Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve is one of the largest undisturbed areas in Africa. Elephants trample through the trees, monkeys call to one another, and insects hum, all with barely any human interference. The lack of roads and dense forest have protected the biodiversity there, but the same remoteness has left the impact of climate change on the area little understood. Instead of trying to set up camp for a few weeks at a time, researchers are turning to tools they hope will gather data delicately and indefinitely.
“So often the science stops when you leave these places,” says Shah Selbe, a former rocket scientist and the co-founder of FieldKit, a Los Angeles nonprofit building open-source tools to gather conservation data. “If we can create low-cost tools that make monitoring easier, we can start to get more data.”
Big Data has transformed industries from finance to drug discovery. Conservationists, however, haven’t had the same access to deep data sets because of the difficulty and cost involved in gathering data in the wilderness.
To help, startups are developing open-source technology built to monitor the environment, from equipment that records the sounds of the forest to devices that collect data on weather conditions. The hope is that open-source tech will make it cheap enough to gather data. In turn, the data could lend greater insights into where to focus efforts to save endangered species and tackle the effects of climate change.
The open-source movement advocates sharing design information so that anyone can inspect and improve upon the tools that are built. Often, the groups behind the tech are nonprofits, typically resulting in hardware and software that are cheaper than commercial counterparts. Researchers can adapt the tools without worrying about breaking a user agreement or warranty. With more adaptable tools, projects could range from learning about a single species to ecosystems as large as the polar regions.