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Creative minds tackle wildlife trafficking at first-ever Zoohackathon

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor with Gigi Allianic, Communications

Team Oily Palms, Seattle Zoohackathon winners. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Team Oily Palms gave a helping hand to wildlife this weekend with Seattle Zoohackathon's winning solution, a citizen science tool that empowers locals to report deforestation activity such as illegal logging and fires.

This people-minded solution was the perfect embodiment of what Zoohackathon is all about: tapping into the community to bring new eyes to old problems and innovate solutions that advance the ongoing efforts of NGOs, governments, and organizations like Woodland Park Zoo committed to ending wildlife trafficking.

The first event of its kind, this weekend's Zoohackathon took place simultaneously at six leading conservation technology zoos around the world: Woodland Park Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoo, London Zoo and Sydney's Taronga Zoo. The winning solutions from each of the host sites will now be submitted to a global competition.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

At the start of the weekend, four teams of coders, designers and project managers organically formed around emerging ideas to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking and the extinction crisis. Over two days, they consulted with mentors to understand the problems, wrestled with data sets to uncover trends and opportunities, built working models of their solutions, and live demoed them to a panel of expert judges.

Each group brought more than brains to the challenge; they brought heart. That's the beauty of an event like this that brings together community members and subject matter experts from U.S. Department of State, Microsoft Research, Socrata, City of Seattle, University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, Vulcan Inc., and Woodland Park Zoo to find a common cause.

Zoohackathon in Seattle was sponsored by Vulcan Inc., Google and Socrata with Woodland Park Zoo’s new Wi-Fi made possible through products donated by Cisco. “Vulcan and Paul Allen are pleased to support Woodland Park Zoo’s Zoohackathon. The world’s wildlife is in crisis due to an explosion in the international trafficking of animals and plants,” said James Deutsch, wildlife conservation director for Vulcan Philanthropy. “Technology is part of the solution, and Zoohackathon is an exciting way to engage Seattle’s tech community in developing groundbreaking solutions.”

“The demand for illegal animal products in international markets, including the U.S. as a top market, is growing at an unprecedented rate. Elephants, rhinos, tigers, turtles, pangolins and more are facing intense pressure and are losing the battle for survival,” said Fred Koontz, PhD, vice president of field conservation at Woodland Park Zoo. “Zoos are on the front lines alongside range country scientists, rangers, NGOs, wildlife agencies, and other partners to strategically protect wildlife from threats in the wild, especially wildlife trafficking. Zoohackathon was an important event that opened the door to new minds and future collaborators. These participating individuals have become more aware about the wildlife trade and have helped us advance our efforts in our fight to protect wildlife species.”

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Zoohackathon teams, which ranged from high school and college students to seasoned professionals, worked from problem statements submitted by wildlife organizations such as The National Whistleblower Center, United for Wildlife, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The problem statements reflected the complex challenges of combating wildlife trafficking including the need for: bringing high tech to local people living near protected areas; a portal that addresses palm oil-driven habitat loss; a “let the buyer beware” app for international travelers who unknowingly purchase wildlife items made from endangered or protected species; and an app for whistleblowers to safely and anonymously report wildlife crimes around the world.

Zoohackathon is organized by the U.S. Department of State and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for the U.S. government to take steps to combat the growing threat of wildlife trafficking. The Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking was formed and helped initiate Zoohackathon. The three pillars of the Task Force are: 1) Reduce demand; 2) increase international cooperation; and 3) increase enforcement efforts.

“Conservation technology has huge potential to turn the tide on wildlife trafficking," said Susan Cleary, director of policy and public outreach for U.S. Department of State. "This weekend demonstrated the strengths that the Seattle tech community has to bring to bear in finding solutions to this urgent global challenge.”

The winning team members took home zoo memberships and a behind-the-scenes animal tour, and each participant received passes to return to the zoo this year. No doubt they'll continue to draw inspiration from the animals here and remain committed to the cause. In turn, we'll continue to look to the Seattle tech community as a driver of innovation and a partner in building a better future for all.