On the 9th of October, the Zoological Society of London hosted a Zoohackathon event in partnership with the US embassy. The competition brought together coders, ecologists, creative-minds and conservationists, to develop technology based solutions to the problem of illegal wildlife trade. Participants even got to stay at the zoo overnight during the 48 hour event.
We caught up with the winning team, Lookout, whose unusual take on the problem set them apart from the other entrants.
First they told us about their winning idea: “Team ‘Lookout’ decided that, in an environment in which many travellers may not be able to use their smartphones, such as on holiday, an app would be rendered useless in raising awareness of illegal wildlife products ‘on-the-go’. Instead, the team came up with a digital ecosystem, serving contextual messages with products made from endangered wildlife at the travellers’ holiday destination, in order to educate them at key points at which they cannot avoid receiving such information, such as on airline itineraries, boarding passes, before in-flight films and on visa applications.
Although similar in principal to a targeted digital advertising campaign, this is not a short term advertising campaign relying on media funding; in fact, team Lookout are proposing to work with civil aviation authorities, airlines and travel aggregators to implement a complete upgrade to booking systems to allow permanent spaces to feature dedicated educational messages.
The implementation of such a scheme will be difficult, as it involves the cooperation of many international governing and commercial bodies, but it is not impossible. Lookout Team member Marysia Clouter stated that ‘it was an issue that wouldn’t reach everyone if it were just on an app’, highlighting the fact that most people will not be bothered to download an app and search for information about endangered wildlife; it is too much effort.
Therefore, team Lookout’s response aimed to automatically serve educational messages at relevant and unavoidable touch points within a traveller’s booking process, so as not to rely on travellers actively seeking out the information themselves and therefore ensuring a much wider reach– a problem that does not only apply to the awareness of the illegal wildlife trade.”
Find out more about team Lookout and their idea on Facebook and Devpost.
Then we asked the team a few questions about their personal experiences of the event, and what attracted them to it in the first place:
How did you hear about the Zoohackathon and what made you decide to take part?
Glyn - I’d heard about hackathons before but had never gotten myself around to entering one. A friend sent me the information about the Zoohackathon; I had to apply. The thought of working on a project involving wildlife and technology really appealed to me, but the thought of spending the weekend doing this with a group of like-minded people appealed even more.
Marysia - My friend knew that I was very passionate about ecology and took me along to the Zoohackathon. Wildlife conservation is very important to me (as well as a major global issue), and it is essential that the problem of the illegal wildlife trade is brought to light, to attract the attention of a wider audience and hopefully initiate a greater and more successful response to the illicit trade.
Billie - I have participated in Hackathons before so I was part of a London Hackathon meetup group. I first heard about the Zoohackathon through this group and it seemed like a worthwhile cause with an enjoyable weekend at the zoo, trying to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
Was there a personal experience or particular research that made you passionate about stopping the illegal wildlife trade?
Glyn - All of the tasks were very interesting, but for me there was an obvious choice. Education has always been important to me, we should never stop learning. I believe that being given the opportunity to learn from a range of different avenues of information and resources keeps education interesting, so the opportunity to develop a new platform to inform others of illegal animal trade was extremely exciting. A few of us began to gather together naturally and discuss the task. We sat down, expressed each of our own interests in the task and also our backgrounds. When we realised that we had brought together a team with such broad skills, it was time to register our team and get home to get some rest.
Marysia - I had just returned from South Africa with my university, where we did conservation work, learning about trophy hunting and the illegal wildlife trade. Therefore, the ZooHackathon was a perfect way to further my understanding as well as practically implement and showcase knowledge gained from my experiences in South Africa. Stopping biodiversity loss, the illegal wildlife trade and the legal but also highly unethical practice of trophy hunting are all things I would like to help achieve.
Billie - I have been actively engaged in research about trophy hunting with a friend of mine who went to South Africa, exploring the unethical, but social and economic value of animals as trophies. This was followed by researching about the network of criminal actions involved in poaching, which is far more complex than the media would have us believe. As a designer that works in 3D printing, I have read about different practical solutions to combat the illegal wildlife trade and stop the demand for poached wildlife products, such as 3D printed rhino horns.
Can you take me through what happened on the day and how you felt?
Glyn - The opening night was fairly daunting as I had no idea what to expect. The Zoohackathon hosts welcomed us to the competition and presented to us each of the possible projects. The tasks to come were going to be a lot of work and the fact that the competition was global meant that everybody was itching to get into a team and get on with it.
The next morning, I arrived to a fresh-faced room of hackers eager to get to work. We started discussions about our initial ideas, these would be the first of many discussions that would span throughout the day and night as we tuned our project plan. Our team naturally split into smaller groups and took on tasks. We needed to find data to support our project.
The most important aspect of this data acquisition not being that we gather data that is good enough for us to make our project for the Zoohackathon, but that we find datasets and resources that could be used in the future to further develop and improve the platform over time.
Marysia - I was excited more than anything to spend the night at the zoo! I was expecting to hear animal noises throughout the night but they were all surprisingly quiet. The introductory evening gave us a broader insight into the problem of the illegal wildlife trade and set the objectives of the hackathon.
Most teams had to design a mobile application that would educate travellers about illegal wildlife products, report poachers and many other aspects around the subject. During the two main days of the event, Team Lookout collated ideas, which included survey responses from members of the public visiting the zoo, and then we all split off into ‘coders’ and ‘media/ publicity’ groups. The team had a diverse range of relevant skillsets, with coders, designers, engineers, students and ecologists.
How has taking part impacted on your life since winning?
Marysia - Taking part in the Zoohackathon as well as winning has left me with a fantastic memory of teamwork at its best, with the delegation of tasks to people with different knowledge, skills and ideas that were later collated to form the final Team Lookout project.
It also highlighted how bending the rules slightly and ‘thinking outside of the box’ (as Jeremy Eppel described our project) is also an important factor in trying to solve complex problems. However, most importantly, I took away an image of an elephant falling to the ground after being shot by poachers in a video to raise awareness of the illegal wildlife trade by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It shocked me; it showed the problem far away from the ivory ornaments at a market stall, but as a living organism being killed on the front line. I hope the message reaches a world willing to react on a great scale to stop the trade before it is too late.
Billie - It has made me more aware of what is going on in terms of wildlife protection and what is being done to combat the illegal wildlife trade. It also taught me how small projects with like-minded individuals can bring big ideas and solutions to complex, global issues. ZSL London Zoo facilitated our engagement with the US Department of State and international wildlife charities such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IWAF), which boosted the confidence in group individuals and made us want to take the project further.
A big thanks to the team for taking the time out to talk to us.