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The Elephant in the Room - Mapping Global Wildlife Trade Data

A summer internship with TRAFFIC

This summer Principle One established a partnership with TRAFFIC – an NGO specialising in international wildlife trade, whose mission is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC has a presence in over 45 countries, and a global co-ordination office in Cambridge dealing with a variety of challenging projects.

TRAFFIC approached Principle One with a range of challenges; from specific questions on manipulating key data to thematic challenges which are common to many industries in the 21st century. An essential part being how we could reduce the amount of manual processing required, and so freeing up the TRAFFIC analysts’ time for more strategic work.

As a research problem this felt a suitably difficult challenge for our summer interns – Heather, who joined us in London last year, and Josh, who would work remotely with her for his first internship. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, they would get stuck into a series of research sprints, supported by our domain experts and working closely with the team at TRAFFIC.

Establishing relationships and ways of working with a new client can be a challenge; and doing so in lockdown could have been doubly difficult. However, both teams worked hard from the outset to get good ways of working in place; Principle One ensured that experienced staff, with a range of specialisms would support a “Daily Blockers” call to ensure there was support available and TRAFFIC were hugely generous with their time

We arranged some face to face meetings, including a memorable sprint review in the park one sunny Friday to supplement video calls and workshops.

Over the last 10 weeks, we’ve followed an agile approach, progressing through multiple sprints, which focused on helping TRAFFIC automate the extraction of data from the many different sources and “hoards” that have grown up across the organisation, helping them bring it into their central database for analysis. Working within Principle One’s data exploitation framework, the initial sprints focused on identifying which software tools work best at organising large volumes of unexplored data and which worked well for extracting nominal entities. This was particularly challenging given the taxonomic naming conventions and multiple source languages.

Josh and Heather investigated and trialled a range of natural language processing (NLP) tools, analysing text and extracting information, usually in the form of entities and links. Techniques ranged from simple entity extraction (for example a list of locations or names) to advanced relationship extraction and fuzzy-matching of entities across documents. Throughout this process, we reviewed progress with the TRAFFIC product owner in daily stand ups – leading to the realisation that these tools and techniques could have broader applications for TRAFFIC, even beyond this initial set of business challenges.

With their internship drawing to a close, the benefits to both sides are clear. The team at TRAFFIC have gained new insight around how to tackle a range of data challenges and Josh and Heather developed their technical and consulting skills from direct customer engagement, even while working from home. They displayed an impressive appetite for tackling the data problems faced by TRAFFIC and many of our other customers. Josh and Heather have now returned to university but will be welcomed back next year as part of the Principle One 2021 graduate intake.

We are looking forward to working more with TRAFFIC over the coming year and welcome a fresh team to continue the collaborative project.


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