“Saying ‘Oh there are locusts in northern Kenya’ doesn’t help at all,” Cressman said. “We need real-time longitude and latitude coordinates.”
Rather than trying to rewrite the locust tracking software for the new tablets, Mr Cressman thought it would be more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that would allow anyone to collect data like an expert. He reached out to Dr Hughes, who had previously created a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track a devastating crop pest, the fall armyworm, through PlantVillage, which he founded.
The PlantVillage app uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help farmers in 60 countries, mostly in Africa, diagnose problems in their fields. By borrowing from this plan, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues completed the new app, eLocust3m, in just one month.
Unlike the previous tablet program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The app presents photos of locusts at different stages of their life cycle, which helps users diagnose what they see in the field. GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and algorithms verify submitted photos with each entry. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite transmission devices.
“The app is really easy to use,” said Ms. Jeptoo of PlantVillage. Last year, it recruited and trained locust trackers in four hard-hit areas of Kenya. “We had Scouts aged 40 to 50, and even they were able to use it.”
Over the past year, more than 240,000 locust records have poured in from East Africa, collected by PlantVillage scouts, government trained staff and citizens. But that was only the first step. Countries then had to act on the data in a systematic way to eliminate locusts. In the first few months, however, officials were strategizing “behind the backs of the envelopes,” Cressman said, and the entire region only had four planes to spray pesticides.
When Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company focused on wildlife protection, saw Mr. Cressman quoted in a report on locusts, he realized he could help.