I’m not a tech junkie, but in 2019 my eyes were opened to the incredibly diverse, impressive and rapidly-advancing ways in which data technology has the potential to save our planet. In 2020, we have the opportunity to scale up our understanding and application of data technology for conservation to get positive environmental results faster.
What do I mean by “data technology for conservation?” It involves collecting and manipulating large amounts of data to aid in decision-making, forecasting, monitoring or interpreting natural resource systems. An example would be drone-mounted cameras that use computer algorithms to create 3D maps of old mining sites undergoing restoration. Or systems of sensors and atmospheric data that can alert us to impending flooding and produce inundation maps. Or analyzing thousands of images of endangered wildlife to track their migration patterns and prevent poaching.
Technology applied to support environmental conservation is becoming pervasive. Precision agriculture is an expanding sector that uses technology to optimize pesticide, fertilizer and water application (i.e. use the minimum amount needed) by farmers who use digital sensors, drones and weather algorithms. “Smart boats” incorporate technology to help fishermen monitor their catch to avoid harming vulnerable species. There’s blockchain for ecosystem health and remote monitoring for conservation lands. Wind turbines can effectively see approaching eagles and prevent collisions, and water quality can be monitored in real time.
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 “proven” methods to ensure compliance with rules like the Endangered Species Act, and they aren’t keeping up with the new wave of data technology.
Here’s an example: Government agencies have been conducting an annual count of ducks over 2 million square miles of North America every year since 1955. Although drones and computer-led photo analysis are now proving to be more accurate at identifying ducks than people, pilots and crews continue to count birds manually. With the plethora of available satellite imagery and machine learning tools available, human stewardship monitors can soon be assisted by technology that can be everywhere, all the time. Such technology can increase our ability to see what is otherwise hard to see, verify recommended practices are being employed and measure outcomes more thoroughly.
Even as technology capacity grows, there is a widening gap in government expertise about technological innovation. It seems most likely this gap will continue to grow because of bureaucratic inertia and a generally poor understanding of technology’s potential for conservation among regulators (for example, EPA staff’s misconceptions about remote sensing). If government doesn’t begin investing in hiring technology experts and promoting those experts into management positions, initiating programs to build technological expertise and expanding opportunities to engage in cross-learning between government and industry, industry will get the message that innovation and faster, better conservation outcomes are not a priority.
Given the potential for technology to improve environmental compliance and speed the delivery of conservation outcomes, we need to open up opportunities to integrate it more fully into measuring and managing environmental impacts. The most important thing regulators can do is establish and clearly communicate the standards that any compliance reporting and activities need to meet, rather than trying to also develop the methodology (e.g. which technology will help meet those standards).
Regulating agencies should place higher emphasis on:
- Looking for familiarity with technology in hiring – this doesn’t mean hiring people who want to write algorithms and design technology for a living, but rather those who can understand how the technology works and that can adapt to its innovation. Hiring programmers with an interest in biology might be just as valuable as hiring biologists with an interest in programming.
- Engaging directly with industry to clearly communicate priority environmental outcomes and indicators of success
- Focusing on specific conservation outcomes while being less prescriptive about how they must be achieved
Tech innovators, policy makers and conservation NGOs can focus on:
- Building the field of practice around conservation technology to promote information-sharing, collaboration and policy advocacy
- Highlighting the importance of rapid adoption of the most effective conservation technology tools and approaches that achieve real, measurable results
- Building a library of use cases to feature excellent applications of data technology for conservation
- Learning and sharing from success in fields like healthcare, transportation, agriculture and energy
- Connecting conservation experts with tech experts to co-create solutions through partnerships and secondment arrangements
There’s no time to waste when it comes to ensuring there’s clean water and biodiversity on our planet. If you work in conservation, environmental compliance or for a regulated industry, and you don’t already know about data technology, take a look at some of the links in this post. Let’s harness the momentum of a new year—and the rapidly advancing technology available—to drive faster solutions.