Technology can be the enemy of nature. We can stare at screen instead of sunsets, and look forever online to find connection and purpose when all we really need to do is take a walk amongst some trees. Technology and “progress” has demolished landscapes and affected our planet and humanity in countless horrible ways. See Deepwater Horizon, the orchards of Silicon Valley in 1956 (then known as Valley of Hearts Delight), and average screen time of American teenagers as just a few examples.
The powers of technology can also be used for the good of nature, and for human beings. I like what Tiffany Shlain says in this podcast about how technology is really just an extension of us. It doesn’t dominate us. We can control it and use it for all the good we want to create. This view of technology puts us in the power position, and that is a much more productive perspective.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because yesterday we joined some new friends as they conducted their monthly monitoring of 1.5 miles of the California coast. Every four weeks Jan and Diane walk a bit of the San Mateo County coastline and write down what they see. They count birds and write it all down with code names like WeGu (Western Gull), TuVu (Turkey Vulture), and BrCo (Brandt’s Cormorant). They take pictures from the same spot every visit to show what’s changed and what hasn’t. They note how many seals they see and describe what those seals are doing (usually either swimming or laying on the rocks). When back home, Jan and Diane enter all the data into a centralized database in the cloud for scientists at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to analyze and compare to all the other 1.5 mile stretches along the California coast.
Jan and Diane are not alone. They are two of thousands (millions?) of citizen scientists who are collecting data for scientific study. Whether they’re collecting the data with an app or a pencil and paper, that data is turning into Big Data and influencing policy, land management decisions, scientific study, and more. That’s what got me thinking about technology as a tool for good. A cool app can entice people to go outside, and centralized databases can leverage the data for a bigger purpose. For example…
There’s iNaturalist. It’s an amazingly powerful collector of data on animals around the country. Sign up and learn more about what plants and animals you’re seeing in your world. Follow Alison Young on Twitter or Instagram to see how fun this can be.
Litterati is helping to clean up our planet one piece of trash at a time. I saw a lot more trash when I started with Litterati, and then started cleaning it up too. Data from Litterati is being used for advocacy and policy decisions, so that cigarette butt you document is making a real difference.
I love the Kings Tides because it means super dooper low tides that are perfect for exploring super dooper big beaches. But the high tides that come with Kings Tides are perfect for showing what sea level looks like. Enter the California Kings Tides project. They’re crowd sourcing pictures of the high tides so that we can plan for the rising seas.
And there’s this. Could it be that people are going outside more because of Pokemon Go, and what kinds of good things are happening when they’re there?
These are just examples. Of course there are more apps, databases, and technologies that are helping our planet be healthy. And there are thousands — no, I think millions — of people just like Jan and Diane who are taking the time to observe, monitor, and track what’s happening out there. All those WeBu observations and all those bags of trash add up. And that is powerful.