Exploring Opportunities for Building a Cross-discipline Data, Analytics, and AI Infrastructure on the Galápagos
Technology has been in the conservationist’s toolbox for some time. Animal I.D. tags and sensors have long facilitated species study and helped scientists track emerging ecological and environmental problems. But the large datasets of AI technologies are out of reach of most perennially cash-strapped research and conservation efforts.
On the Galápagos, Ecuador’s fragile economy exacerbates the problem — scientific exploration hasn’t evolved much since Charles Darwin was around.
Despite the Galápagos’ storied past and vital role in science, much of the current conservation work on the archipelago is hindered by the economic realities of Ecuador. While the islands benefit from the large-scale, AI-powered satellite and oceanic studies of well-funded research institutions, on the ground, the vast majority of field work is still human-powered, slow, and tedious.
What could change the paradigm for the Galápagos is a comprehensive, customizable data, analytics, and AI infrastructure — including connected devices and a foundational data platform — that scientists and conservationists could use to design and execute modern, data-rich research.
The Goal of Gardeners of the Galápagos Initiative
Gardeners of the Galápagos would allow a larger pool of conservationist scientists from all disciplines to design and execute sophisticated experiments and field studies without the financial burden of securing research-grade devices. Specifically, the infrastructure could support those whose focus is often too narrow to garner the funding needed to support advanced technologies.
Ultimately, Gardeners of the Galápagos will bring economic benefit and increased prestige to the Ecuadorian government while becoming a model for the larger community of environmental and conservation research.
Leveraging AI Technologies to Expand Research Opportunities
Currently, most conservation research data is incomplete, not yet digitized, or locked inside large university research centers. As a result, independent researchers, most of whom are on modest or essentially non-existent budgets, still physically count species in representative grids, take soil samples by hand, and even erect fencing to try and study how an ecosystem is impacted by the absence of animals. The truth is, even the limited data collected from these more-traditional studies could be leveraged to inform adjacent research — but for the want of technology.
For example, currently on the Galápagos, a project of Galápagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme (GTMEP) uses GPS to track the migration patterns of tortugas. The project is important but its potential is limited by lack of advanced AI technologies.
Because tortugas are “seed spreaders,” known to restore ecosystems by promoting growth and cultivating land — like gardeners — the GPS information from GTMEP could also be used in conjunction with data from soil and visual devices to analyze and model real-world changes in soil, vegetation, and even the fauna that coexist with tortugas.
As the Charles Darwin Research Center works to re-establish and restore the ecosystems of the beleaguered islands, this additional information could prove extremely valuable for proactively managing the habitat as well as predicting the viability of future habitats. Valuable not only to the Research Center but to conservationists around the world.
Obsessed with this idea, which I began researching at Babson College under the guidance of Thomas H. Davenport. I’ll be continuing the research when I begin the M.S. Information Technology & Management program at University of North Carolina Greensboro Bryan School of Business and Economics.