Andrea Kölzsch and Anne Scharf win Heinz Billing Prize

Pair share award for developing a platform that harnesses animal tracking’s Big Data

September 25, 2023

The Max Planck Society announced that the 2023 Heinz Billing Prize has gone to Andrea Kölzsch and Anne Scharf for developing MoveApps: an open platform that lets scientists and wildlife managers make sense of animal movement data. The Heinz Billing Prize—awarded to early career scientists who have made outstanding contributions to computer science—recognizes Kölzsch and Scharf for “being instrumental in advancing computational science and its application in the field of animal ecology.” The pair will receive the award in October at a ceremony in Berlin.

Kölzsch and Scharf, both researchers in the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB), say they are honored to be awarded the prize from the Heinz Billing Stiftung.

“We hope that this recognition will shine a brighter light on MoveApps as a collaborative tool for turning animal tracking data into knowledge that can protect wildlife,” says Kölzsch who is a MoveApps project leader together with Scharf.

“This prize is also a powerful endorsement for our growing community of programmers and data collectors who work together to make a positive difference to conservation,” adds Scharf.

Kölzsch and Scharf were the sole recipients this year of the Heinz Billing Prize, which is awarded to one contribution every two years. The pair were recognized for developing MoveApps into an inclusive, sustainable, and secure platform for analysis of animal movement.

Solving big problems with big data

In many ways, the study of wildlife movement data is having its Big Data moment. High-tech, low-cost animal tracking devices are putting more data than ever before into the hands of researchers and conservationists. But so far, only those with skills to wrangle these data can take advantage of this so-called “golden age” of animal tracking.

With MoveApps, Kölzsch and Scharf have put analytical power into the hands of users without programming experience. They achieve this with an innovative concept of crowdsourcing talent: people with programming skills are matched up with data owners who need analytical tools. While programmers develop tools that become openly available on the platform, users can browse these tools and run analyses with a few simple clicks on a user-friendly web-based interface.

Since launching in February 2021 MoveApps has already been integrated with EarthRanger, a real-time data visualization and analysis system used by conservationists across more than 50 countries. In recognition of its role at the forefront of protecting wildlife, MoveApps was awarded the Conservation Tech Award in 2022 by the Allen Institute for AI.

For the 2023 Heinz Billing Prize, the jury praised Kölzsch and Scharf for fostering an inclusive community and galvanizing data-driven conservation solutions for the planet’s wildlife.

“Dr. Kölzsch’s and Dr. Scharf's efforts have fostered communication between the scientists who use data analysis tools and the programmers who develop them,” says the prize laudation, released by the Heinz Billing Foundation of the Max Planck Society today.

“The awardees’ work accelerates scientific innovation in the field of animal ecology for more informed conservation efforts by providing researchers with the tools they need to analyze the ever-increasing amounts of data in the field.”

Galvanizing a community

As researchers in the Department of Migration at MPI-AB, Kölzsch and Scharf have spent years studying movement of wildlife such as brown bears and Arctic geese. Like many movement ecologists, they used animal-attached sensors to remotely gather data about the whereabouts of wildlife. Their supervisor, Kamran Safi who leads the Animal-Environment Interactions group, became concerned with a troubling development in the field: the huge volume of bio-logging data being collected by scientists worldwide had vastly outpaced the expertise to analyze it.

So Safi came up with the idea of MoveApps, which Kölzsch and Scharf developed into a full-fledged platform. In their role as project leaders, they are responsible for ensuring that MoveApps is a place for creativity and collaboration. “It’s not us making the analytical tools or providing the data,” says Scharf. “This is about the community of programmers helping the community of data owners.”

This community now includes members who work in science, finance, private industry, and NGOs, all united by a passion for conservation and an urge to make a difference. “We talk to our programmers and users to troubleshoot, provide support, and figure out ways of improving the system,” says Kölzsch. “Our cooperation with the first group of volunteer coders has been extremely rewarding and motivating in the past months!”

In acknowledging MoveApps’ success, Kölzsch and Scharf pay special thanks to the computer science company couchbits GmbH “for implementing our ideas” and to MPI-AB director Martin Wikelski and Safi “for their unwavering support of the MoveApps project.”

But Safi mirrors the praise right back: “With ingenuity and compassion, Andrea and Anne have created synergies across once far-flung communities involved in computational science,” he says. “Empowering people and removing barriers is not only what they do, but how they work, and who they are."

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