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How 82 Million Minutes of Rainforest Audio Could Save Your Life with Bourhan Yassin (Episode #124)

It is possible to save all the remaining rainforests in the world when we connect three things:  technology, imagination, and our love for the world. Our guest today, Bourhan Yassin, is CEO of a nonprofit—the Rainforest Connection (RFCx)—that has been working towards doing exactly that since 2014. Their founder discovered that rainforest audio data can be used to detect and stop illegal logging, and in less than a decade, the RFCx has expanded into using sound and machine learning to protect biodiversity in all kinds of places.

Episode Highlights

About Our Guest:

Rainforest Connection (RFCx) is a technology organization pointing its expertise at conservation. By creating a global acoustic network—a sound monitoring system—for environmental threat detection, and protection, the RFCx has opened up an entirely new tool to protect the Earth. Instead of using cameras to capture information about the world, they are listening hard and uncovering knowledge through audio that is critical to expediting the enormous changes we need in conservation 

Unlike visual-based tracking systems (such as drones or satellites), the RFCx approach relies on acoustic sensors (RFCx Guardians and Audiomoths) that collect acoustic data and monitor the ecosystem soundscape at various project locations across 32+ countries, 365 days a year. 

It’s an ingenious system that was focusing on threats like illegal logging and poaching of wildlife in the beginning. But now, the goal is to collect and analyze huge sets of acoustic data of the ecosystem’s flora and fauna to better understand biodiversity.

This broader vision of what was possible has enabled the RFCx’s impact to expand wildly. In the process of looking for very particular sounds in rainforests, chainsaws or gunfire to prevent deforestation or poaching, respectively, they realized they were also collecting millions of minutes of data on other sounds that would be helpful to people studying various aspects of those same ecosystems.

In the process of sharing the acoustic data they collect, many impactful partnerships for global conservation progress are growing. And that may be the most inspiring part of this burgeoning field of collaboration technology. 

In the language of the tech industry…. RFCx technology acts as a “force multiplier” which does much of the monitoring and analysis work for a fraction of the cost. 

Perhaps this way of becoming a force multiplier—collaborating and then amplifying each others’ impact—is a great example of the new kind of math that applies to the Conspiracy of Goodness that is also growing in our times. The Rainforest Connection’s work feels like a 1+1=11 situation once you learn how their unique technological approach to solving one problem might add greatly to solving dozens of others. 

This new view of collaboration through technology reminds me of a quote by the renowned expert, Dr. Srikumar Rao. In thinking about why we start at a problem alone and often find others who we can work with in the journey, he says, 

“Instead of being pushed by the pain, we can be led by great vision.”

Arguably, the Rainforest Connection was started, pushed, to decrease the pain caused by deforestation and poaching, but by using their data to facilitate the work of others, they and their partners can be led by the great vision of saving biodiversity of our planet.   

Our guest today, Bourhan Yassin, is leading the RFCx in developing the world’s largest ongoing collaborative ecosystem management project. 

He is leading the charge to aggregate acoustic data from various sources to enable deep learning models in AI to ingest, analyze and interpret audio data at scale to support research and conservation efforts. 

And why should we care about all this? 

The RFCx platform is creating a suite of hardware that are becoming the most powerful tools in the world for threat detection and collecting biodiversity data. 

These tools will enable global partnerships, governments, corporations, scientists, and ecologists to truly understand ecosystem impacts and save our shared futures on this small blue planet. 

Bourhan Yassin was a long-time veteran of the tech industry before breaking into  the conservation industry. He has over fifteen years of experience in building and leading large-scale operations and engineering teams. 

In this interview, Bourhan helps us appreciate the complexity of biodiversity and the wonder of connections that exist in every ecosystem. He celebrates technologies that can bridge the gap between scientists, researchers, and policy makers. We discuss how all change starts at the “local level” and he inspires us to think about how we can contribute in small ways to the larger vision. 

We thank Bourhan for helping us see how genuinely amazing people can be when they bring their talents to build solutions that will improve the future for all of us.

Show Notes

(00:00- 03:23) OPENING

(03:24- 18:02)

  • The history of Rainforest Connection 
  • Gibbon (ape) reserve in Indonesia
  • Using recycled cell phones to detect the sound of any illegal activity
  • Sound is more profound and it has the ability to capture so many different things that are happening 
  • We are trying to use whatever is available in front of us to have a solution
  • Preventing illegal logging in a real time way
  • Low Earth orbit satellite
  • We are essentially collecting all of the sounds from the forest
  • Making sure that biodiversity is still intact

(18:03- 21:06) BREAK

(21:07- 39:32)

  • The application of technology by acoustics
  • Project collaboration with Google in Vancouver, Canada
  • Marine project off the coast of Ireland
  • Projects in over 35 countries around the world
  • Bridging the gap between people on the ground and the researchers and scientists on their desks doing the research and doing the work
  • Tell your audience how important animals are to the vitality of the forest
  • On the grounds of Costa Rica
  • Spider Monkey
  • The importance of biodiversity
  • UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15)
  • Carbon credit
  • We are taking a snapshot of Earth that’s not going to exist again
  • 100 million of 1 minute audio collection

(39:33- 56:54)

(56:55- 58:16) CLOSING

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