“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

Modern technology has provided us with all sorts of tools that have advanced the fields of medicine, communication, manufacturing, and even transportation. But very few of these innovations have found their way into the toolkits of ecologists, those who conduct vital scientific research on ecosystems as small as creeks or as big as entire continents.

That was Victoria Bogdan’s observation, a fundraiser and grant writer who has worked with numerous nonprofits. Through her work with environmental nonprofits she noticed ways in which technology could greatly improve their ability to collect scientific data and perform other ecological research with greater efficiency. In order to realize these ideas, she and other eco-minded technologists assembled Nerds for Nature (N4N), an Oakland collective that brings together environmentalists and technologists to develop new technology for the benefit of ecology.

Crowdsourcing Ecology

N4N’s collaborative process encourages argument in order to develop the best ideas and distill them into worthwhile projects. One of their most popular projects by far has been the installation of “change brackets” throughout the summit of Mount Diablo, a mountain located just outside San Francisco Bay. The mountain’s summit was burned by wildfire in 2013, destroying most of the mountain’s native vegetation.

In order to keep an eye on the summit’s recovery, the group created signs with built-in brackets that allow hikers to take a perfectly positioned photo of the landscape with their smartphones. Each stand instructs the user to snap a picture, sans filter, and then upload the photo to Instagram, Flickr, or Twitter with a hashtag specific to that location. As the photos are uploaded, they are compiled into a time lapse of the mountain that details the changes taking place as wildlife and vegetation return to the summit.

The project gained widespread recognition last year when a Redditor posted a picture of one of the change bracket signs, garnering over 8,000 upvotes and catching the attention of Twitter users, bloggers, and even local news outlets. Hundreds of pictures have been taken since then; providing crucial visual data that will help researchers learn how fire-prone environments redevelop after a wildfire (you can check out all the pictures on the group’s Google Docs spreadsheet).

Besides keeping tabs on recovering forests, the group has also organized a number of events called “bioblitzes” where volunteers gather at a park or forest to catalog as many species as possible throughout the course of the day. Every participant of a bioblitz is armed with a smartphone loaded with the iNaturalist app, a website that allows nerdy nature lovers to catalog the species they come across in the wild. Developed by Ken-ichi Ueda, one of N4N’s own members, the iNaturalist website contains information on hundreds of thousands of species collected by members from across the world.

N4N’s bioblitzs and change brackets, as well as iNaturalist, are modern day examples of citizen science, a growing trend within many scientific fields that seeks to enlist ordinary people in gathering and analyzing scientific data. A famous example of this is the SETI@home program, a distributed computing project that allows amateur astronomers to donate their idle computer time to the task of analyzing radio waves from the dark recesses of space.

By crowdsourcing this kind of data gathering, environmental institutions and government agencies are able to keep costs low while still collecting all of the data they need to monitor the health of ecosystems and specific species. It also has the dual benefit of getting more members of the public involved in the scientific enterprise, helping to strengthen the layperson’s understanding of environmental science and increasing awareness of such issues as invasive species, pollution, and climate change.

The Sky’s the Limit

Outside of its crowdsourcing efforts, N4N has started developing its own homebrewed tools to help ecologists in the field. One N4N group is working to create inexpensive air quality monitors for measuring levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other toxic gases. At present, the most accurate handheld meters on the market can cost upwards of $2,000, and the most sophisticated systems cost more than half a million dollars, putting them out of reach of individuals and most nonprofits. What N4N intends with its own meters is to create relatively low-cost stations that can provide meaningful air quality reports at the neighborhood/street level, where levels of air pollutants can be drastically different from what is reported in the daily forecast.

If the sensors are cheap enough, they could be used to create a network of air meters throughout the city, filling in existing coverage gaps from current monitoring stations. All that localized air data would allow asthma sufferers and others with respiratory diseases to determine what neighborhoods to avoid during specific portions of the day, greatly increasing quality of life.

Besides monitoring the air, N4N is also utilizing it as a platform for environmental studies. Using experimental ecodrones outfitted with all the tools of an ecologist, the group aims to create a low-cost mobile platform for taking physical samples, observing wildlife behavior, and even monitoring coastal environments as they react to climate change. As a proof of concept, Sean Hendrick, an Unmanned Aerial Systems designer and N4N member, tested a water-landing drone in early 2014 equipped with sensors for measuring pH levels and water temperature. The drone, nicknamed “Hugo”, successfully completed a prearranged flight plan over Lake Merritt during a local bioblitz organized by N4N, making the occasional dunk to collect pH and temperature data.

Since Hugo’s initial flight, Sean and his team have developed a wide array of sensors for measuring other environmental factors including salinity and dissolved oxygen, two factors that are key to determining the habitability of lakes and streams. It is hoped that these drones will eventually accompany ecologists on field studies, or even remove the need for field studies altogether. A fleet of ecodrones could potentially be programmed to collect samples and perform other tasks autonomously, greatly reducing the cost of gathering environmental data.

Nerds for the Future

Though Nerds for Nature is still a young organization, it has gained a tremendous following both within the Bay Area and beyond, with many supporters asking to start new chapters in other cities. Part of its appeal can be attributed to its unique quality of being a group where anyone with a passion for the environment can meet with like-minded people and contribute to the creation of new and exciting technologies; technologies that will play a crucial role in facing the environmental challenges of the 21st century.