technology

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.

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.