Features & Columns

Conservation Meets Tech
At Nerds for Nature

Silicon Valley chapter of Nerds for Nature marry community efforts
to conserve with the help of technology
GREENIES: Zach Miller, second from left, launched the Silicon Valley chapter of Nerds for Nature to marry community efforts to conserve with the help of technology. Photo by Greg Ramar

Dusk creeps across the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto. The salty, grainy smell of baked marsh grasses wafts through the door of a conference room at the Peninsula Conservation Center, as Zach Miller, lean and alert, stands by the door, waiting for the clock to strike 7. As stragglers settle in, Miller introduces himself.

Born and raised in Mountain View, he's an attorney working for Acterra, a nonprofit that connects volunteers to environmental opportunities. Earlier this year, he founded the Silicon Valley chapter of Nerds for Nature, an organization that similarly unites people with a passion for technology and conservation.

Miller calls for pitches—no matter how harebrained—and is met with silence. "C'mon, guys," he coaxes, armed with a stack of Nerds for Nature stickers. With the first tentatively raised hand he bounds across the room. "Yes! You get a sticker, man!" His eagerness spreads and soon the pitches are flying.

The 20 attendees fall into two categories: either they have an agenda or they're genuinely curious about the intersection of technology and conservation. A frustrated environmental lawyer proposes an app for converting different water measurements. A DeAnza College student wants to make environmental education compulsory in public schools. A disaffected intern hopes to use image recognition to identify whether items are recyclable, compostable or should go to the landfill.

After 45 minutes, the attendees begin tackling the ideas in smaller groups. As the night wears on it's clear no one knows the next steps. Getting from pitch to project is difficult for any organization, and with Nerds for Nature, the internal systems to facilitate that aren't in place yet.

"Hacking culture is all about executing ideas, getting something done, doing something outside of the systems that normally produce change," Miller says. "So how do we apply some of that hacker ethos and energy to addressing environmental problems?"

This desire to unite technology and environmentalism is a bit of a departure from tradition.

"Technology is seen as not natural, and it's not. It's the product of human ingenuity and creativity. Nature is seen as the opposite of that," Miller says. "But I think that kind of dichotomy might be the reason why we're facing such an ecological crisis."

Historically, the green movement has held a "black and white" stance on technology, he says. Either we preserve the natural world above all else, or we invest in progress, damn the costs. But the gray area is expanding as technology races forward. Some conservationists now consider nuclear power an environmentally friendly energy source. Densely populated cities are resource-efficient and, therefore, greener than suburban or rural areas. A new environmentalism is emerging that envisions a symbiosis between technology and nature. Nerds for Nature wants to be on its frontline.

Victoria Bogdan Tejada started the group in 2012. Writing grants for an environmental nonprofit and volunteering with civic hackathons, she saw cities inspiring volunteers to manage and use tremendous amounts of data. Tejada realized there was no analogue in the green movement, and decided to create one. The group launched in February 2013 with a Meetup event. Its 60 spaces were all reserved within 24 hours, with a 50-person waiting list. Tejada was stunned.

"Right away it seemed as if the Bay Area was primed for this kind of gathering," she remembers. Nerds for Nature began building community partnerships and holding regular project nights in San Francisco and Oakland. They now reach an estimated 1,500 people through mailing lists and social media, while project nights reliably draw 20 to 30 attendees.

Miller heard of Nerds for Nature and felt Silicon Valley was a perfect fit to capitalize on the region's entrepreneurial spirit and varied ecology. The Center for Biological Diversity noted the Bay Area as one of the six most important biodiversity spots, home to more than 90 threatened or endangered species of plants and animals.

In 2014, Miller met Tejada at an environmental law conference in Yosemite. They began collaborating, and Miller launched Silicon Valley's chapter in January. While it has been embraced enthusiastically, the chapter is still finding its way.

"I think what's been most surprising to me has been meeting people with world-class technical skills who yearn to do something that they feel is meaningful with those skills," Miller says.

That confluence of yearning and skill has thus far produced one major project from the Silicon Valley chapter, led by the co-organizers. Gabbie Burns, a software product manager, Jasper Friedrichs, an engineer interested in artificial intelligence, Jeremy Merckling, who works with Miller at Acterra, and Marisa Still, an artist and educator, are hard at work on an app provisionally called "Pocket Naturalist," which would give laypeople the expertise of a naturalist. Knowing which wildflowers are rare, and understanding the region's water table or learning the history of a trail could enrich the average hike.

Capitalizing on the popularity of citizen science, the Nerds for Nature organization collaborates with the California Academy of Sciences to host "bioblitzes." At these events community members use the app iNaturalist to catalogue flora and fauna in a defined area. Volunteers logged more than 7,000 observations in 2014, and more than half of these findings were tagged "research grade." The observations could help conservationists and scientists track fragile species, watch the spread of invasive plants and understand the impact of the worsening drought.

The Mount Diablo fire in Morgan Hill two years ago gave the organization another opportunity for innovation and collaboration. The nature nerds helped design "Change Brackets," L-shaped brackets placed throughout the park to help track recovery. Hikers rest their smartphones in the brackets, ensuring that the image is captured from the same place every time, and then upload photos with location-specific hashtags (e.g. #morganfire02). The photos are then compiled into a time-lapse sequence that allows scientists to study regrowth.

"It's one thing if you can just kind of create an app," Miller says. "How do we make problems that are inherently abstract, like climate change, how do we make those problems amenable to tinkering?"

Nerds for Nature isn't alone in considering this. In June, Google announced Sidewalk Labs, a tech venture to make urban living greener and more appealing.

On October 17, the Nerds for Nature chapters will host a summit to crowdsource ideas for the future of the organization. Miller isn't sure what will come of it, but he hopes to find a way of uniting technology and conservation that allows light from the canopy to reach the forest floor, creating first a niche, then entirely new behaviors.