“Saying ‘Oh, there are locusts in northern Kenya’ doesn’t help,” said Cressman. “We need longitude and latitude coordinates in real time.”
Instead of trying to rewrite the grasshopper tracking software for newer tablets, Cressman thought it would be more efficient to create a simple smartphone app that would allow anyone to collect data as an expert. He contacted Dr. Hughes, who had previously created a similar mobile tool with the Food and Agriculture Organization to track a devastating pest, the cartridge caterpillar, 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. Borrowing this project, Dr. Hughes and his colleagues completed the new application, eLocust3m, in just one month.
Unlike the previous tablet-based program, anyone with a smartphone can use eLocust3m. The application features photos of locusts at different stages of their life cycle, which helps users diagnose what they see in the field. The GPS coordinates are automatically recorded and the algorithms check the photos sent with each registration. Garmin International also helped with another program that worked on satellite broadcast devices.
“The app is really easy to use,” said Ms. Jeptoo, from PlantVillage. Last year, she recruited and trained locust trackers in four hard-hit regions in Kenya. “We had beaters that were between 40 and 50 years old, and even they were able to use it.”
Last year, more than 240,000 locust records arrived from East Africa, collected by PlantVillage scouts, government-trained personnel and citizens. But that was only the first step. Then, countries needed to act on the data in a systematic way to crack down on grasshoppers. In the first few months, however, the authorities were devising strategies “on the back of envelopes,” said Cressman, and the entire region had only four planes to spray pesticides.
When Batian Craig, director of 51 Degrees, a security and logistics company focused on protecting wildlife, saw Cressman being quoted in a news story about grasshoppers, he realized he could help.