As Locusts Swarmed East Africa, This Tech Helped Squash Them

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“Oh, saying there are locusts in northern Kenya” doesn’t help at all, “said Mr. Cressman.” We need real-time latitude and longitude coordinates. “

Rather than trying to rewrite the Locust tracking software for newer tablets, Mr. Cressman found it more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that anyone can use to collect data like an expert. He turned to Dr. Hughes, who had already developed a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track down a devastating crop pest, the fall army worm, through PlantVillage, which he founded.

PlantVillage’s app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers in 60 countries, mostly in Africa, diagnose problems in their fields. Based on this blueprint, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues completed the new eLocust3m app in just one month.

In contrast to the previous tablet-based program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The app shows photos of grasshoppers at different stages in their life cycle, which users can use to diagnose what they are seeing in the field. GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and algorithms check the photos submitted with each entry. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite broadcast devices.

“The app is really easy to use,” said Ms. Jeptoo of PlantVillage. Last year she recruited and trained locust trackers in four hard-hit Kenyan regions. “We had Boy Scouts who were 40 to 50 year olds and even they could use it.”

Last year more than 240,000 East African locust records were collected by PlantVillage Boy Scouts, government-trained staff and citizens. But that was only the first step. Next, countries had to systematically respond to the data to suppress locusts. For the first few months, however, officials planned “on the back of envelopes,” Cressman said, and the entire region only had four planes for spraying pesticides.

When Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company focused on wildlife conservation, saw that Mr Cressman was quoted in a message about locusts, he realized he could help.