By Steve Hamm
A few months ago, when we began planning the IBM Corporate Service Corps engagement with The Nature Conservancy in the Amazon, the prospect of crowdsourcing solutions to deforestation was just the germ of an idea. Today, it’s a reality—and perhaps the start of something bigger.
The purpose of this pop-up Web site was to engage people in helping to preserve the rainforest. We threw a wide net, appealing to IBM’s global workforce, TNC’s staff and, really, anybody who was willing to pitch in with ideas. Tweet to #HelpCSCBrazil
We got a very satisfying response—more than 15,000 page views so far, which isn’t bad considering the fact that the site didn’t exist before Aug. 18.
Even more important, we received nearly 200 comments—many of them useful to TNC and the 10 IBMers from seven countries who have been working closely with TNC’s staff in Belém, Brazil, for the past four weeks. “This is great,” says Ian Thompson, TNC’s director for conservation in the Amazon. “It’s a way to reach out to our stakeholders and say we don’t have all the answers, and we need to engage and get everybody’s point of view.”
Says Marcio Sztutman, the TNC manager who worked closest with the IBM team: “We thought we were alone in this arena, but we found out about new technologies we weren’t aware of.”
Several of the suggestions shaped our thinking in substantial ways. Some are featured in our recommendations to TNC on how to further develop their environmental management portal, PAM, into a tool that could provide a boost for conservation in Brazil and perhaps, eventually, make a difference for tropical rainforests around the world.
The crowdsourcing forum, Contribute Ideas, got off to a fast start when we posed the question, How can we preserve the rainforest? We got 49 comments so far, including some deep insights from Peter Williams, an IBM Distinguished Engineer who possesses a wealth of knowledge about technologies for natural resources management. He urged TNC and the team to focus on creating market mechanisms that provide incentives for landowners to do the right thing.
We got some great responses to our request for examples of other government portals and lessons learned from those experiences. One set of pointers came from Ian Abbott Donnelly, an IBM colleague from the UK who’s a thought leader in Smarter Cities strategies.
Several of the systems that contributors described for us made it into the final presentation—including the Magic cross-government data tool that’s being used in the United Kingdom. “Crowdsourcing is really collaborative data gathering,” says Mike Campbell, a CSC team member from Australia. “It fleshed out the research I was able to do on the Internet—especially since we had very limited connectivity.”
Cristina Moise, one of our data analytics experts, received valuable feedback when we asked readers for recommendations for analytics tools that might be useful in TNC’s portal, PAM. Originally, Cristina thought it would be best to find a high-powered open-source tool, but Gabriel Valentin Raduti, who isn’t connected with either IBM nor TNC, suggested that it would be faster and more effective to build basic reporting functionality directly into PAM. “Gabriel said ‘You don’t need a super tool. Keep it simple.’ That’s what I’m suggesting to TNC,” says Cristina.
Coincidentally, Gabriel hails from Romania, just like Cristina. In fact, she got two suggestions from fellow Romanians.
Cristina also got some pointers to tools TNC might want to use in the future, including one via Twitter from John Cohn, one of IBM’s wild ducks:
#HelpCSCBrazil Would R be what you are looking for ? http://www.revolutionanalytics.com/what-r
A lot of the feedback came from IBMers, but several TNC people participated in the discussion, including Ian and Marcio. And we had a wide variety of people visiting the site, including people from the New YorkBotanical Garden, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and other top scientific institutions.
Perhaps the most intriguing suggestions we got concerned the use of drones. When we discovered how limited and expensive Internet connectivity is to many Amazonian communities, we reached out to our crowd for ideas about how to fix that. Several people suggested using drones as essentially a network of aerial radio signal relay stations. And Mary Kostus, an IBMer from New York City, suggested using drones for monitoring of deforestation.
That suggestion lit a fire under IBM CSC team member Firas Bouz, who reached out to Motorola, one of the companies that produces the technology. “Drones could be your connectivity and also your eyes in the sky with real-time monitoring. You could solve many problems at once,” he says.
Our pop-up Web site was an experiment. We made it up as we went along. Poor Internet connectivity and a high volume of work made it difficult to connect as often as we would have liked.
We thank the IBM CSC alumni who helped manage the Contribute Ideas forum. Hopefully, the ideas generated here will help TNC save the rainforest. And perhaps the site will lead to more experiments at IBM and elsewhere. My new motto: Progress through crowdsourcing.
This story first appeared on IBM’s Corporate Services Corps site.