By Robin Kraft, Dan Hammer and Aaron Steele

alt textThe environment has been hacked! In a good way.

Across four different time zones, technologists and environmentalists recently converged at the first global EcoHack, with events in San Francisco, New York City, São Paulo and Madrid. Their mission? Spend twenty-four hours building tools to protect and better understand the natural environment. Hackathons are popular events that bring together developers, designers, and other technologists to collaborate intensively on software projects. EcoHack expands that model to include scientists and environmentalists, all programming to protect the planet. The World Resources Institute was a proud sponsor of EcoHack, which took place from May 9th to May 10th. Organizers included members of WRI’s Data Lab, and CartoDB, an official Global Forest Watch partner. EcoHack was also part of the Obama administration’s Climate Data Initiative (read more here). In his opening remarks at EcoHack New York, Craig Hanson, director of Food, Forests, and Water programs at WRI, highlighted the growing importance of tech in environmental conservation. He argued that while governments are gridlocked and companies slow to shift business practices, technology can inspire the rapid behavioral change we urgently need. And we have more data, processing power, and connectivity than ever to help us tackle the complex problems on Earth, from climate change to waste to sustainable cities. Nowhere is it more apparent than at EcoHack: the future of the environmental movement lies in a combination of big data, radical transparency, and a networked world. A number of high-profile efforts showcase this trend:

  • Just a few months after its February launch, Global Forest Watch has already motivated governments and companies to tackle the forest fires in Sumatra.
  • Aqueduct has been deterring companies and banks from investing in new manufacturing facilities where water supplies are already stressed.
  • Crowdsourcing in India is taking on bribery in government agencies.
  • SkyTruth has harnessed crowdsourcing and satellite imagery to monitor hydraulic fracturing, offshore oil exploration and illegal fishing.
  • And many indigenous peoples have begun defending their territories using mobile phones and the Internet.

But the objective of EcoHack is not to solve all the world’s environmental problems in one weekend. Rather, EcoHack aims to jump-start projects, prototyping ideas that can be further developed or have a continuing impact. It is a quick convening of creative energy, just to get things and people moving. Participants submit ideas to the EcoHack and gather a team at the event to help carry out their vision. The resulting efforts often contribute to ongoing environmental campaigns. For example, previous years’ EcoHack projects (including this forest loss animation and geo-tagged Mongabay stories) contributed to the Global Forest Watch website. Projects from this year’s EcoHack include:

  • OpenLogging, a project that lets users trace logging roads onto Open Streetmap using satellite imagery. A team from the World Resources Institute and Moabi created a platform to identify the location and extent of roads impacting forests deep in the Congo Basin.
  • WattTime, started at EcoHack 2013, analyzes real-time energy data to help shift consumption to times when the grid is “green” (and power is generated from renewable sources). This year, WattTime added support for the water and carbon impact of energy generation.
  • Rainforest Connection uses old Android phones to listen for and alert authorities to chainsaw use in forests. Their project added real-time SMS alerts and built an Android app for park rangers.
  • Yale Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks how well countries perform on high-priority environmental issues. The EcoHack team created an API for EPI data as well as interactive data visualizations.

Be sure to check out some of the other projects from San Francisco and New York. For better or for worse, environmentalism has taken a turn for the technical. Monitor, model, predict, visualize, scale, prototype are the slogans of 21st century developers and environmentalists alike. Of course, the hackathon model is no panacea for our environmental ills. But it is a powerful complement to long timelines for business sustainability, clunky bureaucracy, and endless fundraising that can hamstring action on environmental conservation. Interested in getting involved with EcoHack in the future? Please contact WRI’s Data Lab.