring of these valuable biological organisms over time. The team, stationed on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai, Hawaii, has been able to accomplish this feat using little more than an underwater digital camera and Autodesk ReCap reality capture technology.

“Autodesk ReCap gives us a non-invasive, highly accurate and visual method of measuring coral reef growth over time,” said Sly Lee, a marine scientist and founder of the non-profit organization The Hydrous. “The high-resolution 3D models make it easy for us to view and monitor growth, physical impacts, disease, and bleaching. This is going to revolutionize coral reef science and education.”


To find out more, visit the Autodesk case study

Marine biologists at The Hydrous are using a combination of photogrammetry (science of making measurements from photos) and cutting edge 3D modeling software by Autodesk, Inc. to capture corals at resolutions never possible until now. The results are stunning, high resolution, interactive 3D computer models, that don’t require additional 3D software or hardware. Video credit: The Hydrous

Concluding remarks

In addition to her role as the President and CEO of BSA, Victoria Espinel also chairs a group in the World Economic Forum on the future of software in society. One of the things they have been looking at is how all these technological mega trends are driven by software. Whether we look at big data analytics, artifical intelligence and robotics, 3D printing, or the Internet of Things and access to information everywhere through universal internet access, all of these trends are either software enabled or they are literally software themeselves. This is having an enormous impact on how we live our lives and the kind of societyies we live in.

As we live in these exciting times, it is important to keep the focus on how to ensure that the societal impacts that are coming from all of these changens being driven by software and technolgoy are as positive as they can be. This is an area we are already seeing great progress, but there is still enormous potential.