Zoohackathon spots ways to fight wildlife trafficking

At zoos from Sydney to Washington to London, teams of computer geeks recently opened their laptops to tackle wildlife trafficking in the world’s first Zoohackathon.

Participants had 48 hours to work on tech projects to counter demand for illegal wildlife products. “Zoos are on the front lines” to fight growing demand and support conservation strategies, said Fred Koontz of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Teams planned online ad networks, games to immerse players in the life of an anti-poaching ranger, and even an anti-trafficking tool for smartwatches. Teams pitched their ideas to a panel of conservation experts on October 9.

Sometimes, the best projects were surprisingly low-tech. That was the case for Team Look Out, who won London’s Zoohackathon.

The London team originally thought about creating an app that would educate international tourists, who often unknowingly buy illegal wildlife products when shopping for souvenirs.

But international travelers often can’t use their smartphones in other countries, so any such app might not ever be used, teammate Caroline Fletcher said.

Instead, the team pitched an idea to involve airlines, airports and embassies to educate travelers about wildlife trafficking before the tourist lands. The team sketched out “touch points” to reach travelers, such as when they download a boarding pass, apply for a visa, or watch in-flight movies.

Winning projects @Zoohackathon

“Conservation technology has huge potential,” said Susan Cleary of the U.S. Department of State, which organized the hackathon. Team Look Out and other winning projects will now vie in a global competition, with the winner to be announced in November.

Check out some of the weekend’s other top ideas:

  • Oily Palms: Seattle’s winner developed a tool to report logging activity and fires from palm oil deforestation. Around the world, orangutans, elephants and tigers are at risk as forests are cut down for oil palm plantations.
  • WildTrack: A team in San Diego designed a tool to report wildlife trafficking anonymously.
  • WildFace: At the National Zoo in Washington, Team WildFace designed an app for smartwatches, allowing users to report wildlife trafficking.

Are you interested in using tech to save species? Join the Zoohackathon conversation at Wildlabs.net or on Twitter at #Zoohackathon.