Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

Panel explores digital tech’s role in Salish Sea recovery

Bridging the gap between nature and technology might be a challenge for the Puget Sound region, but tech leaders could play an important role in protecting and restoring the ecosystem, according to a panel of experts at last week’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle.

Amazon Spheres in Seattle. Photo: Jeff Rice
Amazon Spheres in Seattle. Photo: Jeff Rice

Numerous technology companies, led by Amazon and Microsoft, have spurred population growth in the region, said Jeff Rice of the University of Washington-based Puget Sound Institute, who co-chaired the discussion. Growth, in turn, threatens the natural systems in and around the Salish Sea. On the other hand, he added, technology companies could bring innovation and financial resources to the campaign to save the inland waterway.

The five-person panel, also co-chaired by Robert Ewing of the state’s Puget Sound Science Panel, brought together journalists and members of the region’s booming technology sector to look at how these dual issues — growth and innovation — may be changing ecosystem recovery efforts.

With respect to the environment, technology can be used to compile ecological information, solve complex problems and communicate in new ways, said Michael Schmitz, director of engineering at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Advanced computer programs with “active learning” might discern patterns in the vast amounts of biological and physical data collected in Puget Sound, he said. The outcome could improve projections of fish and wildlife populations, such as the size of salmon runs in a given year.

Technology also could help to collect and compile data, Schmitz said. After the conference, he mentioned that computers could potentially learn to distinguish one type of plankton from another — something that currently takes humans untold hours of tedious work with a microscope.

The human connection

One of the human problems, Schmitz said, is that many technology workers as well as others moving to the Puget Sound region learn to appreciate the beauty of the area without understanding the threats to the ecosystem or wondering how they might be able to help.

“We need to figure out how to connect them to these environmental issues,” he said.

Adrienne Mason, managing editor of Hakai Magazine, said technology could help people understand the natural world. Virtual reality, for example, could in effect take people to special places in the Salish Sea and perhaps increase their desire for real experiences in the natural world.

“How do we get people to care about the place they live and engage with it without destroying it — or destroying it more?” she wondered.

Panelists from left to right: Wesley McCullough, Google; Michael Schmitz, Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; Lisa Stiffler, Geekwire; Adrienne Mason, Hakai Magazine; Carolyn Adolph, KUOW. Photo: Jeff Rice
Panelists from left to right: Wesley McCullough, Google; Michael Schmitz, Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; Lisa Stiffler, Geekwire; Adrienne Mason, Hakai Magazine; Carolyn Adolph, KUOW. Photo: Jeff Rice

A recent Nielson survey revealed that the number of Seattle area residents who considered themselves hikers has doubled since 2008 — seven times faster than the population. Gene Balk, who reported on the findings for the Seattle Times, wondered whether the rapid increase in hikers could be a result of the “Instagram effect” — the idea that people will see a photo of a beautiful spot posted on social media and want to go visit the place.

New technology in filmmaking makes it possible for people to “visit” extraordinary places they might never see in real life. Lisa Stiffler, a writer for the online tech magazine Geekwire, said her 9-year-old daughter became immersed in a VR session at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, which was presenting the three-dimensional movie “Click Effect.” During this VR experience, the viewer becomes surrounded by dolphins and whales and the sounds they make, including loud “clicks.”

“These kids were so enchanted to be able to go free diving in virtual reality,” Stiffler noted. “One said she wished she could take pictures.”

The experience is so powerful that some children have been known to move their arms as if swimming, and some adults tend to hold their breath to prevent drowning.

Impacts of growth

Observations alone don’t tell the whole story, of course. Puget Sound may appear pristine to casual observers, but it takes a bit of study to understand the problems of pollution, degraded shorelines and disrupted habitats, not to mention the threats to endangered orcas, marbled murrelets and Chinook salmon.

Mason noted that online games, interactive websites and other educational materials have been developed through technology to help people understand environmental issues. Even more advanced communication tools might be designed to engage more people, young and old.

Carolyn Adolph, a reporter who covers the economy for KUOW radio, has investigated the effects of rapid growth for a podcast called “Primed: What Happens When Amazon Comes to Your Town?” The series was launched after Amazon announced its search for a second headquarters.

“As a kid coming from a remote steel town in Canada… if you told me that this much wealth, these many people, could cause so much trouble, I would say you are daft,” she said.

If you want trouble, consider no growth or actual shrinkage, she said.

Today’s technology, which began with creating a more efficient typewriter, has spread its roots deeply into every aspect of the economy and in just about every human activity, she said. Meanwhile, technology has created vast amounts of wealth to be shared with the community.

“Tech wealth is special because there are not a lot of other kinds of wealth being generated outside of real estate — and we know what that looks like,” she said.

Companies like Amazon wish to carve out a unique role for themselves, and that opens up a “spectacular potential” for partnerships between those with a vision for protecting the environment and tech companies or their wealthy owners, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

“The question is, ‘How would you make that connection meaningful for them?’” she said.

Wes McCullough, geodata engineering manager at Google Maps, said technology could be used to predict how an ecosystem will respond to ongoing economic pressures.

“But can tech actually expand the amount of willpower and motivation on the part of the citizenry?” he asked. “I will say this: The last decade has shown us pretty conclusively that technology is capable of getting people to prioritize and identify with things that a few years earlier were not even on their radar.”

Technology has opened people’s eyes to all sorts of issues, McCullough said, but the level of engagement varies from person to person. He noted that members of his Seattle-based team working on Google Maps are especially interested in hiking and the outdoors, so it seems ironic that practically the entire focus of Google Maps has been on the urban infrastructure.

“It does speak to this issue,” McCullough said. “Google is concerned in mapping out an ecosystem, but it’s the commercial ecosystem, right? It’s like getting consumers out from their house and going to work and places to shop. What gets mapped affects what gets perceived.”

The natural environment may be getting more attention, he noted, as Google recently became involved in mapping hiking trails in Washington state. Perhaps new maps could help people not only visualize the boundaries of the Salish Sea, but also increase their understanding of the entire ecosystem.

At the end of the session, many participants and audience members said they would like to continue the conversation and work together on problems that could be resolved with the help of technology and technology companies.

For more information or to share your ideas on this subject with the Puget Sound Institute, please contact us.


Related: Can ‘Silicon Valley North’ change the way we think about Salish Sea recovery? An interview with panel co-chair Robert Ewing.

About the Author: 
Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.