Predictiveanalytics technology, which maximizes the visibility of data and uses it toanticipate what will happen next, is increasingly coming into play?and in awide range of contexts. Merchants use predictive analytics software to identifyand target their most profitable customers, while insurance companies deploy itto help them decide whether to process a claim or flag it for investigation.Police departments enlist predictive analytics to focus resources on where andwhen crimes are most likely to happen, factoring in variables as diverse ascrime statistics and weather patterns. But one of the most intriguing uses ofpredictive analytics isn?t focused on snaring consumers or criminals: It?saimed at saving zebras.
MarwellWildlife, an international conservation charity and zoo based in Hampshire,England, has added predictive analytics software as the latest tool in its15-year effort to protect the Grevy?s zebra, an endangered species whosepopulation in the wild is estimated to have fewer than 2,500 animals.
Theorganization is using the software to analyze an array of information from thefield, including data from aerial surveys, camera traps and radio collars. Thatanalysis gives the conservation group a detailed understanding of both thethreats facing the zebras and the policies that would help the populationbounce back.
?We?reusing predictive analytics to focus our resources on areas that really matter,?says Guy Parker, head of bio-diversity management at Marwell Wildlife.
Someof the most illuminating data that the organization is analyzing is from asurvey of nomadic herdsmen in northern Kenya, the area where most of theremaining Grevy?s zebras live. ?The people in the local pastoral communitiesknow a great deal about the landscape and its wildlife, including the zebras,?Parker explains.
Tomine that wisdom, field workers from Marwell Wildlife and its partners in thesurvey?the Northern Rangelands Trust, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Grevy?s ZebraTrust, Kenya Wildlife Service, and both the St. Louis and Denver zoos?spent amonth in remote areas conducting a questionnaire-based survey. ?We gatheredinformation about population distribution and threats to zebras,? Parker says,?but we also learned about people?s attitudes.?
Thesurvey confirmed what conservationists have long recognized: The needs ofwildlife and humans are often at odds. Some herdsmen were hunting the zebras,but there were also more subtle forms of conflict. ?The zebras live in dryareas alongside people raising livestock, so there?s competition for water andpasture between the livestock and the zebras,? Parker explains.
Todrill deeper into the survey data, Marwell Wildlife used IBM SPSS predictiveanalytics software, which it loaded on a single laptop, for insight into humanpractices and attitudes that may have an impact on the zebra population.
?Withpredictive analytics, we can now look at seven or eight variables?things suchas education level and whether or not people had been previously exposed toconservation efforts?to better understand the reasons behind people?sattitudes,? Parker says. ?That?s the real beauty behind predictive analytics:It lets you tease out complex patterns you otherwise couldn?t see.?
Someof the patterns related not to the zebras, but to the humans living alongsidethem. ?We discovered that many people see benefits from living alongside thezebras,? Parker says. ?For instance, zebras lead people to pasture in dryyears, and they attract tourists.
?Thatkind of information is incredibly useful, because it helps us work out wherethere?s potential for conservation, and we can build on that. We?ve determinedthat the most promising areas for us to focus our efforts on are communitieswhere there are already positive attitudes toward the zebras.?
MarwellWildlife?s survey and subsequent analysis also unearthed another fact thatmight help save the Grevy?s zebra: They?re hunted less for food than fortraditional medicine.
?Zebrafat is valued highly by pastoral communities for ailments ranging fromheadaches to tuberculosis,? Parker reports. ?Many survey respondents saidthey?d be happy to move to conventional medicines if they were available.That?s a promising avenue that has the potential to benefit people and zebras.?
Theorganization?s use of predictive analytics is moving beyond its conservationefforts. ?We don?t have many people on our fund-raising team, but they?rehoping to increase their effectiveness by using predictive analytics to analyzeour donor base: who gives to Marwell, when they give and the factors thatinfluence those choices,? Parker explains. ?Since we first came to this fromthe scientific side of things, that?s an entirely new area for us.?
MarwellWildlife has other plans to expand its use of predictive analytics. ?We?lldefinitely use it in the future,? Parker says. ?For instance, we?re talking toIBM about integrating Landsat [satellite] imagery into our predictive analyticssystem. The more data we can put in, the more we can learn.?
MariaBehan is a freelance journalist with a background in technology.