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.
Technology, in its 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 with respect to climate change, overexploitation of resources, and humanitarian development gaps.
Moore's law — 1993 to 2013 pic.twitter.com/gzcf0eIYgw— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) February 1, 2015
In just 20 years, the functionality of all those devices now fits inside an iPhone
Fortunately, this technology has become cheap and pervasive enough that we can start to leverage it in new and exciting ways. As a conservation technologist, I work on doing exactly that. 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 Society, Vulcan, Pew Charitable Trusts, Conservation X Labs, Microsoft, Google, and many more. WWF’s recent Fuller Symposium, Wired in the Wild, focused entirely on this idea of conservation technology through a great speaker line-up (watch the videos here).
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 must be 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.
Virgin Unite, Ocean Conservation, Waitt Institute
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. 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. Big data and conservation algorithms can help our efforts become 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 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.
Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Plane.jpg
4. Open source is part of the answer
Open source, as a development methodology, is focused around universal access and ownership to the product’s design, blueprints, and/or software code. 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, and much more. 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.
Virgin Unite, Ocean conservation, Undersea Connection
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. 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, wildlife sightings, biometrics, habitat photographs, and more to any person that wanted it (through the website and 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 for free.
Time and time again, I encounter passionate conservationists that 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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