Mashable: How Paul Allen and Big Data Are Combating Africa's Elephant Crisis

Tech and media outlet Mashable did a great profile of the Great Elephant Census project recently, speaking with project lead Mike Chase, as well as Ted Schmidt, senior program manager-conservation at Vulcan Inc

Follow our Twitter handle @ElephantCount for more coverage of the project and updates on what others are doing to help Africa's elephant populations. 


The Great Elephant Census Talks Tech in Austin

We’ve been to Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana and now part of The Great Elephant Census team is in Austin, Texas, to lead a panel at SXSW Eco. We’re here to talk about “A Fitbit to Save the Elephants" and how big data and technology can help Africa's wild elephants as well as other species.

Data-driven decisions are beginning to transform many people's lives. From the moment they wake up to the time they fall asleep, humans are increasingly relying on data from smartphones and wearables like the Fitbit. This data is being displayed in easy-to-understand ways that can lead to better-informed decisions about health, travel, clothing choices and a host of other areas.

For animals, the technology that is gathering all this new data via wearables and smartphones could be used to help humans better understand elephants and other wildlife and inform new ways to conserve them. For example, the same tools people use to avoid traffic might be able to help elephants avoid poachers. Also, the same technology that people use to track their daily steps could be employed to understand where elephants go, what they eat and how habitat loss is impacting those habits. These tools could change approaches to conservation and help catalyze efforts to save wildlife being threatened with extinction.

That’s why Vulcan’s Dr. Kathleen Gobush, Senior Wildlife Manager, and Ted Schmitt, Conservation Technology Adviser, have traveled to Austin this week. They will be presenting current technologies and data tools being used on The Great Elephant Census with the hopes of inspiring others to think about wildlife conservation in another way.

We have also invited some of the world’s most renowned elephant and tech experts to discuss the potential impact of these new technologies. Dr. George Wittemyer of Save the Elephants, The Smithsonian’s Dr. Peter Leimgruber and Microsoft’s Lucas Joppa will share their insights on potential new technologies and data techniques that would revolutionize the fight to save elephants.

Stay tuned throughout the week as we'll be posting more news and notes from SXSW Eco.

Refreshing Our Map

We are in the middle of a busy time for the Great Elephant Census, with teams across the continent flying and counting. And some of the first results are being added to the project's database.

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Click the map to see a larger version. 

Now is a good time to update our map. When we launched this site and the project, we had a map from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Elephant Specialist Group that highlighted the "known" and "possible" ranges of elephants. 

We've built onto that initial map and overlaid the areas where survey teams have completed their parts of the Census as well as areas that are scheduled to be part of the project.

As you can see, there are still large areas where elephants are known or believed to be living that aren't part of the census. By focusing on the areas that we have selected, we will hit our goal of counting 90% of the continents savanna elephants. That 90% will allow the creation of an accurate estimate of the overall elephant populations.

Other areas are home to African forest elephants, which cannot be effectively counted using aerial surveys. We are exploring other ways to count and track elephants as part of the Census that could allow them to be counted in the future.

We expect to keep updating this map as the project moves ahead, so check out the Map page of the site and follow here as the survey teams complete the phases.  

Developing New Technology to Enhance Accuracy

How do we know our elephant counts are accurate? The answer is a proven scientific process, rigorous training, and careful application of technology applied consistently across all survey teams.

Survey teams for the Great Elephant Census came together before any surveys were made to discuss standards and training, and to identify ways to improve survey methods using technology.

One bit of technology the surveyors desired was a better way to keep track of flight altitude and speed. Fly too high or too fast and they are likely to under count the elephants; fly too low or too slow and there is a risk of over counting. They sought a device that would make it easier track flight speed and ensure altitude was right. 

To address this need, engineers at Vulcan Inc., Paul G. Allen's company, developed and built a simple, inexpensive survey data logger to help pilots stay on track and to record the data scientists need to calculate the count post-survey. 

The data logger is built from mostly off-the-shelf parts, including a consumer tablet that serves as the screen and input method. An app written by Vulcan engineers supplies the brain. Custom mounting brackets created using a 3-D printer attach the tablet to the logging unit, making the whole package able to tolerate the rough operating environment of wildlife surveys.

Six data loggers have been delivered to survey teams already, with several more on the way. Vulcan engineers and Howard Frederick, one of the survey scientists, recently met in Seattle to discuss upgrades to the data logger based on feedback from the field. Howard shared his excitement about data logger as an important tool for improving the accuracy of the Census. The entire team is dedicated to helping produce the best possible Census data. 

From Counting to Tracking: A 'Fitbit' for Elephants

We were thrilled this week to be among the first panels announced for the 2014 SXSW Eco Conference. Our panel is called called: A Fitbit to Save the Elephants and will focus on how new technology, data streams and big-data analysis can  inform efforts to manage and conserve elephants and other important wildlife populations. 

While the Great Elephant Census is relying on aerial surveys to create an accurate count of elephants, the team is also using tracking technology to learn more about the habits of elephant populations.

Dr. Mike Chase and a team member work to attach a tracking collar to an elephant. 

Dr. Mike Chase and a team member work to attach a tracking collar to an elephant. 

Current tracking technology involves heavy, expensive collars that require the elephants to be sedated so they can be attached.

The same technological improvements that are making phones smaller, tougher and more powerful, hold promise for better gadgets to track elephants. Also, new sensors and wireless connections could lower the cost and improve the amount of information that researchers can gather about elephants. The same kinds of technology that people are using to track and understand their fitness can be evolved to help illuminate the lives of elephant populations. 

From left, Frank Pope and Ian Douglas-Hamilton of Save The Elephants, an Stuart Graham of Vulcan Inc. were among the experts that gathered in Seattle recently to discuss wildlife tracking technology. 

From left, Frank Pope and Ian Douglas-Hamilton of Save The Elephants, an Stuart Graham of Vulcan Inc. were among the experts that gathered in Seattle recently to discuss wildlife tracking technology. 

We recently gathered a group of elephant researchers, wildlife experts and technologists in Seattle to share ideas and develop new thinking about how to track elephants and other animals. 

As part of the Census, we will be looking for opportunities develop new solutions and test some of these ideas. In October, we'll be sharing some of what we learn at the SXSW Eco Conference. 

We hope that you get a chance to join us in Austin, Texas, to hear new technology and data can fundamentally change our approach to conservation and catalyze efforts to conserve wildlife.