NatureServe started mapping biodiversity before the invention of GIS. Spatial data has been a cornerstone of our work since the 1970s, reveals Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of the US-based non-profit.
As we enter into the digital age, the future will be all about data. Do you think data will have a significant role to play in sustainable development in the coming times?
That’s quite inevitable. Geospatial data will play an important role in sustainable development. We are generating enormous amounts of data from all kinds of sensors — satellites, camera traps, environmental monitoring stations, cell phones, and people — about the state of the planet. The problem is that there is so much data coming from so many sources that it is difficult to effectively analyze and use all the information. The key is to distinguish the signal from noise to identify the most important information for conservation and sustainable development. Thankfully, many organizations are working on making all kinds of data openly available and using cloud computing and Machine Learning to analyze data for conservation-focused development.
Can you tell us how you are using data, especially spatial data/GIS/maps, to forward your development or governance agenda?
Our mission is to provide the scientific basis for effective conservation actions. We are working every day to prevent extinction. We do this by documenting the location and condition of species and ecosystems throughout the Americas. NatureServe started mapping biodiversity before the invention of GIS. In fact, spatial data has been a cornerstone of our work since the 1970s. Going forward, our most important initiative is to expand the application and utility of our data for decision-making through better data sharing and visualization tools. This includes spatially explicit modelling of suitable habitat for species, currently and under climate change scenarios, and reducing barriers in access to our data by disseminating these products through an online portal and APIs. We are also looking at new sources of data to supplement the on-the-ground data collection by scientists that has been the foundation of our work for almost 50 years.
Along with innovations and technology advancements, there is a growing disparity in terms of data access. For instance, the developed world has emerging data economies and the developing/underdeveloped parts have populations with absolutely no access to data. How can we bridge this divide?
I believe that the decreasing costs of technology and the spread of technical skills will democratize access to information. While many countries cannot afford to launch satellites, they can access a lot of satellite data online. Many developing countries are on the forefront of the open data movement. As knowledge (like programming skills) spreads globally, many countries will leapfrog to modern geospatial data analysis, much like they skipped land-line telephones and built robust cellular networks and virtual payment systems that are ahead of ‘developed’ countries. These countries will take leadership roles in creative use of data and technology. It’s likely they will make use of geospatial data in ways we haven’t even imagined.
What are your views on open data, especially government data that has been created with taxpayers’ money?
NatureServe’s objective is to prevent species extinction. We do this by providing the best data at the quality and resolution needed to make the best decisions. Better data for better decisions translates into better outcomes for biodiversity. Providing open data can get the information into the hands of the people who need it to protect imperiled species, but it can also put data in the hands of those that could inflict harm by collecting or poaching vulnerable populations. We strive to maximize usage of open data for decision-making, while respecting data provider policies and safeguarding sensitive species from harm. Open data is the future of data, and except for certain critical information, data on biodiversity should be available to empower conservation planning.
Carl Sagan said, “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life and there’s nowhere else, at least in the near future”. With mankind facing crisis in the form of Climate Change and depleting resources, are we running out of time?
Yes. Sadly, it is that simple. And time is our enemy. The rate of change in our climate, the pace of extinction, the combined heat and water stress on ecosystems and people, and the pollution of our food supply by plastics, among other threats, means that we will face a humanitarian crisis sooner than we thought just a few years ago. We need to use all the resources we have, geospatial data and analyses being key among them, to address the challenges facing us and future generations. While we are looking at the extinction of one million species in the next 20 years, careful field work and modern technology can lead to successes in identifying, tracking, and making informed conservation decisions on behalf of highly endangered species, and hopefully bring this number down. Organizations like NatureServe are working every day to preserve biodiversity. We need individuals to care as much as we do about protecting our planet’s most vulnerable species.
How can we address this crisis at an individual level and as a society?
We recognize the huge challenge we face, but we are also eternal optimists. We know the expertise and technology exist to drastically change the way we coexist with nature. Governments, corporations and institutions will drive the biggest percentage of change, but individuals are the ultimate influencers in society through political protest, voting and pressure on corporations, as well as by consciously and purposefully reducing their carbon footprint with changes in their lifestyles like biking, recycling, focusing on energy waste, food waste, etc. Eventually, corporations and governments with deep resources in technology will have to answer to their customers, constituents and citizens to create scalable change.
Can you share one heart touching moment or experience that made you feel proud of the work you do?
I like to think we follow in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most important naturalists and geospatial analysts in history. At NatureServe, we make maps of the planet’s life, much like Humboldt and other explorers made in the age of sail. A key element in these maps is scale, and very often these maps are at scales that make it hard see the effect at the local scale. Once our staff was working with a Kuna indigenous community in Panama. We printed a huge map created using a digital elevation model and vegetation cover data. Working with the indigenous people and using markers, we (they, really) mapped how the community used resources in the environment. Our team realized then that something that was simple to us was incredible useful to this indigenous community which didn’t have access to geospatial technology. Our map gave the Kuna a view into their world that had not been previously available. And their insights enlightened our view of the ecosystem as well.
What would be your message to our readers?
Our planet is in crisis. We are in the midst of the 6th Extinction — forever diminishing the biodiversity of our planet. NatureServe is working to slow this extinction, and fundamental to preventing the permanent loss of Earth’s biodiversity is knowing what species exist, where they are found, and which are most at risk. We coordinate a biodiversity observation network that provides the scientific expertise and explicit geospatial information to conserve biodiversity across the Americas. All of us must demand more from governments to make the best decisions to protect the future of the planet.