Alumnus Ted Schmitt Uses Big Data to Help Endangered Species
Ted Schmitt, ESIA MA ’06, is not your average conservationist. A technology wizard living in Seattle and working for Vulcan Inc., Schmitt wields big data as a weapon in the fight to protect the Earth’s threatened species. Most recently, he has been a key player in Vulcan’s Great Elephant Census, a data-driven quest to conserve the dwindling African elephant population funded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen. The census is part low-tech: in small airplanes, 90 scientists from seven NGOs flew tens of thousands of miles over grasslands and floodplains counting the elephants. Back at Vulcan in Seattle, Schmitt and his team were busy creating a high-tech system to store and analyze the vast amounts of data collected, with the goal of influencing policy. When we caught up with Schmitt in November, he had just returned from another conservation project in Rwanda.
You and your colleagues just wrapped up the Great Elephant Census. What stands out in your mind about the experience?
One important thing about what Vulcan does is to provide the best data and the best science to guide policy. In the Great Elephant Census, we showed that the elephant population is down 30 percent over the last seven years. At this rate—and there are all sorts of factors—by the next generation they would be gone as a viable wildlife population.
What kind of impact is the census having?
The Great Elephant Census had a huge influence on decisions made at two events this past fall with major implications for wildlife. The World Conservation Congress, held once every four years, brings together several thousand leaders and decision-makers with the goal of conserving the environment. A resolution was passed there to ban the ivory trade. While this had limited legal implication, it had a lot of symbolic weight. In October, at the CITES [an international trade agreement among 182 countries] Conference of the Parties, countries strengthened international law governing restrictions on the ivory trade. This is a great example of how data-driven science can have an influence on policy.
How did you become a person who wants to make a difference?
It was really a process. Early in my career as a technologist I asked myself: What am I doing, and why is it important? I began to seek opportunities that would move my career towards having a positive impact on the world. Working with Paul Allen’s team at Vulcan is the ultimate fulfillment of what I had hoped to accomplish. I think there are far too few people who really reflect on how the technology we’re developing is changing our world.
What drew you to the Elliott School?
As I worked in various capacities at technology companies I thought a lot about how technology could be applied more effectively to solve big problems. I asked myself if there was anywhere I could study something like that. I learned there is an academic discipline for the study of science and technology policy offered at only a handful of places, the Elliott School being one of the best. My time at the Elliott School turned out to be an important milestone in my life.
Are there particular professors who stand out in your memory?
I took a couple classes with Professor Henry Farrell on privacy and technology. The deep thinking about trust and how technology can impact trust—I thought that was incredible. Professor Vonortas’ class on the economics of technology policy was really important –understanding barriers to technology adoption and trying to shape policy to change those dynamics.
What role do you think technology has in solving the world’s problems?
Sometimes technologists think they can solve all the world’s big problems. They can help, especially to create a scalable solution. But at root the problems are human. Climate change is a good example. Technology can provide options and solutions, but humans have to find the collective will to create policies to drive creation and adoption of that technology over other options and vested interests. To me that is why science and technology policy is so important.
You have said that Africa fascinates you. When did you first visit and what fascinates you?
I was working in Germany, and a friend invited me to join her on a trip. I spent six weeks in rural Zimbabwe. I fell in love with Africa. The people are amazing. I fell in love with the potential. I think enabling Africa to build its science and technology capacity is critical to solving Africa’s problems. This is a shared belief throughout Vulcan and another example of science and technology policy can make a difference.
What motivates you to consistently make annual gifts to the Elliott School?
A belief that grew from having studied abroad my junior year. The more people have a broad worldview and can look at problems from many perspectives the better off we will be. The Elliott School is producing folks who have a broad worldview. This is tremendously important in a globalized world.
What would you say to current Elliott School students who want to make a positive difference in the world?
Don’t assume that you have to tread the tried and true paths. Going to the State Department and other traditional places is great, but there are untraditional places as well. Private philanthropy is going to continue to grow in having an influence on big problems in the world. Corporations. Some of them are global citizens and are trying to be better global citizens. Elliott School graduates could help them do that. And the fact that they are at the Elliott School already says a lot about them.—Amy Aldrich