Two men install an acoustic recorder device on a tree trunk in the forest.
Acoustic Recorder Acoustic recorder deployed in the forest. Each recorder collects more than 24 hours of continuous sound data, which scientists can use as a rough measure of biodiversity. © Justine Hausheer/The Nature Conservancy


We Need a Technology Revolution—For Nature

By Sherri Hammons, former CTO for The Nature Conservancy

Key Takeaways

  • Technology and data are essential tools for scaling conservation efforts to meet the challenges facing the future of our planet.
  • The next steps are to figure out the best ways to centralize our droves of transformational scientific data while making it consumable and actionable for the public.
  • Partnerships with the tech sector can help us get bigger, faster and smarter with our solutions to achieve a sustainable future.

Late last year, I received a call from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) with an offer to become the first ever global Chief Technology Officer at the organization. I’ll pause here so you can wonder, why exactly is a conservation organization looking for a CTO? Of course, technology plays a big role in the clean energy transformation, but what does it have to do with water security? With protecting forests or oceans, with the biodiversity crisis?

The answer: everything.

At a critical time for our planet with enormous challenges looming over the world as we know it, TNC recognized that if we are to realistically achieve a world in which people and nature thrive, we must work smarter and at a faster pace to be able to scale all our conservation efforts.

And that means we must leverage all the technologies and data available to us, innovate, and move at the pace and scale of the tech sector. Without these tools, tackling the enormous challenges facing the future of our planet seem ever more daunting.

So here I am.

My role as CTO is to shape existing and emerging technologies around the great conservation science that TNC is known for. TNC has some of the finest scientists in the world, working on four major global issues: tackling climate change, protecting land and water, providing food and water sustainably, and building healthy cities. But we know that we can get bigger, faster and smarter with our solutions—what if action for our planet could move at the pace of Silicon Valley? Technology has extraordinary potential to play a key role in this sort of acceleration.

Sharing data is key to innovation

Most predictions indicate we’ll have 9 billion people on our planet by 2050 and, at our current trajectory, our earth cannot nourish all of them. Nature can play a huge role sustaining those many individuals. But it will take more than traditional conservation science to make that happen. We will need innovative applications and methods from internal and external sources.

That’s why one priority for my team will be to create an open data platform that can be used by both TNC and others to share and consume public conservation data. As a science-driven organization, TNC has droves of transformational data. The next steps are to figure out the best ways to centralize and apply all this rich data while making it consumable and actionable to the public.


What if action for our planet could move at the pace of Silicon Valley?

Data sharing has long been key to innovation. Consider navigation on your smartphone or car. It requires a lot of data to route you from home to office in the most efficient way—there’s the actual map, but also live traffic information, points of interest so you can grab your favorite coffee drink and calendar information on your next meeting so you won’t be late. The navigation tool is driven by data and applied in a way that is easy to consume by the driver.

We need to do the same with conservation data, so it can be used in innovative ways to help us save our planet. For instance, imagine that same navigation application sending you a message on where the most breathable air would be that day and rerouted traffic to lessen the impact of emissions. There’s a magnitude of possibilities to improve how we apply our data.

From data collection to application

Already, we are gathering droves of data: whether it’s via drones gathering wildfire data, bioacoustic sensors gathering biodiversity data in a forest, remote sensors gathering water quality data, or even our scientists out in the field manually capturing data. We need to be sharing that with our peers who are tackling these issues, with entrepreneurs who could be—and likewise, we must encourage them to do the same.

But, data itself doesn’t solve problems. With the advent of artificial intelligence, we can leverage data along a time continuum to begin to measure our impact and start to simulate the future on a real-time basis. We can train the machine to proactively communicate to us when areas are declining around the world. Or better yet, communicate that our solutions are improving a natural habitat or fishery. TNC scientists have created a variety of amazing algorithms that, for example, value carbon sequestration or global treasures such as our coral reefs. We need to put these algorithms to work across the world at scale leveraging existing and emerging technologies.

Better tech, better decisions

Finally, we will be partnering with others to help us package all the aforementioned insights into products that can be used by decision makers. Our Techstars Accelerator is a major part of our product strategy. But, by opening up our data and building out some artificial intelligence tools, we can also work with new and existing partners to take those insights and expose them to others. What if every urban planning tool was able to include nature in the decision making? What if all governments got a communication whenever an area in their purview was beginning to show decline, so they could take quick action before the decline caused major problems? What if every citizen in every country could tap into how climate change was playing a role in their everyday life?

TNC has a long history of developing solutions that can help us achieve a sustainable future, but as we invest more in technology, we have the chance to revolutionize the way we do conservation. And that’s what I take as my charge in this new role as CTO: to ignite a technological revolution that serves both people and nature.