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Royal Society Shines a Light on Ecological Conservation

July 1, 2013 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

Posted by Rob Knies

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition logo

Animals hold a particular fascination for Lucas Joppa. Since he was a child, he has been fascinated by their comings and goings, the mysteries behind their living patterns, their prospects as species.

Now, as a scientist in the Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge, he gets a chance to put his infatuation with fauna to good use, such as his participation in the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, being held July 2-7 in Carlton House Terrace, just southwest of Trafalgar Square in central London.

The exhibition is one of the most prestigious celebrations of science and research in the United Kingdom. In 2012, more than 10,000 people—including members of the Royal Family, business and academic pioneers, members of Parliament, and school groups—visited the free, annual event, the Royal Society’s biggest public gathering of the year. Attendees get an opportunity to interact with scientists and ask questions about their work.

The exhibition will feature the official launch of Technology for Nature, a collaboration between Microsoft Research, the Zoological Society of London, and University College London that is focused on understanding and responding to human impacts on nature.

Technology for Nature has as its mission the rapid scaling up of global conservation response through innovation in technology, in particular an accelerating loss of biodiversity, by using hardware, software, and analytics to monitor, model, predict, and respond to threats in nature. Such activity falls squarely within the scope of Joppa’s interests.

“I have always been passionate about being outdoors,” he says. “The reason for that is simple: While I definitely enjoy fresh air, sunshine, and all of that, I really, really love to watch animals doing what they do. I’ve spent most of my life wondering why those animals are where they are and are doing what they are doing.

“It turns out that is a pretty basic definition of ecology, so it is no surprise that I decided on the career path that I have. What was a surprise, however, was finding out just how preciously few data points we have pertaining to these basic questions. This is a major problem, because what is happening to natural systems around the world fundamentally affects everyone, and we can’t really understand what is going on without the necessary data.”

During the event, Microsoft Research Cambridge will be demonstrating a pair of hardware solutions designed to help. One, an animal-borne GPS tracking device, was designed to be significantly cheaper and easier to use than other current technologies on the market.

The Cambridge-based researchers also will present .NET Gadgeteer, a set of building blocks for creating electronic devices and gadgets. Those building blocks can include modules such as sensors, switches, and displays that can be plugged together and paired with software-programming tools such as C# and Visual Basic to make it fun and easy to construct your own gadgets. The demonstration will show visitors how they can devise and build a motion-activated, wildlife-monitoring camera in a matter of minutes.

Joppa also is involved in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, a global authority dedicated to finding pragmatic solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and developmental challenges. Technology for Nature is supporting the Red List data set, and the researchers at the event will discuss the IUCN Threat Mapping application, as well as a forthcoming Windows 8 app for browsing IUCN data.

It is an anomaly that, at a time when the term “big data” has become a buzzword because of the overwhelming amount of scientific data now available, the opposite is true in the ecological realm.

“In a world experiencing an unprecedented data deluge, ecology and conservation biology are actually in a bit of a data drought,” Joppa states. “That is why I am honoured and privileged to be able to work with some of the world’s smartest people, at Microsoft Research and across partner organizations like the Zoological Society of London and University College London, to be building the data-collecting devices to sense and store this critical information.

“The Technology for Nature initiative is about exactly that, and now that we have our first year under our belts, I’m hugely excited to be having the opportunity to tell so many people about what we are doing at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition!”