Tech & Tradition

Q&A with Ruari Bradburn, Chief Technology Officer at Langland Conservation

“Tech & Tradition” delves into the evolving landscape of conservation, exploring the synergy between traditional wisdom and technological innovation. Led by experts like Ruari Bradburn, conservation initiatives worldwide are embracing data-driven insights and community engagement to tackle pressing environmental challenges. By integrating Indigenous knowledge with cutting-edge technology, these efforts strive to safeguard biodiversity and ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

Can you introduce yourself, your work, and Langland?

I’m Ruari Bradburn, the Chief Technology Officer at Langland Conservation. I’ve been at Langland since its early days and it’s been a privilege to watch the progress we’ve made over the last couple of years in our mission of using analytics to protect threatened species and their habitats. As we’ve grown, we’ve settled on three core aspects of our work – using data-driven insights to help decision makers working across conservation to achieve greater results, empowering others to do the same, and tackling organised wildlife crime by supporting investigations across the world.

Within all of this it’s my role to keep pushing the limits of what we can achieve with data and technology. Langland considers the talented, inquisitive people working for us as our most valuable asset. But we can amplify their talents with a set of best-in-class tools for collecting, managing and analysing data. It’s my job to identify what these tools could be and adapt them to answer the conservation challenges faced by the partners we support.

Ruari Bradburn, Langland Conservation

How does Langland actively engage local communities in its projects, and what efforts are made to empower them in the process?

At the onset of any collaboration Langland places a high priority on building a picture of the environment, and the conservation opportunities and threats it faces. However, the long-term value of these efforts hinges entirely on the involvement and support of local communities. Without their active participation in translating these opportunities into tangible outcomes and countering threats, our long-term impact would be negligible.

Therefore, it is imperative for us at Langland to work closely with local stakeholders. Understanding their needs, concerns, and their intrinsic relationship with their environment is central to our approach. These community perspectives are not just additional considerations; they are integral to shaping effective our understanding of the environment and making recommendations for effective conservation strategies.

It is also neither appropriate nor effective to create long-term dependencies on us to manage a project’s data and provide the insights that can be gained from it. There is a limit to the understanding we can achieve from afar, and the effect we can have without day-to-day human interaction on the ground – the most powerful force in conservation.

To this end, we focus on empowering local communities with the tools and training necessary for self-sufficient data collection and analysis. Through providing the tools for community monitoring programs, we aim to help local communities better record and communicate their understanding of the environment.

A critical part of my role is helping to train local analysts to better collect, manage and interpret data. The potential these individuals have to catalyse and contribute to positive conservation outcomes is immense. They form a vital touchpoint for information enrichment and exchange, connecting community data collection efforts and those of the academic and scientific community, connecting conservation decision-makers to a more informed understanding of the factors at play, and connecting international stakeholders to the needs of local projects.

Langland Conservation Pic 2

What role does technology play in the realm of conservation, and why is it crucial?

The industrialization of our global society has dramatically altered the face of the entire planet. Technology, serving as a powerful multiplier for human endeavour, has facilitated the expansion of humanity through advancements in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. These developments have not only increased the sheer number of human footprints on the natural world but as our material expectations have grown, have also significantly enlarged the size of each footprint.

As the pressure on the planet intensifies, technology plays a dual role. On one hand, it has been a driver of environmental degradation, enabling us to clear, extract, and consume natural resources at an unsustainable rate. On the other hand, technology holds immense potential for positive impact in the realm of conservation.

First, and most importantly for Langland, it offers us sophisticated tools to understand the complexities of natural ecosystems and monitor the impacts we are having on them. This information is crucial for crafting effective conservation strategies and for taking timely action to mitigate further damage.

These technological tools also foster a global network of collaboration among scientists, conservationists, and policymakers, unifying diverse efforts towards a common goal of ecological preservation. More than this, technology connects a global audience to the natural world and the impact we are having on it, gently guiding us to make more sustainable, everyday decisions. The cumulative effect of these individual actions, informed and motivated by technological outreach, can be formidable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, technology is paving the way for innovative solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges – advances in clean energy technologies are reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, while advances in genetics and agriculture may allow us to grow more food with less land and chemical intervention.

Can you share some of the challenges that Langland has encountered that could have benefited from technology?

In everywhere we work the list of technological solutions that could be implemented to the benefit of conservation is very long. Technologies like satellite imagery, drones, and remote sensors have revolutionized our ability to gather and analyse environmental data. Conservationists can now collect data at a rate that exceeds the ability of human analysts to interpret, which is where machine learning will become increasingly fundamental to earth sciences. This is one area where Langland is growing at pace, having developed a process for rapidly training machine learning models that unlock actionable insights from satellite imagery.

However, despite the availability and sophistication of this technology you are always working within the constraints of available resources, combined with logistical pressures that stem from operating in some of the most remote parts of the world. One of the most important skills is to gauge what level of uplift in technological capacity can be achieved within these constraints, and what will be sustained in the long-term once you draw down your direct involvement.

Placing tracking devices on small animals for example, is extremely hard without the communication infrastructure that most of us take for granted. A device that can provide power to itself for months at a time, can communicate with positioning satellites to find where it is, and then communicate this information back to you in absence of working phone reception tends to be much larger than one you can fit to an animal like a pangolin. You then start going through the practical solutions – could you set up a radio network to relay the information back to you, could you go out on the ground with a handheld receiver? Could you fit a receiver to a drone? In many environments these options won’t be practical or affordable so then you begin to look at other options, camera traps for example. These will then in turn have additional considerations that are unique to that environment and your project. Every technological use-case has to be evaluated in terms of the trade-off between your resources and the expected value of what you’ll learn.

My work involves finding the opportunities where the cost-benefit calculation is tilted in our favour. Sometimes the best solutions can be the most-simple, and sometimes we can adapt technologies rather than invent our own. The humble smartphone for example is are playing a critical role in how many parks and projects all over the world are collecting vital information from the field. Where there remains a lot of value left on the table is the effective synthesis of this data with other sources, like satellite imagery, and a mindset of what does this information mean to my problem and how can I interpret and package it in a way to do something about it?

Traditional Indigenous knowledge and conservation practices have been effective based on the subjective experience of living and existing within nature, amongst the wild. Whereas, the technology and emerging technical modalities and methods that have been effective rely on objectivity and hard data collection. Are these two concepts diametrically opposed, or can they work in concert together?

Any notion that these concepts are opposed couldn’t be further from the truth. Local knowledge significantly enhances the value of scientific data in conservation, which becomes evident when we distinguish between information and intelligence. In this context, information can be seen as raw data collected through scientific methods – satellite imagery, biodiversity surveys, population studies, and so on. Intelligence, on the other hand is information that has been enriched and made more valuable through a process of analysis and interpretation, integrating it with broader contextual understanding.

Here, local or Indigenous knowledge plays a crucial role. It provides insights that are deeply rooted in the subjective experience and cultural context of living in close harmony with nature. Such knowledge encompasses not just the physical aspects of the environment, but also its cultural, spiritual, and historical dimensions.

For instance, indigenous knowledge about seasonal changes, animal behaviours, and traditional land management practices can offer important clues that inform and enrich scientific research. This integration leads to a more nuanced understanding of ecosystems, enabling conservationists to make more informed strategies that account for local communities. Consideration of the human environment and cultural factors is both a practical and ethical imperative.

It’s important to recognize that no data we receive is entirely objective; all information is viewed through a certain lens, sometimes quite literally. This lens, encompassing the technical and methodological aspects of how information is gathered, inherently introduces certain distortions. These distortions risk being amplified when we manipulate and analyse the data, a challenge particularly pronounced for a team like ours dealing with information about places thousands of miles away, which we may have never visited in person.

Intelligence processes are often conceptualized as a cycle involving planning, collecting, processing, analysing, and disseminating insights. To ensure the integrity and relevance of this intelligence, incorporating local knowledge and engaging in dialogue with local actors at every step of this cycle is crucial. This approach helps mitigate the distortion effect introduced by our ‘information lens.’

By integrating local insights and understanding into our data collection and analysis processes, we can significantly enhance the quality and applicability of our intelligence. This integration ensures that our conservation strategies are not just based on distant, potentially skewed data interpretations but are informed by a grounded, comprehensive perspective that accounts for the nuances of the local environment and community.

How do you see conservation evolving in the future, and what role do you see technology playing in that evolution?

To envisage the future of the conservation sector, it’s essential to grasp the broader context in which it operates. Our planet’s capacity to sustain human demands has been already been surpassed, and the coming century will bring into sharp focus the very tangible costs of this imbalance to both our species and the planet.

Attributing blame solely to high-profile issues like traditional medicine or the for-profit extraction of resources is insufficient. The core of our environmental challenges lies in the collective impact of humanity’s pursuit of comfort and convenience, coupled with the struggle of growing populations to meet their basic needs. The future of conservation will likely be shaped by an increased recognition of the interconnectivity between human and environmental well-being and that holistic approaches to understanding and solving challenges are of central importance.

Conservation must extend beyond the physical safeguarding of species and habitats and produce responses that integrate ecological, social, and economic factors. Technology, in this context, serves as a pivotal connector, enhancing our comprehension of these varied interrelated elements. Advances in data collection, analytics, and machine learning are becoming increasingly crucial in untangling the complex dynamics of ecosystems and the role we play in them.

It’s apparent to me that within conservation, technological development is outpacing our capacity to use it effectively. The shortage of insight is generally more acute than the shortage of information and we need to pay as much attention to building individual skills and resilient institutions that prioritise intelligence-led conservation action as we do inventing the technological means to collect information. We should also not be shy to share our work for the benefit of all, and equally to borrow and adapt best-practice from other sectors.

Within the conservation sector, we might regrettably be seeing a pivot from the overarching goal of protecting the planet to a more attainable focus on preserving islands of biodiversity. These areas, sustained through the intensive efforts and dedication of local stakeholders, backed by conservation partners, will stand as testament to a more harmonious way of living and encapsulate the potential for environmental regeneration. Technology will be a vital tool in mobilising the resources and collective will to protect these islands from ever-increasing pressure at their fringes.

In navigating the intersection of technology and tradition within Langland’s initiatives, what crucial advice would you give to conservationists?

First and foremost, it’s crucial to adopt a people-centric approach. Technology, while powerful, is not a cure-all solution for every conservation challenge. Its role should be seen as a facilitator, not a replacement, and we must remember the most critical stakeholders are those living and working on the ground, often making substantial personal sacrifices.

Empowerment of local analysts is key. We have to do more to elevate these individuals from data processors to key facilitators of information enrichment and exchange. It’s important to nurture their careers within the conservation sector to avoid their technical skills passing to more lucrative industries. A national approach to conservation analytics could see these analysts to progress from working at an individual park level to overseeing data-driven strategies and the sharing of lessons and best practice across multiple parks.

Speaking of lessons, a humble mindset is fundamental. While we must place a high value on the ingenuity and creativity that leads to innovative solutions, it’s also important to recognize that some challenges may already have effective solutions developed by others. This recognition doesn’t diminish the importance of new solutions; rather, it encourages a collaborative spirit where we can build upon existing knowledge, both traditional and technological, and leverage it for the greater good of our planet.

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