Is technology the solution?

The World Parks Congress (WCP) in Sydney has come to an end with a closing ceremony that focused on several main themes: integrating indigenous communities into the decision making processes; recognizing park rangers for their work at the front line of conservation; involving the youth of the world to lead the future of parks, people and the planet; and learning the art of story telling to inspire larger audiences to support conservation. These messages are primary aspects of the Promise of Sydney, which is “the blueprint for a decade of change coming from the deliberations of this World Parks Congress.” It is now up to the delegates and the rest of the conservation community to go back to their countries and “save the world.”

But saving the world is not easy. Most delegates will agree that despite the interesting conversations that we all shared during the course of the week, there is still much uncertainty in terms of how to convert the talk into practice. Words of hope fade away easily without actions to make them tangible. After all, “actions speak louder than words,” as they say.

So what key actions have derived from this Congress? Unquestionably, there were some extremely bold and inspiring promises coming from governments, especially those made by Gabon, Madagascar and South Africa to substantially increase their marine protected areas. However, the action plan for the rest of us is still ambiguous. Some guidance was provided in the form of presentations about several topics including building partnerships, promoting governance transparency, implementing conservation finance mechanisms, providing indigenous rights and participation and finally, implementing innovative technologies for enhanced protected area management. This last topic was mostly presented in side events, individual stands and/or demos, compared to the multiple-day long sessions about the other issues; yet its practical implications were picked up by many delegates and will perhaps become one of the most significant contributions of WPC into the future actions for parks and conservation.

Mao Of Life

Many of the new technologies presented at WPC focused on biodiversity informatics and monitoring. Perhaps the most groundbreaking was the Map of Life (MOL), promoted by Dr. Walter Jetz from Yale University. The MOL “endeavors to provide best possible species range information and species list for any geographic area” by integrating species data from multiple sources including IUCN, WWF, GBIF and expert species range maps. The platforms on which MOL is powered are Google App, Google Earth, Google Maps and CartoDB, which ensure fast-working and state-of-the-art processing capabilities. Beyond showing the maps of 971,132 species distributions with high resolution, MOL provides information on species potential representation in reserves and allows users to interact with the data to inform policy making about species protection coverage demands. The significance of MOL is that it is easy to use and freely available online, giving decision makers access to the most ‘accurate’ available geographic information on species distributions.

Other biodiversity technology breakthroughs included diverse wildlife trafficking monitoring tools. The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is a result of a partnership between several conservation organizations in

SMART Demonstrationcluding WCS, WWF, ZSL, NC Zoo, CITES, FZS, MIKE, and Panthera and has the goal of “measuring, evaluating and improving the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement patrols and site-based conservation activities”. SMART is both a software for ground monitoring of wildlife threats, and a holistic approach that allows improved reporting and communication for decision making. The benefit of SMART is that it is free and open access, which allows extensive application in protected areas. The tool has already been implemented in over 20 countries and is in the process of being introduced to many more in the months to come. WildScan, PROTECT- FIST (Field Information Support Tool), and Instant Wild were other geographic species monitoring tools presented at this Congress that use photographic and mobile technologies to detect and inform threats related to poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Google and NASA had their own pavilions at the WCP and continuously displayed new satellite imagery and software meant to clarify phenomena within earth systems, emphasizing the key role of geospatial data in conservation. GIS maps appeared on every screen at the WPC.  Many other programs, from databases to best practice toolkits, were also offered as better ways to manage information about protected areas. The list is endless.

But what does all this technology mean? In the Yale Team’s meeting at WPC with Yolanda Kakabadse, President of the World Wildlife Fund, we heard that technology is one of the greatest tools that young conservationist have at our disposition. She mentioned that only a few decades ago conservationists had to rely on paper correspondence to do their work and raise awareness about environmental degradation. Now, technology and social media allow for a much more rapid and efficient communication, exponentially increasing our understanding of the environment and our capacity to act.

Technology, like imagination, has no boundaries and it has a huge potential to revolutionize the way we do conservation in the coming decade until the next WCP. However, technology on its own is not the solution. In fact, it may be counterproductive for conservation if certain principles are not considered. First, a key challenge of the years to come will be how to integrate all these new technologies. Technology developers and researchers should work together to improve their products and to share information both in terms of data and effort. It is not practical to allow technology to proliferate separately to an extent where it confounds and discourages users from using it due to the multiplicity of similar yet different options. There must be extra care put into not reinventing the wheel. Second, users should always keep in mind that the models that are produced by technology are not an exact representation of reality. Those models must be accompanied by a thorough ground inspection that proofs their validity and the logic behind the assumptions made. Finally, the virtual realm of technology must come to terms with social, political and economic factors that operate and dictate practices on the land. The physical world is not a map with strict boundaries and predictable processes that can be fully explained by technology.  It is a complex system of natural and social interactions that are key to providing conservation solutions. Technology brings us hope for the future, but “saving our planet” will require personal engagement in understanding such interactions and using technology to their service.

NASA Screen at WPC