This year, the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award joined a modest field of green prizes out there, which includes the grassroots activism-focused Goldman Prizes, the Carbon XPrize and the Bullitt Fellowship for leaders in the Northwest. It’s backed by the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, a big supporter of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, which houses the new award.
(If it seems like we just wrote something the other day about Pritkzer philanthropy, it's because we did, looking at a big gift for early childhood development by J.B. and M.K. Pritzker. With 11 Pritzker billionaires, including many active givers, it's hard not to write often about this sprawling and generous family.)
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Finalists for the new Pritzker Award—which supports environmental champions under 40—included a virtual reality filmmaker focused on climate change, an environmental justice activist working in Latino communities, and the founder of an elephant sanctuary in Kenya.
But the award went to an economist and data expert working to make satellite imagery more accessible to journalists and others. Granted, it’s only the first round, but the choice underscores the program’s interest in innovation and technology.
This award initiative has a couple of twists that got our attention—mainly that the nominees must be under the age of 40, with the intent of giving a boost to up-and-coming environmentalists via exposure and a $100,000 check. The nominees also come from a variety of fields—they can be artists, scientists, engineers, activists or entrepreneurs—reflecting the fact that environmentalism today can describe anything from community organizing to corporate sustainability programs. It is clear, however, that the prizes are looking for those working off the beaten path.
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The first winner definitely fits that bill. Dan Hammer is getting a Ph.D. in environmental economics and is a fellow in data science at Berkeley. He specializes in environmental mapping data, and won the award for his current project to provide satellite imagery access to journalists. As the media landscape is plagued by distrust, Hammer expects incorporating objective imagery will have a “truly disruptive impact” on environmental reporting.
Whether that plays out or not, putting the growing stores of satellite data toward environmental uses has become a growing interest among researchers and philanthropists alike. Funders like Bill Gates, the Moore Foundation, and even Google have taken on environmental applications for satellite imagery, and making good use of big data is a near-obsession among philanthropists. Hammer’s previous work includes Global Forest Watch, another data platform backed in part by philanthropic support.
It’s also worth noting that Hammer started a nonprofit called Earth Genome with Steve McCormick, former president of the Nature Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. McCormick was one of 20 nominators for the Pritzker Award, and suggested his co-founder Hammer for the prize. Earth Genome has funding from Moore, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation and others, and has consulted on environmental data with huge global corporations like Dow Chemical.
So yeah, Hammer is not your typical environmentalist, and his work offers a contrast to the activist or conservation approaches seen among some of the other finalists. Then again, next year could be something entirely different, which is a compelling aspect of this program. Aspiring virtual reality directors and others interested in the prize can check out details here.