Big Data meets wildlife: Can Big Data save rare species?

Environment | Sectors   |   
Published July 22, 2014   |   
Chris Towers

Big Data has always been associated with business improvements, increased profitability and even the sentiment of customers towards a particular company. In reality, this is the absolute minimum of the potential that Big Data has.

Often touted as an industry worth $15 billion by 2015, this does not give it the full breadth of what can be achieved with the increased collection, analysis and actionable insight that data provides.

Why has it been concentrated on business for so long? The reason for this is purely monetary, the early adopters of this kind of technology are always going to be the ones who can invest the most money in it. For this reason, it is not surprising that financial institutions, banks, and large multinationals are streaking ahead of other companies in terms of Big Data adoption.

The reality is that with this kind of power, true impacts can be made on more than bank balances and customer happiness, it can make a genuine change to the planet. In essence; Big Data can save the world.

In this article, we look at the way how the power of data is used to make a true difference to the world by saving rare species.

When people think of saving rare species, they think of remote jungles, scientists and people chaining themselves to trees. The stereotyped idea is that animals in the wild are very difficult to track and that the only way that people do this is through a rudimental tracking system with a small sample making assumptions for the wider community.

Big Data and the complexities of data analysis could not be further from this, with the collection of massive data sets combined with complex predictive models and algorithms creating insights. The idea that enough data could even be collected to make a useful analysis is hard to imagine.

However, this has changed recently as HP has teamed up with Conservation International (CI) to create Earth Insights.

This programme has been designed to give an early warning system for animal numbers amongst endangered species across the world. Through the use of cameras and climate sensors, the system can collect data from around 1000 of these devices and use it to collate information on population numbers.

This information is then fed into the HP Vertica platform, allowing for quick and accurate readings that can help to target specific areas or species that need to have time or money invested in them.

The issues that arose for Conservation International before was not that this information was impossible to get hold of (after all, essentially all that would be needed is a series of well-positioned cameras). The huge number of images that are collected due to this were almost unmanageable.

The scientists at CI would spend weeks or sometimes months analyzing the data and drawing collations and conclusions from it. This kind of work is time sensitive, if a declining population is found too late, it could spell the end for that species.

Through the collaboration with HP, CI has now improved processing speed by 90%. This has given them an effective early warning system as well as freeing up time for their personnel to actually make the differences to the animal population. It has essentially allowed 90% more time to be spent on actively working with the species to increase their numbers.

So has this system worked? It is in its early stages (the collaboration was only announced in December 2013) but early signs have been positive. Using the new technology and HP platform the team have recognized that from all species being monitored, 22% have experienced a drop in population numbers. That this has been identified in a timely manner means that efforts to protect these species and increase populations can be more effective.

So far the system has created over 3 terabytes of analyzable data and has 1.4 million photos from the cameras placed to track the populations.

In addition to these photos, the climate monitoring equipment also measures the environment in the area. The importance of these goes beyond simply knowing the temperature or the amount of rain, but has a further reaching purpose, allowing scientists to monitor what is causing decreasing populations.

Through the data collected, it is possible to see what kind of conditions are having positive or negative effects on species populations. This will then allow scientists to have further insight into what are causing these conditions and take steps to negate or propagate this environment. The fact that the system allows for issues revolving around this to be identified much earlier, means that these conditions, and fluctuations in them, can be analyzed in a more sustained and accurate way. Small changes can be picked up quickly and steps can be put into place to prevent negative changes.

This kind of work shows the wider environmental benefits that Big Data can have on the world. The collaboration of companies like HP with charities shows that it is not necessarily just going to be a money-making business function, but a true performance enhancer across a multitude of human, societal and environmental issues.

If this programme can be as successful as it has the potential to be then we are likely to see this adopted across a far wider array of charities and environmental issues and that can only ever be a good thing.

This article appeared on the 9th issue of Big Data Innovation Magazine. To download a copy, click here. Published with persmission.