Paul Allen’s Conservation Giving is Going After Data, Now on Sharks

We’ve watched over the past few years as one big-name philanthropist after another has heeded the call of saving our troubled oceans. Paul Allen is one of them, and his latest investment in protecting sharks reaffirms his interest in leveraging data to wrangle this huge problem. 

Allen’s philanthropy has been intriguing as it’s grown in size and scope. We've covered his leadership in the Ebola outbreaks of 2014, his ongoing interest in furthering brain and cell science, and a unique initiative looking into traumatic brain injuries. While Allen has a Bloomberg-like diversity of interests, giving to conservation is a big priority, with a recently emerging and growing focus on oceans. 

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Marine conservation, especially among tech philanthropists, is huge these days. And donors each seem to be carving their own niches of giving. The Schmidts have their research vessel, Moore is into fisheries and microbiology, Google wants its mapping mojo to help. But there is a recurring theme of leveraging data, and Paul Allen’s developing oceans philanthropy has been drawn to this approach as well.  

The latest such investment went to a project called Global FinPrint, a three-year initiative to collect and aggregate data from around the world on the population status of sharks, to be stored in an open access database. 

Allen has a few avenues by which he supports his causes. There’s his Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, his own personal giving, and his company Vulcan, Inc., which backs and manages everything from science to sports teams. FinPrint received $4 million in funding from Allen, and support from Vulcan staff and tech.

Past data-intensive giving includes:

  • Sea Around Us, which received a $2.6 million grant from Allen's foundation for its work in compiling data on fish catches in Africa and Asia. 
  • Allen also funds FishBase, an online database of fish that is a partner of Sea Around Us. 
  • Allen partnered with the founder of Elephants Without Borders to conceptualize the Great Elephant Census, a project to provide accurate and up-to-date counts of African elephants using data collection from several research planes. 

We often write about the drive in philanthropy to address an unwieldy problem with data, and it’s a particularly appealing approach when it comes to conservation and oceans. It used to be that monitoring activity comprehensively across oceans or other vast expanses was close to impossible. But computing tools are changing that, and these tech guys love it.

A big part of this push involves establishing a baseline of data. In the case of the sharks project, the scope of the global status quo is unknown, with big gaps in numbers on shark populations. FinPrint, just like the elephant census before it, will help to get researchers aligned on the current situation. A team of leading shark conservation researchers will use baited, underwater video cameras to monitor populations in key regions and then compile the information, along with numbers from thousands of existing hours of monitoring, into one dataset. 

Related: Sloan and Google Join a Daunting Effort to Catalog Every Plant Species

Sloan and Google are funding something conceptually similar at prominent botanical gardens, an effort to catalog information on all of the world’s known plant species. In many areas of conservation, you have several researchers working in different areas on different angles of the problem. But it takes a lot of resources to bring that siloed knowledge together and get everyone on the same page, so that a problem can be tackled more efficiently. Allen is one of some big-time funders taking on that role.