“Big Data” - the ability to capture, manage and analyze ever larger data sets for better decision making – is a trend effecting almost every sector, including conservation. Advances in imaging, sensors, data aggregation and analysis make it possible to collect higher quality data more often at lower cost and analyze it in such a way to better manage resources, verify improvements or degradations in ecosystems and give individual actors the ability to make better, data driven decisions.
Private, venture-backed companies are developing many of these technologies. SkyBox (now owned by Google) and PlanetLabs are have developed and launched micro satellites that promise higher resolution earth imaging data at a higher cadence than has previously been available. Climate Corp (recently purchased by Monsanto), FarmLink and Farmers’ Business Network are platforms that help American farmers manage data and make better decisions, while aWhere and SourceTrace are building data collection and management system for smallholder farmers in developing countries. Liquid Robotics and Saildrone are building unmanned ocean going vehicles, while Honeycomb, Ecodrone and many others are developing unmanned aerial vehicles that promise to drive the cost of remote sensing down significantly while improving the cadence and quality of data.
Why Should Environmentalists Care?
This big data revolution is going to effect many aspects of conservation:
- In certain areas, the cost of monitoring projects will go down considerably, and as a result the minimum viable size of certain projects should go down as well. Conservation/preservation transactions that didn’t pencil before, especially those that involve some type of credit or certification, will now make economic sense.
- It should be much easier to identify projects with the greatest potential for positive impact, something my friends at The Freshwater Trust call “uplift”. In the case of TFT, they use this data to identify the parcels of stream-side land that have the highest impact on water quality per acre restored. There are many other projects that will benefit from better understanding this “project delta and thereby using funds much more efficiently.
- New types of transactions will now be practical - because of this combination of cheaper and more accurate verification and much better targeting of resources, what have been until now boutique environmental transactions - habitat restoration, changes in farming practices and river flow restoration to name a few - have the potential to be done at much greater volume. I think ecosystem services, long an object of academic fascination and many pilot projects, is going to be supercharged by this data revolution. This means a significant source of new funding for environmental conservation and preservation.
- We’ll have a better understanding of existing agricultural, forestry and fisheries practices and ways to improve them. New management practices can be attempted, evaluated and quantified as well. Add this to the points above and there are many potential win-win, data driven opportunities for farmers and environmental groups to cork together.
- Most are laser focused on agriculture. Farmers seem like the most likely customers for much of this technology and VCs are excited to fund ag at the moment. Water companies now coming on line are going to likely focus on these same farmers as well as municipalities, who have notoriously long sales cycles.
- Many of them are finding it difficult to find customers early. Farmers are a skeptical lot, and even though everyone I talk to is optimistic in the medium to long term, it has been a long slog to get farmers signed up for a lot of these tools
- Finally, most of these companies are founded by scientists who, by and large, are personally extremely interested in how these technologies can be applied to conservation. Those that I have talked to want real environmental applications of their technologies that they can take to their boards and put resources behind serving
What Can We do?
Well, the four of you who read this blog work for or with foundations, wealthy environmentalists and/or large environmental groups. So I’m talking to you guys specifically. I think a lot rests on the environmental community’s ability to digest these new data flows as they arrive. That means understanding what’s coming down the technology pike, having tools developed to analyze data that produce actionable recommendations and finally to have new credit/certification/financing models ready to take advantage of the new data. To get all this done, we should:
- Partner with existing imaging, sensor, data management start-ups now - At the very least, we need to understand what data will be available when, so we can plan for it. So regular systematic contact with all of the major companies and investors is a no-brainer. This is also a time that purchase commitments can yield disproportionate influence. One large conservation customer who ponies up relatively modest funds to buy data or a custom application can bend the long term product development of a company toward conservation purposes. As I mentioned, many of these entrepreneurs are actively looking for a reason to build conservation-focused applications. But this involves being savvy enough to know which ones to work with and how you want to effect their planning. This kind of influence could also take the form of strategic investment, especially after the current bubble pops (and don’t kid yourself, it will pop)
- Start building analytical framework, software and policy now - Ask yourself what you could do in your current field(s) with ten times as much data, at ten times the data granularity, ten times as often and one tenth the cost. This is going to change how we manage farms, how we monitor healthy working forests, and how we sustain fisheries. But we will need the analytical frameworks, software tools and policy to take advantage of it. Impact investors in this space who aren’t investing in the companies above should think about funding dedicated conservation tools companies that don’t get the same love and attention that the ag tech companies get.
- Start piloting the financial transactions and iron out the related policy now - Like I said, I think there are a whole host ecosystem services projects that have been sitting on the shelf for lack of ways to accurately, inexpensively quantify environmental outcomes, and I think that is going to change very very soon. We need to be doing these transactions at small scale now and, importantly, getting the key policy pieces ironed out now, rather than when it is time to actually step on the gas.