‘Saying’ Oh, there are grasshoppers in Northern Kenya ‘doesn’t help at all,’ Mr Cressman said. “We need the latitude and longitude coordinates in real time.”
Rather than trying to rewrite the locust tracking software for newer tablets, Mr. Cressman said it would be more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that would allow anyone to collect data like an expert. He contacted Dr. Hughes, who had already created a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track down a devastating crop pest, the autumn armyworm, through PlantVillage, which he founded.
The PlantVillage app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers in 60 countries, mainly in Africa, diagnose problems in their fields. Based on this blueprint, Dr. Hughes and colleagues completed the new app, eLocust3m, in just a month.
Unlike the previous tablet-based program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The app presents photos of grasshoppers at various stages of their life cycle, allowing users to diagnose what they are seeing in the field. GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and algorithms double check photos submitted with each entry. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite channels.
“The app is very easy to use,” says Ms Jeptoo from PlantVillage. Last year, she recruited and trained locust hunters in four hard-hit Kenyan regions. “We had scouts who were between the ages of 40 and 50, and even they could use it.”
In the past year, more than 240,000 locust records have poured in from East Africa, collected by PlantVillage scouts, government-trained personnel, and civilians. But that was only the first step. Countries then had to respond systematically to the data to destroy locusts. In the first few months, however, officials were devising strategies “on the back of envelopes,” said Mr Cressman, and the entire region had only four planes to spray pesticides.
When Batian Craig, president of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company dedicated to wildlife protection, saw Mr. Cressman quoted in a news story about locusts, he realized he could help.