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Big brother gone green: using technology to tackle the eco-crisis

Hugh Knowles and Martin Wright

6th April, 2012

The revolution in remote monitoring should help solve environmental problems, but might it also increase our distance from the natural world?

Deep in the rainforests of eastern Cameroon, someone is moving swiftly through the trees. He has the practised tread of a man who knows every inch of this land – as did his ancestors before him. He’s in a race against time. He pauses by the buttressed roots of a towering tree, rummages in his pouch and pulls out what could be a vital tool for the future of his way of life: a customised GPS device, ‘forest-proofed’ in a tough rubberised plastic case. On its screen, a series of icons enable the illiterate forest dweller to record essential information such as the location and size of a valuable hardwood tree. The forest tribes have fished and hunted these lands since time began and now they’re logging them. Not logging as in chopping wood: this version of the word has precisely the opposite goal. They’re compiling a digital map of their homeland, marking trees and other landscape features. This is in theory protected land but it’s been at risk from incursion by timber companies, benefiting from confusion as to just where boundaries – and rights – lie in the remote forests.

Now the data gathered on the ground will be matched with satellite observations to provide a highly precise map of the area. The device and its software have been developed by Helveta. The UK company uses a range of monitoring techniques, from satellite imagery to handheld devices, to track assets including timber, soya and coffee, through increasingly complex and tangled global supply chains. Or, in this case, help a forest community define its traditional rights. And there’s more. By using barcodes and implanting tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in the bark of valuable hardwoods, it’s now become possible to trace the timber all the way from the forest to the consumer, providing an electronic chain of custody.

Satellite monitoring has already revolutionised our ability to tell what’s going on in the most remote regions of the world. Brazil’s Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) is keeping an eye on the state of deforestation in the Amazon, checking pretty much every hectare of standing forest for signs of disturbance. But, warns Helveta’s Philip Briscoe, 'there is only so much you can tell from a satellite.' Some illegal loggers, he says, have managed to take out trees in a way which, for a time at least, appears to leave the canopy more or less intact as far as the satellite image is concerned. 'You need people who can see changes on the ground – what we call ‘ground truthing’ – and log them.' That makes it 'harder and harder to hide behind unsustainable or illegal practices when sourcing raw materials'.

There’s growing demand for such services from companies keen to prove they’re not complicit in rainforest destruction. Gibson Guitars, for example, was shocked when FBI agents raided its Nashville factory accusing it of using illegally harvested hardwood. The court case is still ongoing but it stung Gibson into exploring ecologically responsible alternatives. The use of monitoring technology could have prevented the issue arising in the first place. Jean Paul Vooght, who blogs at Citizen Sensing, says that to make the most of the technology available, we need a mix of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sensing. Hard sensing is what can be measured and monitored solely by machines, such as sensors connected to vast databases, or remote viewing from satellites. The soft variety involves humans going out into nature, noticing changes and logging them, sometimes with the help of automatic sensors.

And there’s no reason why such activities should be restricted to rainforest tribes with custom-made gizmos. Many of us carry around some impressively powerful ground truth monitors in the shape of our smart phones. Their combination of GPS and cameras is already being put to use by initiatives such as Project Noah, whose motto is ‘citizen scientists everywhere’. Its apps allow users to map animals and plants in their local area to feed into scientific research. Other uses are more down to earth. Urban Edibles encourages folk across the world to go foraging by mapping local sources of wild foods such as fruits and herbs.

Future smart phones could include pollution sensors

There’s no technical obstacle to putting this sort of software on mobiles everywhere, allowing millions to map community assets. Future smart phones could connect to wearable pollution sensors, or even have them embedded in the phone itself. The University of California in San Diego is developing a pollution-sensing chip for just such a purpose. The Android app ‘Visibility’ uses the phone’s camera to take a snapshot of the horizon, then analyses it to estimate the amount of pollution in the haze. Such inventions could allow us to build up detailed pictures of air quality on a street-by-street basis, spotting hotspots, and navigating around them.

Our phones could alert us to more serious hazards, too. Apple has just announced that its new operating system, iOS 5, will include the ability to connect to Japan’s earthquake warning system, hinting at the functionality our phones might have in the future if linked up to huge environmental sensor networks. With mobile use almost universal among Asia’s coastal communities, there’s every chance of avoiding a repeat of the horrendous casualties in the 2004 tsunami.

Remote sensing’s ability to warn us of catastrophes before they happen needn’t just apply to freaks of nature like earthquakes or tsunamis. With increased monitoring of the environment, we might also stand a greater chance of being able to predict tipping points in entire natural systems, possibly in time to avert a catastrophic crash. A 2009 paper in Nature suggested that a wide range of systems, from fish populations to financial markets, display some 'generic early-warning signals', including a range of unusual fluctuations, 'if a critical threshold is approaching.' Spotting those signals needs some pretty extensive and sophisticated monitoring but a new initiative by the National Science Foundation in the USA is aiming to do just that. Its National Ecological Observatory Network, to be launched at a cost of $434 million, will help scientists use the latest sensor technology deployed at ‘nodes’ in 24 states to gather and synthesise data on everything from invasive species to the effects of climate change. It should be operational by 2013.

All this has been enabled by a surge in the power and sophistication of monitoring technology at the same time as it has tumbled in price. In less than a decade, it has brought us to the point where, without leaving our laptops, we can keep tabs on a corner of a distant rainforest, map the migration of whales, and track the progress of tropical hardwood from tree to forest to furniture store. Whether we’re doing so as nature lovers, supply chain managers, or both, we are becoming a collective Big Brother. But it’s no coincidence that our capacity to monitor nature remotely is growing at a time when the number of us who experience it directly, with our senses rather than our sensors, is shrinking. In 2010, humanity passed a significant milestone. Over 50 per cent of us now live in cities – and it’s starting to show.

In one of the more populist uses of remote monitoring, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds placed a camera on a rare nesting osprey and its chicks, high in a tree on a remote Scottish hillside, offering round-the-clock viewing online. RSPB staff were delighted that tens of thousands of enthusiasts logged on to watch. But when one of the chicks appeared to start choking as it fed, the organisation was flooded with anxious messages from viewers, demanding that someone do something to stop it. They were reacting not as privileged observers of nature in the wild but as horrified witnesses of the callous neglect of a cherished pet. Conversely, it is possible to sit transfixed as hurricanes whirl across your computer screens in real time – yet their hypnotic beauty from above does little to connect you to the devastation below. The same technology which can help us zoom in on nature, in other words, sometimes serves to reinforce our lack of connection with – or understanding of – natural realities.

'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?'

Seventy years ago, the poet TS Eliot asked: 'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?' As humans, we notice and absorb a huge, eclectic range of information about our surrounding environment at any one time, some of it easily quantifiable, some not. Over generations, this builds up into a vast store of experiential wisdom which helps us navigate our surroundings. But in our information-rich age, it is all too tempting to use the latest technology to apply a reductionist view of the world around us. We break it down to its constituent bits, and end up with ones and zeros where once there were rivers, forests, whole ecosystems – things of incredible beauty and complexity.

Gathering data is, by definition, a reductionist enterprise. Whether we’re a Cameroonian forest dweller pinpointing a tree or a climate modeller painstakingly correlating the readouts from a host of temperature sensors, we are of necessity trying to narrow our focus. You have to define specific parameters, then zero in on your target with laser-like precision – ignoring everything else. It’s hard to record what you’re not looking for. Say you’ve given rainforest dwellers portable loggers to map specific trees but there’s no icon to press to say they’ve become diseased as a result of drought weakening their defences. It would be a valuable early warning of possible ecosystem collapse, an indicator of a much more serious problem than any illegal logging. But in this particular data monitoring exercise at least, it will remain invisible.

So amidst all the excitement over the potential of this benign Big Brothery, we have to stay awake to what it won’t tell us. In part, that just means keeping a sense of perspective – looking up from the laptop now and then to see what the weather’s doing; going for a walk in the woods. But we can also look for ways to subtly modify our data gathering, too, deliberately ‘softening’ some of the parameters so as to pick up what we’re not looking for, as well as what we are. And we can learn from people whose experience of the natural world is still largely unmediated.

In Cameroon, Helveta has established long-term relationships with 15 different forest communities. It started by finding out what was important to the villagers in maintaining their way of life, and only then designed the software to record it. As a result, local people now have GPS devices designed to map their land in terms of the various uses and meanings it holds for them. So, they record the sources of their medicinal plants, their fishing waters and hunting grounds, their ancestral homes, and so on. In doing so, they not only provide valuable hard data, which can help establish legal rights over their land and defend it against illegal incursion; they also provide something of a record of their way of life, and so, to some degree at least, capturing wisdom and knowledge, as well as information. TS Eliot would be proud.

Hugh Knowles is a futures and innovation specialist at Forum for the Future. Martin Wright is Editor in Chief of Green Futures. A version of this article first appeared in Green Futures.

 

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