Posted by Rob Knies

Lucas Joppa 

Over the past several years, Microsoft Research Cambridge has established its bona fides as a serious player in the area of computational ecology, so it’s no great surprise that work from that lab caught the attention of Prince William during a recent trip to the London Zoo.

During a visit with conservation leaders to explore technology to help curtail wildlife poaching, the Duke of Cambridge, accompanied on his visit by his father, Prince Charles, encountered a tracking device attached to a toy albatross.

The device, part of the Mataki Project, conceived in part at Microsoft Research Cambridge, is an unprecedentedly light, cheap, and robust GPS device for tracking animal movements, including sudden ones that might be caused by poachers.

Prince William’s engagement with the device might have taken some aback. But Lucas Joppa, the Microsoft Research scientist who brought the device to the zoo gathering, has grown accustomed to the sort of eye-widening experiences his work engenders.

“One thing I’m constantly surprised by is the enthusiasm of members of the conservation community for these sorts of research advances,” says Joppa, the subject of the latest in the Microsoft Research Luminaries video series presented by Channel 9. “Putting the power of cutting-edge data-collection technologies into the hands of conservation practitioners is always a good thing, and making those things cheap and easy to use is of paramount importance.”

In fact, the creation of such devices has been a focus of the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science group since its inception.

“A major aspect of our work is building predictive models of the environment,” Joppa explains, “in part to enable the successful conservation of ecological systems. But we need to confront those models with data. Unfortunately, those data are often in short supply, so we have worked on ways to develop various devices that are cheap, easy to use, energy-efficient, and reprogrammable.”

That effort has evolved into a broader initiative called Technology for Nature, in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, University College London, and Microsoft Research.

Joppa tends to take a broad view of conservation, as evidenced in the Sept. 6 issue of Science, in which he and three colleagues contributed a paper titled Achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity's Goals for Plant Conservation. That work, he notes, “used computational techniques to combine data sets on species distributions and protected areas to determine which areas were critical for protecting the most species in the least amount of area.”

That is just the latest natural step in the research direction Joppa has been following for quite some time.

“My research repeatedly shows that strategically focusing on protecting and preserving specific places can have an outsized impact on overall conservation efforts,” he says. “For example, we know that many protected areas are located in regions that are what I like to call ‘high and far’—that is, at the tops of mountains and far from human development.

“The problem with that is that conservation efforts in those places are, in a sense, wasted. We need to start concentrating on protecting spaces of disproportionate importance, from a biodiversity perspective, that are also under extreme threats. My work on the subject, along with many others’, has focused on trying to hammer this point home, while providing the quantitative analysis to back up my claims.”

One way of doing so is to make state-of-the-art data collection inexpensive, simple to use, and widely available.

“Of course,” Joppa observes, “those goals aren’t unique to the conservation community. I see a nice fit between those sorts of projects and the more ‘traditional’ aspects of ubiquitous computing under way at Microsoft.

“I like to say that we are working on ‘ubiquitous computing of the environment’!”