Tech & the Cheetah
As seen in National Geographic News Watch
Some regions of Kenya have better cell phone reception than the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. This is no exaggeration. One can easily make a call or text from the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It’s changed the country’s economy, society in both rural and urban areas, and launched millions of voices onto Twitter and Facebook.
Naturally, NGOs are working to figure out solutions to leverage this love of cellphones for the benefit of wildlife. The technology is already in the hands of millions. The issue is finding out where the need is, and how a rural community can benefit from the sharing of information.
I sat down with Dr. Jimmy Macharia, Dean of the School of Science and Tech at Nairobi’s US International University, to discuss the possibilities. “Users must see the value beyond the cost, first we must address their primary needs”. Those needs do not include the cheetah as top-of-mind, but rather issues of security, safe and accessible drinking water, education and poaching. Dr. Macharia suggested creating “software for conservation” where students earning their Masters in IT would create programs for targeted geo-messaging that would reach thousands who have just the simplest of SMS (short message service, i.e. text message) technology. “We must involve and invoke the people to share”.
Purchasing text/ airtime is a challenge for people surviving on little means and asking them to use up those precious minutes might be a stretch. Companies like Echo Mobile are partnering with NRT & the Nature Conservancy to conduct surveys via SMS.
Some NGOs have programs in place that focus on information and survey-gathering from the safari-side like Lion Watch that rely on smart-phones to record lion sightings. Paul Thompson of Ewaso Lions says they hope to expand to a ‘citizen-science project’ when advanced tech is readily available.
Lion Watch may not have to wait long for those smart-phones if Californian entrepreneur Amy Tucker has her way. Her ambitious plan for providing smart-phones to those in need launches in 2014. “No, you cannot feed your family a cell phone. But you can access the current market price for tomatoes to get a better price, or locate the closest water source, or learn to read and write, or take and post pictures of poachers. BetterWorld Wireless will be the world’s first 100% mission-led, mainstream wireless service provider. With a service and customers based in the United States, BWW aims to create an engine for change that will put 1 million smartphones in the hands of those who need them most: mothers, teachers, and farmers; in places of need. “
According to National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of Kiwanja.net, Ken Banks, “Conservation and development projects based on straight-forward technology transfer are always contentious. Taking something which may well work in places like the US or Europe and dumping it in rural Kenya or downtown Kampala, Uganda, is, in most cases, asking for trouble. We need to ensure that we build tools that work in the environments where the problems exist, and not get caught up in the excitement, buzz and hype of the latest, smartest technology”.
Given Kenya’s enthusiasm for telecommunications, conservation’s merge with tech is just a matter of time.