Conservationists have been gathering data on the natural world for years. They analyze it as best they can and use it to make important conservation decisions to ensure the protection of wildlife and habitats.
With big data and cloud technology, however, conservationists are starting to open that process to the public. Crowdsourced information is allowing them to more quickly receive updates, and better analytics platforms are improving accuracy.
Here are 10 conservation projects around the world — from tropical rainforests to the Arctic tundra — that use big data technology.
1. Earth Insights
Conservation International (CI), whose mission is to protect biodiversity, monitors the health of plant species in tropical forests. The problem was their camera traps generated so much data (millions of photos over a few years) at the 16 sites, and they had to manually capture the data, but the cameras were in remote locations. HP partnered with CI to create Earth Insights, with which HP used its Vertica Analytics Platform, which has made the data analyzation nine times faster and much more accurate. By processing the camera data, it can estimate species occupancy of a certain area.
2. IBM and the Amazon
IBM's nonprofit, Corporate Services Corp is working to integrate PAM, a cloud-based application developed by the Nature Conservancy which enables land managers to track and meet environmental goals. IBM is helping locals in Brazil to tackle challenges such as: integrating it with existing environmental management apps; acquiring remote internet access; and streamlining field data. The best part is — most of the solutions are being crowdsourced.
Conservation.io is a mobile app platform created for scientists, conservationists, and resource managers to help inform the public about conservation efforts and dangers, and to crowdsource critical information about the natural world. It's a cloud-based system that allows for online and offline data gathering, and it's made for anyone to create their own database in a short amount of time. Conservation.io is part of several projects including "Manatee Alert," which informs boaters about speed zones and critical habitat areas.
4. Biodiversity research
Scientists at the University of California Berkeley have developed a new model to leverage the increasing amount of data on biodiversity, particularly from recently digitized museum collections. The model is called "categorical analysis of neo- and paleoendemism" (CANAPE) and was developed while the team was in Australia, where they were looking at the country's huge database of plants. Digital museum collections are being used for georeferencing. The new model uses phylogenetic diversity rather than species counts, which connect species depending on range to better measure diversity and rarity.
5. Pop-up habitats
The Nature Conservancy is using crowdsourced data from birdwatchers who use eBird, NASA satellite imagery, and other hard science data to create new bird habitats as natural ones are destroyed by developments. The organization is working with local farmers to create BirdReturn, an initiative that figures out when to flood fields so that birds can nest, drink, bathe, and rest while on their migratory journeys. Farmers also get water for their crops, so it's a win-win.
6. Intel's rhino chip
Intel built a credit-card sized Galileo board, with 3G communication and storage features, which is attached to critically endangered black and white rhinos in Africa. The project is a partnership between Intel South Africa and Dimension Data, a cloud services company. The little board is in a rhino-proof case, which is an ankle collar, that has a solar panel to recharge on its own. The animals also get an RFID chip placed in their horn. Vodafone is providing connectivity, and anti-poaching teams are contacted if it detects the two pieces are disconnected. The next phase is to monitor the animal's heart rate and other vitals to try to catch poachers before they kill the animals.
7. Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators
The Global Tagging of Pelagic Predator (GTOPP) program is a collaboration between conservationists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists around the world. The goal is to understand behavior of ocean animals. This project was built off of the Tagging of Pacific Predators, run out of the Census of Marine Life, which turned millions of animals into trackable sensors to better monitor their behavior. GTOPP aims to analyze it.
8. Bumble Bee Watch
Bumble Bee Watch is a crowdsourced project to log the location and species of bees around North America. The sightings are verified by experts and put on the website. They call it a citizen science project that allows conservationists and scientists to work together.
9. Santa Cruz mountain lions
For five years, scientists at UC Santa Cruz have been working on a "smart collar" to study the behavior of the mountain lion, which often comes into contact with city development and residents. The findings were published this month in the journal Science. Most wildlife trackers use satellite imagery to track the animals, but this high tech collar — which really works like a Fitbit — shows exactly what an animal is doing, where it is, and how much caloric energy it is using. The researchers can now analyze a larger data set more accurately and effectively.
10. State of the Polar Bear
This data visualization project is a source for people to learn about the health and status of polar bear populations. It was developed by the Polar Bear Specialist Group, which is a project by scientists from Canada, Denmark, Norway, USA and Russia. It provides detailed views of 19 polar bear subpopulations and information about pollution, estimated population counts, and shrinking Arctic sea ice. The database is a work in progress, as some population counts aren't accurate or even finished yet — but this is still the most comprehensive view of the species.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.