Belle de Veer

Hackathon: Data Science as a weapon against poachers

The wild animal population is under mounting pressure: in the last 40 years, it has decreased by almost 60% [1]. It is expected that without drastic new policies, two-thirds of the global populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians will have disappeared in 2020. It is only weeks ago that the last male northern white rhino died. This iconic animal species, hunted and slaughtered for its ivory, is still under pressure in Africa (and worldwide as well). In their battle against militarily armed poachers, park rangers are on a life-threatening protection mission to maintain the rhino populations. It is a battle they are waging not only with weapons, but now also armed with data science.

JADS Wildlife Hackathon

The problem described above was the central issue at the JADS [2] Wildlife Hackathon: a contest in which students were challenged to propose solutions to put a stop to poaching. The students had at their disposal large amounts of data coming from the park, generated by a range of sensors placed in the park, by drones, and by neckbands put on the animals. The challenge: How do you detect poachers with these (real-time) data?

Joshe Klaver, Belle de Veer, Maurice Peters and Daan Marechal – all Business Analytics and Operations Research (BAOR) Master’s students at Tilburg University – came up with the winning solution. They found out on the basis of the data set that when at least an x number   of animals in the park were moving at a speed faster than a specific pace, the chances of poachers being active were very high. They also provided insights on possible locations the poachers might be at, by predicting the direction in which they were moving. The prize the students won was a trip to the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South-Africa, where they got to see these animals with their own eyes.

Character is crucial to big data applications

Juan C. Vera is Associate Professor of Econometrics and Operations Research. He explains where Data Science is at at the moment, and he emphasizes why responsibility and character are so important for data scientists.

“In virtually all human activities, Data Science has come to play an important role. In many areas, people are investigating how to deal with these data in a responsible way. Our society  is shaped also by what we do with these data. The abundance of information creates great possibilities and has led to important developments in health care, biology, and the social sciences.”

“Character and responsibility play a crucial role in our field. Because our impact can be enormous, we always need to consider the consequences of our work. In various courses, students are made aware of the consequences of their actions: What are the possible positive and negative consequences of our technologies and applications?” In terms of the Tilburg Educational Profile, we are training students to become thinkers of character.  

The winners came up with good ideas, but what else did they learn from this hackathon and from the trip to the game reserve? We asked them about their experiences.

What made you want to take part in this hackathon?

Maurice: “I very much wanted to test my skills set and contribute to the well-being of an endangered species. Also, I was curious to find out about the kind of things you can do with data science.”

Joshe: “It is simply marvelous that we can employ our knowledge to further a good cause somewhere thousands of miles away””

How do you see your own future and do big data play a role in that?

Joshe: “I would very much like to work on similar projects in the future, but I am also interested in health care. It is great that real problems can be solved with the aid of data. But I do think that data science students need to be careful with their conclusions. The quality, for instance, is dependent on how data are generated, and data from the past certainly do not provide any guarantees for the future. This is something you need to keep in mind when you are drawing conclusions that may have a major impact on others.”

Maurice agreed with Joshe on this: “It is data scientists’ responsibility to interpret data correctly. Wrong interpretations can have a very strong negative impact.” He sees a nice role for himself in this. “I would like to have my own consultancy firm one day”.

Belle: “I want to improve the world with my knowledge. That is very ambitious of course, but I do think that is my ultimate goal. If we can improve things for the Welgevonden Game Reserve, then let’s do so by all means!”

What did you find out in South Africa?

Joshe: “The park rangers really are at war with the poachers. Things often get really violent, for people as well as for animals. Aside from this, it struck me that in spite of the fact that Apartheid was abolished decades ago, racial inequality is still a substantial part of everyday life. It shows in the kind of work colored people and white people do, but also in the conditions they live in.”

Maurice: “It was very special to see how self- sufficient nature is. Thus, there are many plants that have strong underground roots to protect them against forest fires. In the nights, we saw hyenas hunting and playing, which was a great sight. I would really recommend it to everybody to visit a game reserve sometime in their lives!”

Belle: “It was a great adventure! The game drives, the ‘braais’, the drinks in the park after dark, all of it truly wonderful. The main thing I learned is that there is a lot to be gained in parks like this by the right use of data.”


[1] WNF Living Planet Report 2016, 11e editie

[2] Jheronimus Academy of Data Science