The Natural Way of Tech
14 December 2016 at 11:47 am
It might sound paradoxical, but tech is getting in touch with its natural side, with digital advancements increasingly used to solve some of the most complex environmental problems.
A key theme of the recent Purpose conference, which explored the “conscious-capitalism revolution”, was Planetary Tech, looking at how environmental and human goals are being served via a combination of technology and nature.
Speaker and Wildlabs.net community manager Stephanie O’Donnell said there were “huge opportunities” in technology for social good and “transforming the way we understand and interact with the natural world”.
Wildlabs.net brings conservationists who use technology in their work together with technologists who are interested in using their skills for wildlife conservation.
“It’s very much about collaboration and connection to improve how we use tech in my sector,” O’Donnell told Pro Bono Australia News.
“Wildlabs.net was conceived and empowered by the United for Wildlife Collaboration, which is seven international conservation organisations, which include WWF, Fauna & Flora International and the Zoological Society of London.
“Those conservation organisations were brought together by the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, who convened these organisations to come together and work on issues like the illegal wildlife trade and engaging 15 to 30 year olds in wildlife conservation.
“And in that collaboration the issue they identified was the fact that with technology there’s so many opportunities for us to use it better, but what we need is to be a little bit better at sharing what each other is doing.
“Information gets siloed within different organisations, different academic institutions, even different field offices. It’s really hard to understand what everyone else is doing and to share lessons learnt and collaborate. We’re time bound and funding bound. So there’s this big gap in terms of information and creating a space for collaboration.”
With the help of tech giants Google.org and ARM, the collaboration founded Wildlabs.net.
“It’s the place for them to share what they’re working on, crowdsource answers to questions about deploying technology in their work, whether it’s using drones for habitat mapping or using acoustic sensors for tracking wolves or using machine learning to analyse millions of camera-trap images,” O’Donnell said.
“These are some of the things our community members are working on. It’s a place where they can meet like-minded folk and understand what’s out there, what potential technology has to be deployed in their work. And it’s also a place for technologists, like engineers, designers or makers, to use their skills and discover how they can help conservationists in their work and use their skills for good.”
She said in the first year alone Wildlabs.net had filled a gap that conservationists and environmental organisations were experiencing.
“In the first year we’ve grown very organically because we wanted to feed our community with conservationists and be challenge-led rather than just have technologies and saying ‘where can we apply these’, making sure that what’s coming through first is saying ‘these are the issues on the ground, how can we fix them’,” she said.
“It’s been something that’s been desperately needed. We have 1,300 members worldwide and we’ve had visitors from 110 different countries and a lot of field-based members who are just crying out for this sort of resource and for a community that can help them deploy technology.”
However, she said projects which combined technology with social and environmental problem solving should still be cautious of unintended consequences.
“We’re getting all this data, we’re getting all this information, it could be fantastic, it could be transformative, but there are also other things to consider,” she said.
“Who is actually getting access to the data, are we making it easier for poachers for example to access animals, are there privacy concerns?
“A lot of people get really excited by technology, and it is wonderful and it has such potential in my sector to have such a huge impact for good.
“But we do need to think about how we’re applying it and have the social discussions, have the ethical discussions, and have that at the start of project planning and bring different voices into the discussions about what we’re doing and how we’re deploying technology so it’s deployed for the benefit of all.”