Tag Archives: Technology

Evolving Architecture for Internet of Things and Wildlife Conservation

The Internet was neither inevitable nor a simple happy accident. Similar to the evolution of our planet, the creation of the internet was a mess of interactions and a series of colliding forces and experiments. Most histories of the internet focus on geniuses that changed the world of computing; but they ignore the larger picture that the internet and its architecture was defined by an evolving society. As we enter into the era of ubiquitous computing, in which our computational interfaces will be ever more ingrained into our surrounding things, we will have the ability to monitor our environments anytime and anywhere. Also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), this new wave of computing should be expected to have a different architecture than that of the modern day Internet. Because it is embedded into our environments, it might even be expected to be a changing and living complex structure best defined by our environmental societal values and natural systems.

 The Internet of Things is defined in two components: (1) digital sensing technology embedded into surrounding things such as temperature or gas sensors, GPS, or video and audio data collecting devices; and (2) a networked communication system that shares the digital sensors’ information through nodes and connections. With these two components, a number of new environmental initiatives have started to employ IoT projects for conservation. In the paper “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa,” the authors noted examples including the monitoring ability of microchips on buildings or in streams to relay data about air pollution, nuclear radiation leaks, floodwaters, and e coli outbreaks. It further discussed even including animals into the Internet of Things and cited that homing pigeons have been equipped with GPS and air quality monitoring technology to relay information back to systems in real-time.

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Figure 1: Simple graphic of Internet of Things structure

While these are all cases of innovative ways to use digital sensor technology, the second component of the Internet of Things, the architecture of the IoT networked communication system, is more complex. Similar to the Internet, values and governance standards will help define the architectures for these types of systems and so they will reflect intended societal goals. Within the same paper, an example of architecture is discussed. To aid rangers in their protection of animals from poachers, a system of collars is worn by zebras to detect heard movement. The paper describes this as, “The system measures the GPS location of each animal and communicates the information using peer-to-peer short range radios. In addition to the mobile zebra collar nodes, the base node is mobile within the network, receiving information from whichever nodes are nearby through long-distance radio during fixed communication windows.”

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Figure 2: Leopard fitted with GPS collar from Savannah Tracking

This system resembles structures of the web in which the base node (a single piece of hardware that controls all data flows) can receive information from other nodes nearby. However, our large-scale Internet does not rely on one base node to relay this information. Having one base node leaves the project with low survivability and vulnerable to breaking down. Overall cases like this field-based IoT project will have to cycle through a number of structures depending on the governance of specific monitoring projects. Cases of high security (monitoring poaching) will require higher survivability and have a higher degree of locked information centrality between the component parts (the information is in a controlled and private network with few people receiving the information). On the other hand, projects intending to engage the public in greater citizen science and awareness will look to have an open-source and decentralized structure potentially allowing for new hardware nodes to be placed in my amateurs themselves. One example might allow citizens to place their own digital sensor into a soil project and it immediately joins the other soil monitors’ network over a mobile app.

Ubiquitous computing for the environment should be expected to be as multi-layered and chaotic as environmental governance itself with scales of power and a variety of structures. Analyzing the architectures and agendas of our environmental entities will allow for us to better create appropriate networks for the Internet of Things. Perhaps the constantly editable and evolving nature of digitality and the environmentally embedded nature of ubiquitous computing will bring environmental institutions into the 21st century. With this technology spreading rapidly, we are left with an exciting future some questions of design for our relationship with animals and the environment: How will we design IoT systems that are as resilient and fluid as needed for the coming rapid environmental change? Will the structure of these IoT networks change the way we value citizens as active participants in science and conservation? With machine learning, how can we design these IoT architectures to learn and respond to data fluxes and best communicate what is happening between ecosystems to us?


  1. Dlodlo, N. “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa.” 2012 International Conference on Environment Science and Engineering. (2012).
  2. Al-Qaseemi, Sarah, et al. “IoT architecture challenges and issues: Lack of standardization.” Future Technologies Conference. (2016).

Lauren Neville is american student thrilled to be joining the BCM community! With two degrees in Environmental Studies and Communication, Culture & Technology, she is passionate about the role that emerging technologies including drones, sensors, and artificial intelligence can play in biodiversity citizen science initiatives. Before coming to Oxford, she was an urban beekeeper caring for up to 80,000 honeybees in Washington, D.C. and worked at non-profits including the Jane Goodall Institute and Conservation International’s fieldwork office in Fiji.

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.

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.

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.