Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Environmental hacking

No doubt, new technologies are changing the way we collect biodiversity data. Data that once required taking expensive, bulky and fragile equipment on field trips can now be collected on cheap, compact and robust devices. Low power and cheap computational platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi are increasingly used in biodiversity science for data collection often as a consequence of dwindling resources available to individual researchers. 

We also increasingly rely on citizen scientists to collect data for our research, in particular the network of biological enthusiasts who provide much of our knowledge on the changing distribution of species. Many of these people are interested in using technology to maximize the value of the data they collect, but don't have the financial or technological resources to make full use of the opportunities technology provides. Low cost and easy-to-use micro-controller devices such as the Arduino have changed this in the past years and the result is a very lively Open Hardware movement very similar to Open Access or Open Source efforts. 

A nice example for such an open hardware project that can be used by biodiversity researchers, electronics hobbyists and electronics engineers alike has been published in the Biodiversity Data Journal:

This paper describes the construction of an open source environmental data logger based on the Arduino platform and its integration with the web content management system Drupal which is used as the basis for Scratchpads among other biodiversity tools.

The data logger is able to record the temperature and humidity at a regular time interval and submits data collected automatically and in real time to a Drupal website using a build-in Ethernet connection. I went through the parts list and some websites in order to come up with a rough cost estimate: $100-$130 for one unit which is indeed very easy to build based on the instructions provided in the paper. The price it at least half of some comparable standard data loggers in the lower price range. I am sure that one could get all necessary parts even cheaper with some more extensive research which makes this alternative even more attractive. As an educator I would also like to point out the pedagogical value of building such data loggers instead of just buying a finished product. Understanding the technology we are using to collect data is crucial and students might enjoy this way of learning about it much more than any dry physics lecture (unfortunately not every physics teacher is as good as MITs Walter Lewin). 

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