Can technology save the planet?

According to Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, the answer is yes.

At SXSWEco on Wednesday, October 8, Hoekstra discussed impactful tech applications, challenges, and frontiers for innovation in conservation efforts around the world, answering questions and conversing via the hashtag #ecotech on Twitter.

“Tech gives us the ability to empower individuals and communities around the world to help solve problems,” Hoekstra said.

This week, WWF challenged SXSWEco attendees to a hackathon. The winner was Monarchy, an app that maps where monarch butterflies are observed and tracks their migration patterns. The team is mining data using social media and other algorithms to map monarch locations, which is then combined with weather data to better understand them.

“The vision is as we start to gather more data, you can imagine animating this and see the monarch migration unfold through the years,” Hoekstra said. It will allow scientists to better understand and research further by giving them high-resolution photos and engage anyone that is interested in monarchs and restoring their habitats. It’s an example of crowdsourcing in the creation of science, Hoekstra said.

Another example of important tech innovations in conservation efforts involves tracking zebra migrations in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia using GPS technology. WWF found the zebra they tracked traveled the longest land migration in Africa. Hoekstra said WWF is also trying to figure out the best ways tech could help track animals without having to catch them and tranquilize them.

Big data can yield big results in conservation efforts. Bringing large amounts and different types of data is the most important aspect, Hoekstra said. The Natural Capital Project, a collaboration between WWF, the Nature Conservancy, and universities, built software called InVEST, which uses satellite imagery with data overlaid to show coral reefs, fishing nurseries, and mangroves and help resolve conflicts between economic and land development and coastline conservation in Belize. With the software, “we can look at the seascape through a variety of lenses,” Hoekstra said.

“I’m also hopeful big data will help us tackle a big challenge in front of us and that is disrupting wildlife crime,” he said.

Big data can show where poaching is occurring, seizures are happening, and trade routes between points along the black market, he added. For instance: Eyes on the Forest is an interactive map created by WWF and Indonesian partners that shows land covers, wildlife distribution, and areas for legal logging. They wanted to raise awareness, but also allow people on the ground to spot illegal activity and confidentially report it. With the program, people have pressured palm oil companies to be more ethical and have stopped illegal logging in certain areas.

Technology can help drive environmental change. Clearly framing the problem and involving the open source community to customize solutions will be key for future research. Big tech companies can play an important role too, Hoekstra said. It goes beyond corporate social responsibility. For example, they could use their strengths to work with data and engage people around the world.

However, low tech innovations will also continue to have high impact. One example Hoekstra gave is in Nepal, where WWF is working with communities to install 20,000 biogas stoves over the next eight years. Methane is captured from animal and human waste and used as fuel. Each stove saves four tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere a year.

The challenges with new technology in conservation, Hoekstra said, involve four main things:

1. Privacy: As we gather more data and ask people to submit their own, privacy becomes an issue. This is especially important with surveillance involving drones and cameras.

2. Digital divide: This is more profound with a worldview, especially in impoverished areas where day-to-day subsistence is still the top priority.

3. Security: Whistleblowers are at risk if we start tackling wildlife crimes with technology. More people are at risk and we have to be cognisant of this. The data systems also have to be extremely secure so the data doesn’t get in the wrong hands.

4. Incentives: How do we make technology affordable and accessible and create incentives for technologists to solve conservation problems? This will allow more people to participate.

The biggest issues of our time, Hoekstra said, are climate change, resource scarcity, and illegality. They’re huge problems, and we’re not going to find a silver bullet to solve them — but that does create an opportunity to collaborate with people around the world, as long as the technology is made accessible and matched to the communities that need it most.

“Technology has an important role to play,” Hoekstra said. “It helps us move faster, see better than we could before, and connect people to nature locally, regionally, and globally.”

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