Giving wildlife conservationists some helping PAWS

Wildlife conservation is an enormous global undertaking, vital to ensuring the health and longevity of our planet, and that the incredibly diverse plant and wildlife species we share our world with are here for generations more to come.

A significant threat to conservation efforts is the poaching of wildlife, which can be difficult and even dangerous to combat and is pushing many species towards extinction, while also helping to support a multi-billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade.

I’m pleased to introduce my guest for today’s podcast, Lily Xu with Harvard University, whose work to create a data driven approach to combat poaching in protected areas around the world led to the development of PAWS, the Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security. Perhaps most exciting is the hope that, with the help of PAWS, not only can we reduce the impact of poachers but ultimately reintroduce populations of wild tigers back into areas where they once thrived. I’m also thrilled to share that Lily’s work was awarded the INFORMS Doing Good with Good O.R. prize – which recognizes outstanding student projects with a significant societal impact – and I’m excited for the opportunity to speak with her about it.

I would say that the PAWS algorithm only exists because of the expertise of rangers and conservation managers, and then the decisions and predictions that we make are only intended to be an assistive aid, a decision-making aid for the conservation managers on the ground. So we’re not trying to replace the expertise by any means, but rather take their domain knowledge that has been integrated into the system so the predictive algorithms that we’ve developed have been designed in close collaboration and discussion with these park managers. So through conversations with them, we’ve grown to understand what is actually important, what are the things that drive poaching.

Interviewed this episode:

Lily Xu

Harvard University

Lily Xu is a PhD student in computer science at Harvard University, advised by Prof. Milind Tambe. Her research focuses on artificial intelligence — specifically in machine learning and game theory — applied to challenges in sustainability. She is passionate about reducing her negative impact on the environment and increasing her positive impact on society. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2018, where she studied computer science and Spanish.

She co-organizes the Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG) research initiative with Rediet AbebeWanyi LiFrancisco Marmolejo CossíoGeorge Obaido, and Ana-Andreea Stoica.