Connecting Zebras With the Corporate World

By Jeff Goldman  |  Posted 09-15-2010

Predictive Analytics: Saving Zebras and Other Feats

UK-based conservation charity Marwell Wildlife has been using IBM's SPSS software for predictive analytics to improve its understanding of key issues surrounding the Grévy's zebra. The endangered species is currently found only in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, with only 2,500 of the animals remaining in the wild.

Dr. Guy Parker, head of biodiversity management at Marwell Wildlife, tells CIO Insight that he used IBM's predictive analytics software to study data collected in a recent survey of the local population in northern Kenya. The survey was conducted in collaboration with several other organizations, including the Grévy's Zebra Trust, the Saint Louis Zoo, and the Denver Zoo. "It's particularly good at teasing out patterns and relationships between different variables - and that's exactly what we wanted to," he says.

For example, Parker says, the software helped determine the factors that drive the local population's attitudes towards wildlife. "We used SPSS to predict what influences people's attitudes, whether that was education level, people's age, what their tribal background is, whether they'd had contact with conservation before, whether they got benefits from wildlife - a whole range of different things," he says.

One of the most important lessons learned from the survey, Parker says, was that zebra hunting by the local population is a key threat. "And one of the reasons for the hunting is people using Grévy's zebra fats for traditional medicines... so it stands to reason that if we can offer more conventional medicines to people in that situation in the far north of Kenya, that might reduce their need to go out and hunt the Grévy's zebra," he says. "That could be a fairly straightforward way of overcoming a threat facing the species."

Looking forward, Parker says the organization plans to continue working with IBM to further analyze the data collected. "We'd like to overlay remote sensing data, radio tracking data and aerial survey data, and combine all our information - so we'll be looking to team with IBM to work out how to... feed all these different types of information into our analysis," he says.

And although traditional business measures of ROI don't necessarily apply here, Parker says the results have been exemplary thus far. "We're not dealing in getting a return on our investment in monetary terms - we're dealing in getting it in terms of biological outcomes," he says. "If we can stabilize the Grévy's zebra populations in northern Kenya, that's our return."

Connecting Zebras With the Corporate World

IBM program director Marcus Hearne says there are several parallels between Marwell Wildlife's study and the corporate world. "The result of predictive analytics is being able to best apply the limited resources you have," he says. "So northern Kenya can be seen as a market itself, and within that market you have very particular segments hidden away, just like you do a zebra population."

Predictive analytics can be used to help apply limited resources as effectively as possible in any target market. "In the case of Dr. Parker and his organizations, it's conservation activists and wildlife specialist veterinarians... and in the case of a business, it's marketing resources, it's salespeople, it's budgets for travel, anything like that," Hearne says.

IBM's predictive analytics software can be also used to help survey any market, either of human customers or of zebras. "If you think of all the wildlife in north Kenya like all your potential customers, and the zebras are the ones with the best lifetime value to you, you would be applying some of the same principles to map them out and find them without having to interview every single customer," Hearne says.

And while there are lessons to be learned in the corporate world from the Grévy's zebra study, Hearne says the reverse is also true. "It's just really good to see that it goes beyond people trying to generate more revenue... and into areas of conservation," he says. "When you get into the environmental sciences, you know your technology really is capable of making a difference."