Feature Story

How mobile crowdsourcing protects wildlife and habitats

by Matt Bokor

wildlabs

WILDLABS.NET closes the information gap between tech experts, wildlife advocates and field researchers working in remote areas.

Crowdsourcing is coming to the rescue — of wildlife.

A new global, online community, WILDLABS.NET connects technologists in the Silicon Valley, for example, with conservation organizations in Washington, D.C., and field researchers trekking through a Kenyan savanna to deliver real-time, problem-solving advice to protect wildlife and habitats.

Previously, lessons learned from research and development, field tests and implementation of technology tools had often been kept within individual organizations, rather than being made easily accessible to others. Nor had there been direct links between tech experts and those working on the front lines, according to London-based United for Wildlife, which launched WILDLABS.NET in November 2015 with support from Google.org and ARM

See also: Satellite tracking gives scientists a new view of wildlife

The reason I’m excited by WILDLABS.NET is that it is a huge step towards closing this gap between the tools available to a conservationist and those available to the everyday consumer. It will help on so many levels.

said Stephanie O'Donnell, community manager for WILDLABS.NET
O'Donnell became painfully aware of the information gap while researching a critically endangered species, the quoll, a small, predatory mammal. Working in a remote area of northern Australia in 2012, O'Donnell was trying to find reasonably priced GPS tracking collars small enough to fit the animal.

 

"It was not just a disconnect, but sheer insanity – having an iPhone in my pocket jammed full of all these amazing technological innovations, while I was struggling to get a collar that would give me a measly few weeks of GPS data. And the iPhone was cheaper than one of the collars! Utterly crazy," she recalled.

That's the information gap that WILDLABS.NET, with its mobile-friendly interface, can close by providing free connectivity and collaboration on a global scale for conservation efforts.

"If I had that same problem today," O'Donnell said, "at the most basic level I would now have a place to go to crowdsource advice about selecting collars and the range available to me from people who have used collars in similar situations or environments. With WILDLABS.NET, I also now have the opportunity to connect with technologists who could potentially help develop a collar that is bespoke for the specific challenges I’m facing."

See also: Dimension Data and Cisco announce project to protect rhino by tracking people

WILDLABS.NET users manage their own profiles and content and are able to review and discuss showcased technologies. There's also a member directory and private messaging system, which allows people to find and connect with each other directly.

Dave Cortright, director of technology at the Wildlife Conservation Network in San Francisco, created a WILDLABS.NET account and posted about a device that uses flashing lights to ward off predators from livestock in remote areas.

WILDLABS.NET users in South Africa, Namibia, India, California and Washington, D.C., responded about their experiences with various products; commenters also shared discussion threads with their nonmember contacts interested in the topic.

As a result, a wildlife nonprofit in Washington ordered special collars from South Africa for field tests on sheep in the U.S., with the goal of protecting not only livestock but the wolves and coyotes that would otherwise attack — and perhaps be killed by the farmer.

"Thanks to the power of this network, we've connected wildlife conservation technology with new groups who will use it to reduce human-wildlife conflict and ultimately prevent the unnecessary killing of predators," Cortright said in the final post.

Among eight WILDLABS.NET catalysts is the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. Rachel Kramer, a senior program officer at WWF who co-led development of the network, said the community isn't just on the lookout for technology breakthroughs, as simple solutions can work just fine too.

"Anyone who has field experience knows that often you have to start relatively simply and that the best tool for a certain challenge isn't necessarily the most sophisticated one," Kramer said. "We're trying to encourage not just sharing experiences from the fancy, ultra-high tech, we also want to encourage users to crowdsource what's available off the shelf and shown to work in a variety of scenarios."

Kramer is one of many participants with high hopes for the fledgling network, saying: "We’re building the infrastructure – a vibrant community of experts will make WILDLABS.NET the go-to resource on technology tools that save species.”

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