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Rod Oram: Targeting predators with technology

Scientists are turning to blockchain to give them a shot at meeting New Zealand's "crazy, ambitious" predator-free target, writes Rod Oram.

A wave of innovation is being unleashed by our commitment as a country to make New Zealand free of introduced predators by 2050. New technologies, systems, businesses, organisations and behaviours are springing up to help us achieve this seemingly impossible goal for the sake of threatened native species.

This is just what Sir Paul Callaghan, one of our great scientists, had urged us to do. “It’s crazy. It’s ambitious. And I think it might be worth a shot. I think it is our great challenge,” he said in his last public lecture shortly before he died far too young in March 2012.

Speaking at Zealandia, the biologically thriving predator-proof sanctuary in Wellington, Callaghan said New Zealand had unique advantages of society and talent, ecosystem and climate to prove this could be done to the great benefit of the nation. The video of his talk is inspirational.

Why us? “In New Zealand, killing small mammals brings people together. During my travels around the country, I found that extermination, weird as it may sound, really is a grassroots affair,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker in 2014.

One of the world’s best writers on climate change and ecosystems, Kolbert had arrived here skeptical about the wisdom of Callaghan’s goal, our ability to accomplish it, and the mass extinction of predators required. She left convinced. But so mind-bending was the story, it flummoxed even the legendary fact-checking department of The New Yorker. The headline read: "The Big Kill: New Zealand’s crusade to rid itself of mammals".

To achieve the predator-free goal, Callaghan challenged us to extend “the best scientific technologies.” And that’s exactly where our biggest breakthroughs are coming from. Building vastly better traps these days requires a wide range of leading-edge technologies such as heat sensors, image recognition, machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence.

One example is the work of Cacophony, founded by Grant Ryan, a serial tech entrepreneur in Christchurch. In videos on its website Ryan explains how such technology integration works for automated traps, and how they can be deployed at great scale and low cost with minimal on-the-ground labour.

A few years back, David Bellamy, a British environmentalist, observed that New Zealand was the only country that has succeeded in turning pest eradication into an export industry. But then the examples were mainly skilled helicopter pilots and trap setters. In the future the skills will be big ones in science, technology, economics and management of the commons.

How, for example, do you create a system that brings together community groups eager to do local predator eradication with organisations keen to fund them and technologists to equip them, data scientists to verify kills, locations, species density and other measures --- all in a market system that allocates financial and other resources and rewards work done and investments made?

The answer is a blockchain enabled data commons and market, says James Mansell, one of the founders of Toha, a new venture which has just started to raise seed funding.

Mansell was the data scientist leading a number of big strategic initiatives in the previous National-led government. Foremost was Bill English’s work on social investment to give support to people such as young single mothers. Other major projects included big data analysis to help IRD detect anomalies in the behaviour of companies and individuals which could be caused by tax avoidance or minimisation.

Mansell’s co-founders of Toha are Robert O’Brien, a data commons architect who has worked for companies such as Thomson Reuters, one of the world’s leading providers of financial data and news; and Nathalie Whitaker, the founder of Givealittle.co.nz, the philanthropic crowdfunding site.

The “blueprint” for the Toha platform was funded by Next Foundation, a leader in the predator-free movement, Biological Heritage (one of the 11 National Science Challenges), the Data Futures Partnership and Matthew and Brian Monahan, Wellington-based tech entrepreneurs with a deep commitment to ecological restoration.

At the heart of the system will be a data commons. In that network, organisations that generate or capture data will still store and own the data. But through the commons they will share or sell selected data under certain rules and parameters.

Imagine, for example, that a community group has set predator traps in their local bush. Using a secure app, they will photograph each rat, stoat or possum they catch and send it with time and GPS data to the data commons. There, visual recognition and AI software will automatically verify the unique kill, time and place. Then the community group could be rewarded for that in the Toha marketplace by, say, a philanthropic organisation.

Such a verifiable data commons is why Next Foundation is keen to work with Toha on a trial system, says Jan Hania, Next’s environmental director. Such a “market” for work done would help it greatly scale up its support for community groups, he says.

Mansell says such a data commons could be used to measure and verify other environmental work, such as tree plantings. Then later as the system develops it could address even more complex challenges such as helping to clean up rivers.

All the rules required for authenticating legitimate data and transactions would be written into the blockchain software. This secure data network will be one of three elements of the Toha platform, the other two being a connected community of funders, doers and verifiers, and a Toha token, in the jargon of crypto currencies, to monetise the work and create the market. Those who buy tokens will get access to the platform, while payment for work done will be in NZ dollars or, say, in goods and services in kind.

Toha’s fund raising document aims, for example, at organisations supporting community environmental groups to help build “an environmental impact at market for New Zealand.” It will do so by “building a fast, free-flowing market for verifiable biosphere data and investment in environmental work.”

Mansell and colleagues believe such a market and technology approach will increase the amount of funding and effort in environmental restoration work, while greatly reducing the transaction and compliance costs.

“This is a market-based response for collective action,” Mansell says. As such, it has the potential to help society better manage ecosystem commons such as bush, waterways and air.

“How we govern shared resources is a really good fit for blockchain technology,” says Josh Vial, the author of an upcoming report on the technology’s potentially multi-faceted value to the New Zealand economy.  A technology entrepreneur, he is best known as a co-founder of the Dev Academy, which teaches web development skills, and Enspiral, a Wellington-based co-operative of social enterprises.

Toha’s founders face a “massive design challenge, which is extremely ambitious and high risk,” Vial says. For example, they need to create systems and rules for the quality, veracity and privacy of data collected, and for the trading system itself.

While he is unaware of anything like it elsewhere in the world a burgeoning number of blockchain ventures offer a lot of shared learning. One example is European pilot schemes enabling households that generate and store solar electricity to trade between each other and into national grids.

In such blockchain systems where the software structures, regulates and enables the market, “you don’t need to worry about people breaking the rules. If they try, their transaction never gets accepted. Or if they try to access data they’re not allowed to use or try to share with others they are blocked.”

Moreover, such blockchain systems use relatively modest computing power. Only some cryptocurrencies, most notoriously Bitcoin, require prodigious computation to “mine” a new unit of the currency. In contrast, tokens like Toha which enable real work to be done are highly efficient, he adds.

While Toha has substantial technological and market issues to solve, it has the potential to help us take radically more powerful and effective ways to solve “common action” challenges such as reversing environmental degradation, and to build new strengths in our society, economy and ecosystem.

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