We are about to know more about our physical environment than anyone thought possible. There are revolutions happening in micro-satellites, drones, low cost sensors and software platforms to manage all that data. Add to that mix tens of millions of potential citizen scientists holding tens of millions of phones and you have an avalanche of data that is about to come our way. This should be of great interest to environmental groups and environmentally-focused impact investors. That’s the good news. The bad news is, by and large, we don’t actually know what most of this data is good for
“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:
So this is (mostly) good news and part of the good news is that the technology and the ensuing mountain of data will move forward with or without the environmental community or impact investors lifting a finger. Companies raising investment in the space right now benefit from simultaneous ag tech and big data bubbles (on top of the existing venture bubble) so they’re not hurting for funds at the moment. I expect that, given the California drought, water data companies are seeing a similar rush to funding. A few things to keep in mind though:
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:
Patrick Maloney lives in Portland, OR where he helps nice people working on cool stuff. He tries to limit his blogging to things about which he knows something.