Whales, Rhinos, and Conservation’s Drone Queen

SLA was the perfect place to meet Anouk Visser, CTO, or as she prefers, Chief Technical Director, of Dutch Unmanned Aerial Solutions (Dutch UAS). SLA offers organic and healthy fare, and Dutch UAS is a young, nascent organisation that uses drones to monitor our earth’s resources with the aim of preservation. Hence, meeting the latter’s CTO at an environmentally conscious locale was fitting.

Dutch UAS began in 2013 with anti-poaching efforts to protect rhinos in South Africa. Now, after a couple of trips to Africa’s most southern country, they have broadened their focus to include land, plants, soil, and entire ecosystem monitoring. They work with farmers and those who wish to monitor and count game, mostly in South Africa, but are looking to expand operations to Mozambique, Australia, and possibly North America. All on a lean workforce of four—a CEO, a COO, Visser, and an aerospace engineer.

Industry Stereotypes

“Perfect, I love SLA,” she replied when I suggested we meet there to talk about Dutch UAS and her experiences being a woman in tech—where her male programmer counterparts don’t shower enough, have ponytails, and are wanting in social skills and fashion sense. 

But that’s a stereotype. Although many men, in her experience, have fit one or more of those particulars, Visser’s particular existence within these male-dominated spaces is anything but stereotypical, questioning the usefulness of such characterisations in the first place. She talks with an assured ease and a critical nuance about whales, networking drones, gender, and other topics with splashes of humor. Her preferred habitat, though, is behind a computer.

“The odds are good, but the goods are odd,” Visser told me while explaining her time at university, where she’s currently in the middle of finishing a master’s degree in artificial intelligence, and the dateability of her male classmates. Six out of eight women dropped out in the first year of her bachelor’s programme, out of 75 total students, she says, although eight women ended up graduating.

And she’s used to being the only woman, “and you notice things,” Visser tells me. In the classroom, she often presents unpopular opinions and she is frequently without the support of her male peers because, she reasons, they identify with one another due to shared backgrounds. That doesn’t stop her from sharing her thoughts, though.

The bond secured by likeness isn’t extended to her, even in industry events. Here, some men become surprised when they hear of her versatility as a programmer, assuming she works in web development as a coder, which is said to have a greater concentration of women. Her favorite programming languages are Python and C++.

The Good Drone

Dutch UAS refers to what are popularly known as drones as “unmanned aerial solutions” in their external communications. They use unmanned aerial solutions because “drones” has negative connotations—being associated with death, surveillance, and generally things you wouldn’t want to throw your support behind.

Visser builds drones and supporting systems. She’s a programmer that MacGyver’d a drone monitoring system for park rangers to track rhinos in South Africa’s Kruger National Park from scratch. All this for an area with little cellular network coverage by using a Land Rover as an ad hoc power generator. The rangers learned how to use the system within two hours.

Visser’s thoughtful in recognising the ethical problems inherent in technology’s applications, and we touch on the NSA, the need to protect data, facial recognition programmes, and how the ability to create something doesn’t mean we should. She wants to use her technical skills with programming languages to do some good, or at least not cause any harm, being “neutral” she says.

Natural Selection

“I like nature, but not a lot,” Visser remarks as a part of her answer to what drew her to conservation. She became more passionate about the environment on a trip to Iceland during her studies, learning first-hand about the plight of whales.

Soon after her Iceland awakening, in the middle of her master’s programme, someone from one of her classes posted on her Facebook wall about a vacancy at a conservation organization. It was Dutch UAS. This was spring 2014.

When it comes to animals, as a vegetarian, Visser has moral qualms with Dutch UAS potentially working with cattle farmers, “but we’re not going to say no to cattle farming right now.” She contends that they’re a new operation that needs funds and if cattle farmers are going to hire someone to monitor their herds, it might as well be Dutch UAS. You can’t save animals and ecosystems without money, Visser says, and with the larger ranches cattle have room to roam. “It’s a really good challenge, computationally,” she says, while pointing to the tension between ethics and technological curiosity.

Within a year and a half the organization will split into two companies: one, a for-profit operation through which funds will be funneled to the current non-profit organisation. By this time, she assures me, there will be enough financial stability where they can choose the projects that fit more closely with their ethos.  And there is already a wealth of proposals.

Tech Role Models

 Next to Dutch UAS, she also participates in a number of initiatives to help bring tech to young women. Visser feels obliged to teach young girls HTML and CSS or talk to a room full of them about how drones can play a key part in saving rhinos. She doesn’t necessarily want to be a role model, but she feels like she should because there just aren’t many female role models in tech.

Visser frequently looks around herself and isn’t satisfied with what she sees, not only the few women that she intermittently comes across but in the products themselves. Products produced by males will reproduce the same gender narratives—in a sense, you’ll get a “male” product. I scribble “tech reflects gender” as she concisely explains this concept of like reproducing like.  Racial diversity is a problem too, she mentions—another intersection rarely crossed.

A lack of understanding of gender within tech only reflects wider-spread societal attitudes, and is mirrored in split-second decisions and the unnoticed assumptions that fuel actions. While working as a technical specialist at an electronics retailer, customers would frequently direct computer problems at her male colleague, who studied law, when they stood next to one another. At this time she became aware of the gender bias involved in technology: women aren’t viewed as being technically competent.

This comes down to coupling certain abilities to a particular sex, creating a gendered role—a mistake in attribution, just like the one I made as she told a story about trying to encourage a group of Dutch women to apply for the women-only Google technology scholarship, which Visser previously received. I assumed she was speaking about how Dutch men thought it unfair that there is a scholarship exclusively for women, but when I clarified, she corrected: no, the Dutch women with whom she was speaking thought this type scholarship unfair.

Dutch Equality

“In the Netherlands, we have this notion that women are emancipated all the way through. It’s not true,” she assessed. Some Dutch women, she contends, because of the national narrative of equality believe that funds earmarked for only women in underrepresented areas like tech are unfair because they exclude men, which counts as discrimination. The focus is on the exclusion of men instead of the inclusion of women.

Still, when the discussion turns to imposing diversity regulations and an Amsterdam newspaper’s solicitation of non-white ethnicities to join its all-white staff, she was firmly against such measures. Diversity requirements emphasize ethnicity or sex over qualifications, and organisations shouldn’t increase diversity for the sake of diversity, Visser argues.

Instead, Visser wants to be recognized for her considerable achievements and her abilities, not because she’s a woman. Yet, it’s this idea that we’re stumbling towards in trying to deconstruct the circular nature of structural discrimination. Here, as Visser pointed out earlier in our conversation, like produces like, and the privilege of choice is exercised and reproduced by existing power structures favouring certain groups of people. Diversity requirements are a manner of stopping this circular structure and consciously choosing to do something else. It’ll be impossible to change the future if we don’t recognise and implement steps to correct the privileges some groups enjoy at the expense of others, including those which humans enjoy over animals and our earth’s resources.

It’s our privilege as humans to be able to manipulate en mass plants, animals, minerals, liquids, and our earth’s other resources for our own use. Abuse of these privileges is fuelling the environmental devastation and climate change that plagues us today. Organisations like Dutch UAS force us to place a question mark next to such excesses in privilege by hitting the stop button and calling for the responsible use of the diversity of our earth’s resources. Hopefully, Dutch UAS will continue using technology for these ends with a critical mindset towards not only the status quo but its own privileged position as a change-bringer. 

 

*This interview was conducted on October 27, 2015