New report: How to help conservation data technology spread

Before I’d ever heard of “data technology,” I was making loans to commercial fishermen in California where the fishing industry was under pressure to track and manage its impacts on the ocean. Fishermen, held accountable for generating data about every pound of fish caught in their nets, turned to technology to help them target the most sustainable and valuable catch. They used cameras on their boats and in the net to see fish, gather extensive data and tweak their operations.

Data technology has the potential to collect and analyze vast amounts of data to aid in decision-making, forecasting, monitoring and interpreting natural resource systems. Today we’re releasing a new report guided by our vision of a future in which there is prolific development of new data technology originating in conservation, and where promising technology from other spaces is quickly adapted to conservation, such that we dramatically speed up the process of restoring and regenerating our planet.

Over the past several months we interviewed technology and conservation experts and put together a vision of how we can help conservation data technology spread and achieve better, faster outcomes in clean water, thriving wildlife and restored landscapes.

Technology applied to support environmental conservation is becoming widespread and it holds potential to do a lot of good for our planet. Unfortunately, a lot of the most innovative new technology is stuck in pilot project mode due to regulation that favors old compliance and reporting methods: person-hours spent walking transects, auditing video footage and manually entering data into spreadsheets or on paper. Governmental regulators rely on familiar methods to ensure compliance with rules like the Endangered Species Act, and they aren’t keeping up with the new wave of data technology.

In the report, we set out to feature a range of technologies, championed by both for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations and to explore the ways we can most rapidly reach this sector’s full potential to deliver spectacular outcomes. The conservation data tech movement can’t include just tech and conservation experts; we’ll need strong partnerships, new funding sources, executive management experience that can break through cultural logjams, and an openness to innovation and the risks that come with that.

Our recommendations include:

  • Invest in automated change detection

Automated pattern recognition and change detection from satellite data is among the most promising areas of data tech development. The technological hurdles appear modest and are continuing to diminish as new satellites are deployed and AI capacities improve. Understanding patterns and change on a parcel or watershed scale is also something that nonprofits, scientists, and government agencies are familiar with. Thus, the outputs are familiar and fit into existing workflows and priorities, even if the method of delivering them has changed. This makes them less scary to bureaucracies used to one way of doing things.

  • Bring ag tech to small farmers

The best market for conservation data tech is farming. The agricultural sector of data tech is exploding, driven largely by major corporate investors, venture capital and a modest amount of government investment. These technologies continue to face hurdles, especially in reaching a large share of the market of farms, dairies and ranches that could benefit from new ecological and sustainability tools. With venture capital going to high value farming operations and crops, we need to think about how to bring new technology to the highest conservation needs in conventional row crop corn, wheat and soybean farming where many smaller or marginal farms operate.

  • Innovate at the local government level

It was the private sector pushing urban data tech solutions that convinced cities to consider “smart city” initiatives and projects, and that subsequently won federal and state support. Entrepreneurs will keep pushing new water quality testing approaches, change detection solutions and stormwater management strategies, some of which will be relevant to local government. Data competitions at the city level could be replicated for ecological restoration initiatives like local wetland creation, hazardous dam removal, agricultural sustainability and locavore opportunities and recreational space upgrades.

  • Hire a senior innovation officer reporting to the highest political appointee at every federal agency

Getting past bureaucratic roadblocks necessitates giving power to a new set of people, trained in data tech, who report more directly to secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, the administrator of the EPA, or to leaders of agencies within those departments. Hiring people skilled in data tech and giving them staff should be the first priority for future federal administrations who believe that technology can make a contribution to solving far more environmental problems than it can reach today.

  • Establish a Digital Services for the Planet initiative

The US Digital Service is charged with bringing sophisticated technological expertise into government and giving it high level connections to administration leadership such that it has the power to accelerate change across the government in tech-related work. However, little of this capacity is directed at natural resource agencies who could promote the use of data tech in agriculture, conservation and water management; a Digital Service for the Planet could bring tech resources to conservation applications.

Nearly everyone is encouraged or excited by the potential of technology that’s already proving effective, but it will take some work on the part of individuals and organizations to overcome inertia and realize that potential in conservation.