Conservation.com: the internet as a source of information or innovation?

What do the trailer for Blue Planet 2, an Instagram post of Justin Bieber with his pet monkey, and this blog have in common? While all three are presented by cultural icons, they also show the increasing influence of the internet on people’s ideas of nature. In the 21st century, the majority of interactions between people and nature occur online. This dominion of the digital offers opportunities for conservation innovation.

Kickin it with og

A post shared by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) on

A key way that conservationists have exploited these online opportunities is by ‘crowd-sourcing’ data collection to non-experts. Crowdsourcing is when an organisation takes a job and outsources it to a large network of non-professionals. The growth in the use of the internet and mobile phones enabled the 500,000 people who took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch in the UK in 2018 to submit their results online. Zooniverse, the largest citizen science website, has over 1 million registered volunteers which have generated the data for over 150 academic papers. Crowdsourcing or ‘citizen science’ like this is cheap, quickly generates huge datasets over large areas, and engages the public with conservation issues. For these reasons crowdsourcing has become popular among conservationists.

In addition to citizen science campaigns, conservationists are increasingly starting to extract data from the social media posts. Billions of people create millions of posts every day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, producing a vast amount of openly accessible data. Analysing this data can indicate how people are thinking about and engaging with nature. Most of these posts are geotagged, so people’s values and activities can be located. This form of crowdsourcing is know as ‘crowdsensing‘, as people are not actively producing or volunteering information.

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Zooniverse – the largest platform for ‘people-powered research’ (Source: Zooniverse.org)

The internet presents a huge opportunity for conservation. But citizen science and crowdsensing use it as a source of information. These techniques treat people as sensors from which to collect data to fine tune conservation management. Citizen science is widely advertised as ‘empowering‘ for normal people, but in reality it just marks out the boundary between citizens and scientists more clearly. Citizens are used to complete mundane tasks, then scientists stitch together the information and draw innovative conclusions. The difference between citizens and scientists is even more explicit in crowdsensing. In the same way that scientists use satellite data to understand deforestation or species migrations, they use crowdsensing to comprehend people.

Citizen science and crowdsensing interact with a tiny fraction of the potential of the internet for conservation. Crowdsourcing does not just have to be used to generate information to enable professional conservationists to make decisions, it can be used to promote people to develop new approaches.

In 1900 there were more than 100,00 tigers in the wild. Today there are less than 4,000. Current conservation efforts are not working; there is a desperate need for innovation. ‘Think for Tigers’ aimed to solve this creativity crunch by launching an ideas competition to generate innovative ways of tracking and monitoring the species. Advertising through Facebook, Twitter and email, the competition was able to reach around 300,000 people. The winning idea was to study the individual roars of tigers to develop an audio-monitoring technique to monitor population sizes.

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New ideas to monitor tiger populations (Source: giphy.com)

Conservation innovation prizes have started to spread. The US-based Conservation X Lab’s award was won by a DNA Barcode scanner which aims to improve supply chain traceability for timber, wildlife and fish. WWF-New Zealand offers 3 prizes of $25,000 each year through its Conservation Innovation Award. One of the 2017 winners was a helicopter-mounted thermal imaging system, which can quickly cover difficult terrain and detect a target invasive pest population of goats, deer and pigs.

A key driver of their popularity is that conservation prizes and challenges are an incredibly efficient use of resources. The prize application process is simple and quick compared to applications for grant funding, and feedback on the application is far faster. This streamlines the process for innovators. Conservation NGOs benefit as the prizes often enable victorious innovators to secure additional funds. Furthermore, these competitions are an effective way for NGOs to draw in talented individuals from other fields. Public engagement can also be enhanced by asking the public to vote for their favourite idea, like WWF-New Zealand do.

‘Think for Tigers’ and WWF-New Zealand show that crowdsourcing is not limited to using the public to generate information, but can be used to harness creative thinking.  Creative crowdsourcing engages innovative people to work with scientists, which flattens the playing field between science and society. This contrasts with information crowdsourcing, which uses people to work for scientists and strengthens the ‘expert’-citizen divide. This is not to say that information crowdsourcing techniques like Citizen Science and crowdsensing are not useful for conservation. They can provide sorely lacking data that is instrumental to conservation successes. But they must stop making false claims to be about ‘engaging’ people with science. If we truly want to engage people in conservation in more productive ways, we should focus more on creative crowdsourcing.  Crowdsourcing shouldn’t just be about strengthening scientists’ ivory towers, it should shake them up as well.

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