Podcast: Alasdair Davies | Creative Technologist
In this episode we speak to Alasdair Davies – Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and creative technologist on a journey to deliver affordable, open conservation technology for all. We talk about how fast-changing technologies from drones, to sat tags, camera traps and mobile phones are rapidly changing the way we collect and interpret data in the quest to conserve threatened wildlife globally.
If like me you LOVE tinkering with technology you’ll love this episode. [I once fitted a dozen barn owl boxes with sensors linked to talking clocks and voice activated Dictaphones to monitor when the owls visited the boxes…!]
We also discuss the career ways into becoming a creative technologist, and where the field is heading over the next decade.
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NICK: Welcome to the podcast, Alasdair Davies. Alasdair is a creative technologist on a journey to deliver open and affordable conservation technology for all. I think maybe we’ll start, if it’s alright, Al to talk… can I call you Al, is that alright?
ALASDAIR: You can call me Al, yes. There’s a song about that too I think but er… (laughter)
NICK: Maybe we can start with what exactly is a Creative Technologist? It’s something I’ve started to see a little bit more of online but how would you describe what a Creative Technologist is or does?
ALASDAIR: Essentially my role as conservation technologist is to support conservationists and researchers in the field and it’s good to define what that means as well, because as a conservationist for a number of years, the tools I’ve been using are essentially very hand-held, very personal so camera traps and telemetry tags and so on for tracking wildlife. They’re the kind of tools that I’ve been using for many, many years. So creative technologist, really, your space is to see how you can use those to help people do their work, potentially ask new questions, so new research questions that they may not have been able to ask yet due to barriers and access to technology.
And it’s also to come up with new methods and new tools because there is a whole heap of problems that we can’t yet answer. Often it’s due to cost, often it’s due to potentially the size of a certain technology, and it’s your job to really define what that looks like, work with engineers, work with researchers, work across the whole spectrum to support that and make that happen and get technology into the hands of the researchers and scientists who need it.
NICK: And what are the sorts of problems within wildlife conservation that technology can help to address? Where do you see opportunities to really engage and make a difference?
ALASDAIR: For me, fundamentally it’s all been about scale. And what I mean by scale is, if you’re trying to address a problem in the field, so say you want to define a population, so you want to figure out a certain species is found in an area, it numbers X, it uses Y habitat, these are all difficult problems to solve. And if you go back many years, that was also very difficult to solve. There was often observation, so you would mark if you saw a species, potentially mark and re-capture, so you’d mark an animal, see if you could capture it again and get an idea of how many live in a certain area. Technology helps you scale up that problem.
You can use it to tag animals, you can use camera traps to identify where they are at all times of day, and if we can answer these questions faster, we can do more; if we can use the data quickly to also show a correlation, so potentially there’s a habitat change which is affecting the species that you assume is happening, technology helps you answer that. And it’s all about the scale for me because I’ve been doing this for about 11 years and when I first started, it would take a number of years to even get into the field, and researchers would come back with a small set of data because the technology, for example a camera trap, was so expensive to purchase at the time, and they would talk about, if we could go and do this here, we could answer this; if we could go and do this here, potentially use a new type of tool, we could go and answer this.
And it was that frustration that we could use technology to do so much more and scale up our understanding of what’s happening in the environment that really created my career path because I started trying to take that challenge on and over the years, that’s what’s built my role as a creative technologist to try and do just that – answer questions quickly, effectively and at scale so we can really address the needs and understanding that we need to adopt.
NICK: I’m looking forward to kind of talking about your career story actually, and how you got to where you are but I just wanted to dig in a little bit more about the sort of technology and the opportunities for conservationists. When you talk to conservationists nowadays, as someone who’s a creative technologist yourself, do you just see huge opportunities for doing a lot of their work and for helping them? Do you get excited by all the things that could happen and that you’d like to achieve?
ALASDAIR: It’s a really good question because it’s also not just about what I do as an individual engineer. So a really good example here is, there’s a very exciting acoustic recorder available that came onto the market about, probably a year ago now.
NICK: Is this Audiomoth, by any chance?
ALASDAIR: It’s Audiomoth, yeah. It’s very famous at the moment, I mean it’s selling like hot cakes. But the Audiomoth wasn’t created by me as an individual, it was created by some PhD candidates from Oxford University and Southampton and also a professor at Oxford as well. And it was a low-cost acoustic recorder, and they actually released it to try and solve a problem, which was – can we listen for acoustics across a wide area for very low cost? And that’s created a huge wave of opportunity for a number of academics and scientists in the field because if you compare the quality of that recorder, so its ability to record, frequencies it can listen to, the time it can operate, fidelity and the quality of the audio, it’s comparable to a device which is $1,000. You can get an Audiomoth for £49.99. And that’s just opened up a huge opportunity for so many people who for a very long time have been restricted from listening at scale.
So if you want to go and detect the presence of bats, for example, the Audiomoth can do this, it can listen for ultrasonic. So now you can go and place 10 times as many recorders over a wide range and you can finally collect that important data that’s so necessary for you and on my side, what I tried to do, was just enable that to happen. Support the small team who have come up with a fantastic tool who may not have the capacity and the time to distribute it, to handle support, to do all of the meta really, all that work, you know, that’s behind the scenes that we all fundamentally get stuck with. When your inbox is overflowing and you’ve got to finish your presentation for the next day and you’ve got six people asking, you know, how do I turn on my Audiomoth, how do I configure it to do X?
It can be very difficult so I started looking at how can I, as an individual, even create an organisation to do that for people that are using technology, developing technology and the Audiomoth is really a prime example because it’s just been adopted by so many people now, I think there’s around 1,200 devices, I think? That’s huge. That’s, you know, over 100 people buying Audiomoths to go and work on their specific projects. And it’s all about the access, it’s low cost, good, I mean the technology has to be good, so it’s been proven, people like it, they’ve come back because it delivers and that’s really changing the scene of how we consume tech, how we buy it, how people can access it because there are no commercial companies involved here. This is just supporting talented PhD candidates in what they’ve come up with, so electrical engineers, and making sure people can get their hands on this equipment.
NICK: Yeah, it’s a great example. I was looking myself earlier at Audiomoth and I’ve sort of become aware of it recently, people used to listen at home and overnight for birds that are flying over, which normally you wouldn’t pick up any other way but you can record all night and then use software to filter out the bird calls and identify birds that were flying over that you would never have heard otherwise. Can you think of any other examples, like real tangible examples, that people would understand how technology is being used, that are quite specific? Are there projects that you’ve been involved with yourself, where technology has really helped to resolve a problem in wildlife conservation?
ALASDAIR: Yeah. One of my favourite projects is working on sea turtles. For a long time, I’d worked on a number of sea turtle conservation projects and programmes, Costa Rica specifically. The use of telemetry, so tagging sea turtles with satellite tags, has been around for many years so it’s definitely not new. It’s always been fundamentally expensive. To tag a green sea turtle costs around $2,000-3,000 for a single tag. And that would give you the location and it would give you some of the meta such as pressure and potentially accelerometer as well. And that data’s used to map where that turtle moves, potentially where it’s feeding, and you can use that to inform policy, designate MPAs, etc. But at that cost, very very hard to get a lot of data out of a large population of green sea turtles.
But if you look inside the tag itself, the technology is very accessible now from other sectors that are really pushing forward how you can use wireless connectivity, accelerometers in your phones etc. In the urban space, IoT as it’s called, so the internet of things, it’s booming. So you’ll know in the connected home, for example, a dream for a number of manufacturers is to have your toaster send you a ping to let you know your toast is done or your dishwasher is gonna say that it needs to reorder itself some detergent, etc. So that kind of modern dream, which is also quite scary and potentially not necessary. But that’s happening, that tech drive and that acceleration from all those companies that have a lot of money, they’re not in conservation specifically, are bringing the cost of these forms of technologies down. And we’re now consuming those, so all of these smartphone-based low-power processors, accelerometers, LoRa – you’ll probably hear of LoRa a lot soon, that’s a long-range, low-cost radio network – we’re adopting those forms of technology and building our own tags. And what this means is we can now build our own satellite-enabled tags for 1/10th the cost of what it’s cost traditionally. And that’s now opening up access to a huge new dataset.
A prime example of this is in Principe Islands, so the west coast of Africa, I’ve been working on a project there with the Principe Trust. And they wanted to look at plastics in the water, which we all know is a huge issue at the moment. And it’s hard to identify a plastic bag in the water because there’s only so many ways you can detect that. And we decided to go for a video tag. So we would optically wake up the video on the shell or the carapace of the sea turtle at set intervals and we would detect the presence of plastics in the water. And we built 10 of these tags using a Raspberry Pi, which again is a very popular device now, we actually used the smallest one called the Raspberry Pi 0, which is about £15, and we built that into a video recorder, we put on some extra control mechanisms to wake it up so a real time clock at certain times of the day, fitted it with batteries, 3D printed (at first) an enclosure design so we could test it all together. Then we went and got and milled our own enclosure, again using Makerspace-style machinery, so we did this all ourselves in terms of having to go out and buy, you know, commercial components, and we built 10 tags. And they cost about £300 for a video tag. The comparative video tag in the commercial space will be many thousands of pounds.
But we floated these Raspberry Pi on the sea turtles, they were nesting green so they came back 14-15 days later because that’s their inter-nestal clutch cycle, and we got this video footage off and it was fantastic because we could see interactions, we could see 5 or 6 females together at one point, we could see exactly where plastic waste was trapped on the rocks, where they were interacting with it, we could get a sense of behaviour over time – it’s a tool that now can be used in all manner of new locations so whenever there’s a coastal development and they want to have a look at potential run-off from rivers; plastic is a huge issue for urban environments flowing out from rivers into the ocean; we can get a sense of how bad that is. Or even potentially, has effort in town and cities to clear up plastic waste had an effect in the ocean?
We can use the sea turtles to actually quantify that if we repeat that study and get a sense of how many encounters with plastic did we get over a certain duration of time. If that hadn’t been done or we weren’t trying to work in that space to lower the cost of these tags and make that accessible to researchers, we’d still be sitting in the same space where it’s possible but you’re limited. We don’t have the budgets in conservation to do that. And also even the technical support – it can be costly to buy a tag and then for it to fail or it to fall off, potentially too. How are you going to replace that? Well, if we make them that much more accessible and we make it repairable as well, so if your Raspberry Pi breaks, it’s £15 to change it out, you can pop open the enclosure and do it.
All of these factors have become really important in our work. I essentially created an organisation two years ago to take all of these new designs, and they’re all Open Source, so we can make sure they’re accessible to anyone who wants to adopt it and bring in their own engineering team and modify it and customise it, and I’m now working on a platform, so an Open Source bio-logging, a telemetry platform, that will help people access all of these innovations and every time we change it, so for example, if someone comes along and says, really I love what’s going inside your sea turtle tag, all those electronics are perfect for me, I want to go and put it on a hyena in a collar, we’re going to say well that’s fine. So long as we work on a collar and get it ethically approved and we go, you know, work hand-in-hand with your organisation, we can take this low-cost telemetry technology inside here and repurpose it and off you go. Then you’ve got a £150 hyena collar. And that’s really changing that space and there’s a whole load of interest at the moment about what that’s going to do, because it just means we can work better as a community, we can access tools that we’ve not really had access to at that quantity before and it should hopefully answer a lot more and help people in that way.
NICK: It’s amazing, it’s really exciting to think where things might be going. I mean, we’ve all seen over the last 5-10 years that the uptake of things like, I guess, drones, you know, just commercially and, you know, for fun, in their own back gardens, and now conservationists using them too to, you know, monitor species and forests and all sorts of things. And you must have seen things change rapidly yourself over the last decade or more. Where do you see things going, over the next, say, 10-15-20 years? Which technology do you think are really going to radically change the way in which we collect data within conservation?
ALASDAIR: That’s a great question as well because it’s changing at such a speed that even within say 2 or 3 years I think we’ll see a fundamental difference in the types of technologies that we’re using. For me, the prediction is we’re going to see a lot of automation. Machine learning may be something you’ve heard of before, that’s processing data that is collected by a tag and then machine literally, using an algorithm and doing that for you. I think what will happen, especially due to this advance of wireless communication now and the advance of cellular network, so 4G, 5G, that will just become the norm. We will potentially see the use of drones, tags, camera traps, any equipment or conservation technology that collects data will be either processed on board, so that’s on the chip itself, or be processed in the cloud so sent wirelessly to huge data centres where it’s churned away. You’re already seeing this through the likes of Google.
So Google have something called TensorFlow which is their open algorithm that you can feed camera trap imagery into. And a lot of organisations now are using that in a very positive way to take many thousands, so hundreds of thousands of historical camera trap photos and doing object recognition, so it will count through those photos, identify particular species. It’s happening already, people are doing that collectively already, so they’re submitting their photos to the cloud. That’s a very manual process today. If you go forward 5 or 10 years, the cameras themselves will transmit that data automatically to the cloud, because the connectivity will be there. The drones we fly today that use onboard imagery and cameras to survey for orangutan nests, or even thermal imagery as well, that will also be transmitted to the cloud. The drone will land, it will fly up there, and this will become an automatic process. Which means if we want to do surveys, everyone do environmental impact assessments, it’s probably going to be a very automatic, autonomous world where you deploy physically as a human these tools that you’ve put, that you’ve selected, your sensors, so to speak and it will just go and process that and do that job. And you’ll get these rich datasets come out which show you in a very, very detailed way what’s going on in that environment.
Even technology such as LiDAR, which is a laser detection, LiDAR essentially, when loaded as a payload onto a plane, if you fly that over a forest it will give you biomass of the forest, because the lasers will penetrate and give you an understanding of the vegetation mass that’s down there. Now that right now is very expensive but already devices such as tinyLiDAR are coming onto the market, which is restricted, so a smaller range, but it gives you the same chance to then scan local vegetation. And if that’s loaded onto drones and the range is extended slightly then drones, which are cheaper than planes, will take over and then that LiDAR will become affordable and there you go, you’re flying over with 10-20 drones in the space of a day and getting the biomass reading within, you know, a matter of a few days. That’s essentially where I think we’re going to go, it’s going to be that automation and that use of very niche technology today, will become the norm and will be paramount too because the effect that we’re having on the planet, the rate of change we all know is pretty scary to see, especially, you know, the big difficult question which is climate change.
I think technology will really help us understanding quickly what’s going on in certain areas because we will have the computational power, we will have access to the sensors we need to gather certain datasets which have been very difficult to do to date and then we can present back, hopefully, to stakeholders and officials to try and at least effect change and say, we now know that this correlation shows that a certain species has zero chance of survival due to a dam upstream, or potentially pollutants in a river have had certain die-off because we can now use eDNA in the actual water itself to detect the presence of species. And that’s another form of conservation technology which is becoming very popular, the use of in-field DNA kits to analyse what’s in the water, so you can count the presence of species. 5 or 10 years ago that was massively expensive, very difficult, that’s becoming hand-held now. Think what that will be like in 10 or 20 years, it’ll just be like your mobile phone. It probably will be, it’ll probably adapt to plug in to your mobile phone and there you go, you pop it in the water and you get a sense of how many species are in a stream. And that’s not even sci-fi, that’s already happening. So it’s going to be an interesting place to be a conservationist, that’s for sure.
NICK: Yeah, it sounds like a fascinating time to be a conservationist using technology.
NICK: You mentioned earlier, you know, that things like your toasters and the internet things, you know, being connected to one another. Is there… and the kind of slightly scary side of stuff. Is there even a risk that technology might take the conservationist out of conservation?
ALASDAIR: Yes, it’s the same story as jobs and how automation may change our jobs. I don’t feel there is too much of a risk because the beauty of conservation is you get to work in wild spaces. In the urban environment, if robots are building cars and your car is self-driving I think there’s, you know, a whole heap of jobs, everyday jobs that will be lost there. In conservation, we’re going to need a lot of people to actually look at this data, make informed decisions, because it’s still massively important that we, as humans, figure out what we’re doing to the planet, I don’t think a machine can quite tell us that.
But in terms of in the field, I haven’t seen any change because I’ve seen more jobs as of late created from the use of this tech because there’s more of a need to use it, so for example, in the anti-poaching space, so law enforcement in Africa, IoT is now having a fundamental or playing a fundamental part of how rangers in the field are monitoring their patrols, they have tagged equipment now, so their radios will transmit their live location to a comms room, so then they can be more effective at understanding where their patrols are successfully apprehending incursions and poachers entering the park. The animals, of course, you can tag the rhinos now, so they’ll feed back their location. If the rhino’s heartbeat stops for whatever reason you can get a live alert. If the rhino, for example, has a, potentially even an Audiomoth, and that kind of tech attached, you can listen for gunshot detection. So there’s still a need for people to be there because, in conservation especially and the environment, we have to protect the environment itself which means we have to be there to protect it.
So I don’t think there’ll be a fundamental loss, I think it will actually be quite a growing sector. I’ve seen that through my career when I started, I actually started my journey as a volunteer web designer, because websites were all the rage. I came out of university, I studied internet technology, went to do a volunteer position at the Zoological Society in London, working on the Edge of Existence website, it was a 6 week volunteer position, I did that and they said, hey this is great, do you want to stay on for 3 months? I said, yeah ok, I’m really enjoying the work, we were building the Edge list, which is Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered, so it’s all the species on there. We produced this website, I remember the day it launched and there was a front page Guardian photo of a Loris and it was fantastic to see that, this is like front page cover, all about the Edge list. And on that day they were like, this is brilliant, do you want to stick around, do a year’s contract, we’ll keep working on the site? And this is from a voluntary position for 6 weeks, so I said yeah cool. Stayed for another 3-4 years and because websites were needed at the time, and that was again a new form of technology, and everybody now has to have a website, but because I was in that space, an engineer still, even though I was working in software at that time, I was still interested in hardware and I was messing around with my Raspberry Pis and so on.
I remember Jonathan Bailey who was a director at the time over at National Geographic, and he was walking down the stairs with his coffee and he had a camera trap; we were talking about camera traps having GSM, which is the ability to send the photograph to your email address. And this was new at the time, like no one was doing this, this was like, a new-fangled thing. Now, anyone can go out and buy a GSM-enabled camera trap and it’ll text you the photo that it’s taken. But back then it was new and we were having a conversation on the stairs, talking about imagine if this could be used for engagement, so we could send these pictures to people’s phones, members of the public, so they could actually participate and they could tell us what’s in the photo, and what if they could do that across the planet and we could put, you know, hundreds of these camera traps out at interesting sites of importance and citizen science style, the people would flock to this thing and they would use it as a tool.
And on that day, that literally coined the creation of what’s now called the Conservation Technology Unit at ZSL, CTU, that’s where I’ve been working for many years until I started my own organisation to do a lot of the work that I’ve just been describing which is building those low-cost tools to support organisations like ZSL, and the unit. And that career started because I was really paying attention to the technologies that were needed, looking at how we could use them in creative ways, and then once you know that, once you’ve got that idea or that pitch, so to speak, you can then use that as a tool to say to conservation organisations, this could be great.
We could use this to connect people to your projects so they can see the value you’re offering, people who are out there that can’t be connected to nature. So in urban environments where they have very little connection to the savannah in Africa, we can now connect them through these tools and technologies. And the tool that was created back then was actually called Instant Wild, and you can go and check that out today, it’s a popular tool on the ZSL website. And that was great, because we didn’t really sit down and say, right we’re going to start a conservation technology unit here. We just basically started talking about the need and the opportunity, and then grew it from that and organically, because it’s needed by people, researchers, and because it’s needed by organisations as well to tell their stories and connect their funders and their sponsors and their members to their work, it grew into a bigger and bigger thing. That was 11 years ago now, so yeah I always like to share that one because it’s interesting that it was like that.
NICK: Absolutely, yeah and here we are today. You can hear kind of the passion in your voice for the subject and what you’re doing, if there’s someone sat at home or on the bus or whether it might be listening to this, what are some of the best bits of your job, you know, what do you find most fun day-to-day?
ALASDAIR: I think the most fun thing for me is seeing the satisfaction that people get from using the tools that we make, because there’s nothing better than someone getting access to something they haven’t had before, and then emailing you saying, have you seen what I have discovered? And they send you a photo, say it’s a low-cost camera trap. They send you a photo of some fantastic encounter they’ve had, and I’m not talking, like you know, snow leopards, it could even be like badgers in their back garden.
That happens in two ways because you’ve got members of the public who aren’t really conservationists but they want to be, so you know, they now have an opportunity to play a part and they, too, can get the same tech which is used by the professionals, so to speak, and also you’ve got the professionals in the field that are saying, fantastic – now I can get 400 of these and I can go and do a huge survey, and when you see the results come back and you realise that all your effort over, like, the last 3 years, all the late nights, the hard work we all put in in the conservation space, seeing that pay off is the fundamental win because it’s not always perfect. In conservation specifically, in tech, there’s a number of projects where you can invest a lot of time, a lot of effort, and it won’t work.
There’s issues such as battery life in cold conditions. Animal damage, like hyenas will chomp through camera traps, they don’t care. I’ve got many a pile of damaged ones. You can go and deploy these new ideas and hope and pray that it’s going to work at that point knowing that actually, you’re going to have to go back and, you know, readdress a fundamental problem and that may mean new funding, so you’re going to have to fund that through your own wares or work with organisations to do that, and it’s, you know, it’s not always a perfect story where you just deliver your solutions, it’s a progressive thing but it keeps you going because you can see, if you can crack this problem, it’s going to be, you know, really useful for the people out there.
NICK: And it sounds like there’s probably going to be a growing need for people like yourself in conservation to act as the interface between, you know, technology and the information that’s required from the field. What sort of skills should people who want to work in this area be looking towards developing? What advice would you give someone who’s, you know, looking to jump into your career and follow in your footsteps, what should they go off and do now?
ALASDAIR: They should tinker, basically. They should grab themselves a Raspberry Pi for £15, download all manner of Open Source software, you can get yourself a camera for another, you know £10-15, and then replicate what we’re doing. That’s why I’m such a fan of openness, because Open Source hardware and software means anyone can go and access it. And in your own space, in your own desk in your own living room, you can be sitting there interacting with Instant Wild, participating, which is a non-technical event, you don’t have to be a Python coder or, you know, know advanced R script, you just have to want to participate.
But then if you grab yourself some, you know, equipment off the shelf and have a play around you may find that actually you quite like programming, you want to be a part of that. Or actually you realise there’s a new sensor no one’s, you know, thought of before that could enhance something, maybe it’s an RFID tag or something like that that you want to play with. I think that’s what fundamentally got me into where I was as a child, you know, I loved tinkering with various things, taking computers apart and electrocuting myself and all the good stuff but that’s truly what got me even into web design at the beginning, because I enjoyed making things on computers, then I moved into hardware and the internet and connectivity and wireless because of that love of, you know, playing around and messing around with computers essentially.
In terms of like, the skills you need to be in my space today, once you do start tinkering, I would say have a look at all those activities and free, kind of, online courses that you can do that are specifically made for you to get an understanding of how you can work with programming languages, how you can work with DIY hackable tools, so the big company called Adafruit, they do all manner of cool little trinkets and LED badges and things that you can play with that are very fun to do but they teach you those fundamental elements, you know, how to work with electricity, how to work with a lithium polymer battery. All the things that may look scary today, once it’s broken down to you and you have fun doing that you actually realise that you could just go and build your own DIY camera trap. You can do all these things because you’re investing your own time and it’s not in a pressured way where it’s read a book and pass this test or you won’t get to apply for a job as a creative technologist.
I think that’s organic, you just have to be happy to do it, it should be a passion that you enjoy and then just go and get all those free resources and, you know, play around. And I feel too, you will fundamentally then be able to work with a lot of professional PhD candidates and researchers because they’re actually doing the same now. You go and talk to anyone who’s looking at data, they’re all using Python scripting and R and Google Maps and so on to process their data and if you expose yourself to that same space, when you sit down with them you’ll be like, oh yeah cool, actually I’ve got this Python script that reads data from an Audiomoth and then correlates it to the time a photo was taken and hey, guess what, now you can stick an Audiomoth with Sellotape literally on the back of your camera trap and when you get this data back it’ll show you what was happening visually when that clip was taken. And that’s just you working with a researcher and you just knowing, or having an understanding of, why and how that could work, and then off you go. Then you build a solution, you release it online, it becomes a thing, you’ll find yourself getting potentially employed with an organisation to do that for them. And it opens a lot of doors so I think that’s my advice, really.
NICK: That sounds great. It sounds also, interestingly, nowadays that budgets really aren’t the limit, even time isn’t really the limit, it’s creativity, you know and sort of spotting the opportunities and developing them quickly. If I were to offer you an unlimited amount of money (laughter) for the next few years, what would you go off and develop, what would you love to do? Money’s no option.
ALASDAIR: That is a great question, isn’t it. Are we talking unlimited amounts here?
ALASDAIR: Like, it’s recurring unlimited money. Ok, my personal, I’d have to do something for the coral reef because coral reefs are in a real mess. Climate change and the loss of them and bleaching… There’s a wonderful chap over at the Horniman Museum, Jeremy Crags, who’s working on spawning coral at the moment in aquatic environments. I like to think backing up the world’s corals, I believe he is. So I’m working with him at the minute too to look at how openness and Open Source hardware and so on can reduce the cost of what he’s doing, too. If I had unlimited money, I’d literally try and spend that on supporting all the coral reef projects around the world to back up the coral we will ultimately lose, so many of them will go extinct because the oceans are changing too fast, and I would do that because that’s something global.
That’s the kind of thing that when you, if you make it to 90, you’re sitting on your doorstep in your rocking chair, I don’t know if that’s what everyone does these days (laughter) but I imagine in a nice rocking chair with a cold beer, and you look back and there’s that kind of nice safety to think, well at least all the coral that we would have lost are alive somewhere. And it’s a little bit, kind of, darkest days thinking but that’s the kind of thing that I think if I had unlimited money tomorrow, I’d want to do. It would be solving a huge problem and I think that’s one that we could solve as humanity. I’ve had many a debate where people say, what are you on about, you’re crazy. That’s the way nature works, they’re gonna go.
Corals have gone extinct and come back over many, many years. But of course it’s our impression on the earth, it’s what humans have done, and we’re going to lose species that we won’t see again so I’m like, well we can back them up, maybe it’s my kind of techy head getting too involved, I just back the world up, but I wouldn’t mind backing up the world’s corals and working with people who are trying to at least do something about it, if we do have a chance because there’s a whole problem there that we need to be better at solving.
NICK: Yeah and once it’s been backed up I guess there’s an opportunity to potentially restore it in the future as the technology comes along so it’s, yeah it’s a safety mechanism. I like the idea.
ALASDAIR: Yeah. Exactly. And you can’t really mess with coral, they have their own spawning… you know, you can’t just easily enable corals to spawn, you have to have the perfect environment; the right minerals in the water, the right temperature, the right moon phase, it’s like an art. We’re kind of cracking that at the moment, or the people working on that with Jeremy are.
If that happens, for me that’s why that’s great, it means that we can at least create as close to a natural environment for the coral reefs that we see today, and I would love my kids to go into an aquatic space and see corals that I’ve seen for the last 10 years, and not to see a photo of decaying and bleached corals and say, oh yeah it used to look like this, and it’s a picture from Google. Because that’s like a scary reality at the moment and if we can at least do something about that… I think that’s where unlimited money comes in but unfortunately I don’t have unlimited money so… we’re trying our best with our very not limited money.
NICK: Not yet, anyway, yeah. My final question, on a slightly lighter note as well, as someone who’s really into creative technology, I want to know, what’s the coolest thing your phone can do?
ALASDAIR: My phone?
NICK: You must have some fun stuff on your phone that other people don’t (laughter).
ALASDAIR: The coolest thing my phone can do, that’s a good one. I think the coolest thing my phone can do is literally connect me to the projects, I mean it’s a bit cheesy to say that but the coolest thing is, like I’m on a delayed train to Waterloo, it’s a rainy day, I sit down at my phone and I’m looking at a snow leopard, you know. That’s the coolest thing my phone can do, it’s a connected device and I can use it to connect to nature, essentially. It does all manner of other cool stuff, you know, it’s… I’m using the tech from inside it to build new sensors but really it’s a screen, isn’t it. So the coolest thing my phone can do is connect me to that world. I remember, you know, when I was 17 growing up and that’s when text messaging was first arriving and it was really exciting just to text someone.
You couldn’t even text across networks, you had to text a person on the same network, it was, you know, early days. And that was like, wow I can communicate now. Take that forward to where we are today and now it’s like, it’s a mini connected device to the planet. I mean, who doesn’t get, you know, check the internet on their phones and catch up socially and all that. That’s really revolutionised how you can communicate to people, though, especially with conservation and nature. Because you can send them snippets of an amazing world when they’re very far away from it. A delayed train has nothing to do with looking at species elsewhere on the planet at a certain time of the day.
I always used to love it when, for example, you’d get elephants at a watering hole on Instant Wild, and it’ll be the perfect moment when the sun is streaming through, it’s like, you know, early morning with a bit of steam, you can just sense, smell the scene it’s that good. And you’ll be sitting there and it’s just a little exciting snapshot because you know it was live. Because Instant Wild was transmitted, you know, a minute ago, and it’s so great to be looking back at an animal knowing that animal, right now, is there with that herd of elephants, regardless of where I am. That’s the coolest thing I think my phone can do.
NICK: Mind officially blown, I think we’re… if you’re living in the future already. Al, thank you so much for sharing your time today with us and sharing your knowledge and your passion for using technology in wildlife conservation, it’s so interesting to hear where things already are, where we’ve come from and where we might go in the future. It’s going to be fascinating, and a new area I think for people to be looking into in terms of career paths and journeys so for all the tinkerers out there, this is a place and a space that people should be exploring a bit more, really and having some fun in.
NICK: If people want to find out a little bit more about you and your work and the projects that you’re involved with or set up where should people go, where should we point them?
ALASDAIR: If you Google the Arribada Initiative, that’s the name of my organisation, develop these Open Source dialoguing hardware forms and so on, so Google that, I’ve got a blog at the moment where I talk about some of my work with WWF at the moment, looking at early warning detection for polar bears and elephants so that’s good. And also the Shuttleworth Foundation. So the Shuttleworth Foundation are essentially, I owe them huge gratitude because I’m a Fellow of the Foundation and they’re the team that are funding me, and they’re the ones that believe in Open Source hardware and openness in conservation. So look up the Shuttleworth Foundation, you’ll find me there on their page of Fellows and it goes into a bit more detail about why I started it, what the problems were I wanted to crack, and they’ve been paramount in really helping a whole heap of people around the world look at how openness can solve problems, not just in conservation but society as well.
NICK: And we’ll put links in the show notes too and obviously in the blog for this episode so thanks again Al, it’s been really nice to talk to you.
ALASDAIR: Brilliant, well thank you very much.