A high-tech volunteer movement helps map life on Earth.
By Colleen O'Connor,
December 2000 Issue
As a principal architect for advanced technology at Sun Microsystems, Jan Hauser worked on community development design for Jini, the Java-based technology that interconnects non-PC devices. But Hauser has also worked on the genie of industrial waste, fighting on his own dime to help lure it back into its bottle and prevent any further damage to the planet.
"The reason I'm doing this, the reason we should all be doing this, is that it's simply the right thing to do," says Hauser, a genial guy who pockets a cowhide wallet hand-tooled with nature scenes.
If this sounds preachy, consider the source. Hauser has been called an evangelist for Jini, a persuasive advocate spreading the "gospel" of his new technology. No surprise that in his off hours he approaches environmental concerns with similar fervor. Indeed, Hauser is one of a growing circle of scientists and entrepreneurs in the high-tech industry who are devoting lots of time or money or both to healing the planet. For Hauser, it's not about money. "Time," as he says, "is the most precious thing you can give."
Some tech activists are helping biologists create a giant Earth inventory, mapping every single living species on the planet. Others, such as Cisco Systems co-founder Robert Burnett, devote weekends to seminars on global sustainability. Like many, Hauser has kept quiet in the workplace about his work on behalf of the environment, but now he's beginning to run into colleagues at these conferences--people like Burnett or John Gage, chief science officer at Sun Microsystems.
Mapping it out
Hauser's major projects connect him with global efforts to map the environment. Mapping, as a scientific tool, provides hard evidence for environmental activists, whether they're involved in court cases or lobbying corporations for donations. "This is the only element that hasn't been fully appreciated," says Gage. "Mapping allows people to see what's going--exactly where rain forests are being cleared. Jan's skills are so critical because he's in the business of making things visible, which is the core of a truly powerful environmental movement."
Hauser's contributions are often invisible. In 1998, at the National Ocean Conference in Monterey, Calif., Vice President Al Gore praised the Navy for allowing civilian scientists conducting oceanographic research to use parts of the $16 billion underwater spy system it constructed during the Cold War. Under the agreement, the nonprofit Scientific Environmental Research Foundation (SERF) can use seven retired stations from Bermuda to Iceland if the scientists could discover a way to make the data public without compromising national security. Hauser's technical skill helped make this happen.
"My problem was figuring how to get classified data declassified," says Duane Cox, chairman of SERF. "Jan is very familiar with how to handle sensitive classified data, and we worked closely together to bring about results."
Hauser's decades of technical expertise, especially his knowledge of geo-spatial information systems and remote sensing, allowed him to help craft the eco-sentinal, a device celebrated by President Bill Clinton for the diversity of data-collecting projects it can perform, from tracking mammals to revealing complex climate changes.
"For years Jan had been using the world's most powerful [imagery analysis] computing tools, helping the military to accomplish their tasks," Gage says. "Twenty years ago this was the most secret and tightly guarded information in the world. Today the world has changed fundamentally, and Jan is an agent of that change."
Hauser describes this swords-into-ploughshares conversion as a simple process of technological co-evolution--using old systems to help recalibrate new systems, so that "one piece of technology can reinforce another."
Hauser's passion for environmentalism dates to the mid-1990s, when he learned about complexity mathematics and began volunteering at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a think tank frequented by digital innovators with a passion for neural systems and ecosystems--in fact any systems that are adaptive, complex, and self-organizing. There, working alongside prize-winning scientists, his entry into environmentalism came after a rude awakening.
He idolized a biologist with whom he had teamed during an experiment on digital evolution, a man who had raised millions of dollars to buy back a Costa Rican rain forest from private ownership to save it for conservation. One evening at a cocktail party, Hauser turned to the biologist and blurted, "I just admire what you did so much!"
The response stung. "He looked at me with a look of complete incredulity," recalls Hauser. "He furrowed his brow and said, 'I'm no different from you. You could do this. What do you think is so special about me?' It was almost a shame-on-you thing. That got me going. How could I sit there and honestly say that he had some capacity to save the rain forest that I didn't?"
Opportunity knocked while Hauser was reading a popular science book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, by Murray Gell-Mann, who received the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on elementary particles and served as co-chair of the science board at the Santa Fe Institute.
"I discovered he had a real soft spot for biodiversity," says Hauser, who grew excited when reading Gell-Mann's idea for conserving the best eco-regions of the Earth.
Hauser realized that the Cold War remote-sensing systems could also be applied to conservation biology in rain forests. Equipment once used for overhead photographs of enemy territory could be used to map deforestation. When he shared his idea with Gell-Mann, a member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, the scientist worked Hauser into governmental circles, where he began to network for funding.
One thing led to another. Hauser gained a reputation as Sun's conservation biologist, so when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) needed a powerful new computer for its world-mapping project, it called Hauser. He worked his Sun contacts for philanthropic donations, eventually delivering a $35,000 Sun computer to the organization.
This allowed the WWF to extend its global mapping project into a key area. "He very much helped create a major geographic information system presence in Russia for the World Wildlife Fund," says Francis Grant-Suttie, director of private-sector initiatives for the WWF. "For a lot of decision-makers--private sector players, major foundation funders, World Bank and high-level government officials--these maps speak a thousand words. They illustrate in very precise ways the rate of deforestation," Grant-Suttie says. "So Jan contributed specific help in the conservation of a very important area."
Last May, Hauser spread the green gospel at the Planetwork conference, where he promoted the new SERF project. "An ocean observatory! I mean, if we don't do something to halt the devastation of the ocean, it's going to be taken out rapidly."
For Hauser, making a difference is just a matter of simple mathematics. "I believe that an individual can make a difference," he says. "I wasn't sure when I started this work. But now I realize that if a lot of individuals worked just a little bit on a problem--if we all just spent 3 percent of our energy collectively to work on the problem--we'd probably achieve really spectacular results."
Now if he could just cadge a cool million for his rain forest biodiversity project, he'd really be set.