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Protecting Whales Through Data Cooperatives

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Data is power. Data equals leverage, funding, and the opportunity to ask the specific questions you want answered.

Data collection is usually expensive and time consuming, so large research institutions leverage partnerships with data collecting groups (citizen scientists, small conservation organizations, etc.) saving money and generally improving their data sets. Some of the benefits of this methodology are local stakeholder involvement in data collection, and community awareness of the research that is happening in specific localities.

But through this familiar process, the people who actually collect the data lose ownership of it, and with it, they lose opportunities.

Data collecting organizations often don’t get a say in how the data are used, what questions the data are being used to answer, or with whom it is shared or not shared once it is turned over to the large organization requesting it. Typically, the data end up being owned by the government, large research institutions, or very large non-profits, and it is usually siloed in a centralized location with limited access. We believe this traditional data flow structure inhibits community self-reliance and contributes to an inequitable and unjust world.

Additionally, in recent years, conservation scientists in the United States have become only too familiar with the way data can be spotlighted or hidden away to advance political agendas. Governmental agencies shift how they share, manipulate, or destroy data based on mandates of changing administrations. (That said, we have seen amazing resistance -- shout out to you @ALTNationalParkService and others!). As we were trying to address these challenges, we became aware of blockchain and how it was being used to democratize data storage and management in other fields, such as supply chain and identity. Could we use this technology to solve some of these problems?

We believed this form of decentralized technology could allow people and organizations to independently store, preserve and share conservation related data in a permanent, traceable, and incorruptible way, but Maria and I know little about blockchain and even less about how to change that tech to fit our needs. Luckily, along the way, we have been able to collaborate with other like-minded folx who have been willing to explore this path with us.

Together with Nick Bryne and Type Human, we created a prototype of a data cooperative. Similar to the technology used for cyber-currency that removed the need for large banking institutions, we are proposing that the conservation sector remove the need for storing data in centralized servers like Amazon or Google, or even governmental servers. To do this we are proposing a complete paradigm shift in data governance. We are advocating for data contributors to maintain ownership of the data. We aren’t calling for a complete stop to sharing data in centralized methods, but we envision a fundamental change in how data is stored and shared. Through the use of decentralized technology, data can now be stored in a way that allows for tracing provenance and usage (e.g having a digital signature that tells you the source of each datum, and tracing when it was used by whom for what).

So why whales?

Graise and I have been following the plight of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) for the last few years. In 2019, we attended a few meetings of Washington State Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force. During the meetings, we were able to chat with some local citizen science organizations. These organizations collect immense amounts of data, some of which are used to make decisions about SRKW management. During our conversations, we found that although some organizations shared their data freely, others were more protective, and in some cases, data were never shared at all. The reasons data were not shared ranged from not having the appropriate technology and staff, to distrust of how data would be used and by whom.

Recovery of SRKW is a timely and important matter that can benefit from the use of a Data Cooperative. Urgent and crucial conservation decisions must incorporate all available data in a transparent way that promotes trust and empowers the stakeholders that collected the data as well as those that are using it for science or policy.

In 2019, we partnered with the Orca Network and Beam Reach to apply our prototype Data Commons using currently available open source data collected by citizen scientists and compiled by Orca Network.

Now in 2020, we are taking our prototype to the next level incorporating not only the historical archives of Orca Network sightings, but also real-time sightings from the Whale Alert app, and acoustic detections of SRKW presence provided by the Orcasound hydrophone network as a proof of concept. This next step will allow our 2019 prototype to share data via a public API with new tools like Orcamap (an open-source real-time mapping app), enabling real-time exchange and visualization of whale location data. At the conclusion of this phase of the project, the new data cooperative, dubbed the Salish Sea Ecosystem Modeling and Monitoring Infrastructure (SSEMMI) will be able to store and share data following specific, self-imposed governance protocols.SSEMMI is a data cooperative built with decentralized ledger technology which allows: perpetual, unaltered data storage; a digital signature of the provider; and a permanent record of data usage. Data providers customize access through governance policies that allow for different levels of interaction, latency, and availability -- that can vary by end-user. The technology stack includes:

Interplanetary File System (IPFS) for data addressing;

a torrent-based system for data storage and distribution; and,

smart blockchain technology for data provenance and governance

While we hope the urgency of saving the endangered orcas catalyzes the creation of this new tool, we expect that it will be useful more broadly in solving difficult issues in the conservation sector. Phases 2 and 3 of our project will develop more intricate governance and provenance functionality to help facilitate SRKW data sharing beyond Orca Network and Orcasound, expanding first to other stakeholders in the Admiralty Inlet and Possession Sound U.S. sub-region of the Salish Sea in phase 2, and the rest of the Salish Sea including British Columbia in phase 3. We also anticipate that SSEMMI, once it is built and tested with SRKW location data, may ingest location data for any Salish Sea species. We will offer SSEMMI to work groups of the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program as a trans-boundary mechanism for aggregating spatial data for other marine species. Other iterations of the same data cooperative model (using our software, which will be open-source) may help improve sharing of other types of data pertinent to marine conservation, like the SRKW health database.

This technology is applicable to many conservation challenges but is specifically well suited for situations with sensitive data, such as endangered species management, poaching, or issues surrounding over-fishing.

If you have any interest in learning more, let’s connect!

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Brendan Thatcher
Brendan Thatcher
Jan 24, 2021

Amazing article! Thanks for the work you do on behalf of SRKW conservation!

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