Open Source Wildlife Conservation: Tracking Lions (and Cows)
Lions and cows are different. Big, fat no-brainer, right? So it would seem to follow that a device used to track each, such as a radio collar, should honor those differences. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case—until now. Design engineers Justin Downs and Benedetta Piantella of Ground Lab, a sustainable innovations company based in Brooklyn, New York, is developing a project to make tracking systems more customizable—and less expensive. The approach? Take them out of the patent-riddled, proprietary marketplace and into the cooperative, Internet-based community. In short, make the systems’ blueprints freely-available online—for use not only by wildlife experts, but anyone with a target to keep tabs on.
Downs started formulating the idea during a visit to Kenya where he was building a solar-powered tree house for Lion Guardians, a program that’s part of the conservation group Living With Lions. As part of its work, the organization tracks the majestic felines (in 2009, the population in Kenya was reported to be 2000 and dropping by about 100 annually), but the devices currently available leave more to be desired.
For example, Lion Guardians director Leela Hazzah keeps tabs on the big cats, but she also wants to track cattle, whose herders kill the lions when they think their wards are threatened. A collar that’s suitable for a lion isn’t ideal for a cow, but buying another isn’t that easy. “The cost of these collars is prohibitive,” says Downs. At a standard market value of $3,000 to $5,000 a pop, “that really reduces what the conservationists can actually employ them for,” he
says. Rather than tracking a whole cow herd, for instance, a conservationist might only be able to afford tracking one individual ungulate. “That affects the research a lot,” says Downs. Plus, the major collar manufacturers (there are around a dozen) are possessive of their products’ “ingredients”—i.e., the hardware and companion software—making it virtually impossible to figure out how to retrofit a collar for use on different animals.
The Ground Lab team is bent on changing that scenario—not so much by producing new technology as by making existing technology more accessible to anyone who wants it. In other words, Downs and Piantella want to open-source the hardware and software necessary to build and adjust existing collars, which consist of a GPS and a GSM module (basically a cell phone module). The duo plans to make the collars' hardware and software code and other information available on a "wiki" that's free to researchers, and anyone else.
Here’s one way their system could work: Say a researcher wants to put a collar on a cow and later switch it to a lion, but she needs a different battery pack. Currently, she’d have to order an entirely different collar, or be stuck using the old one that’s tailored to cows, not lions. With Ground Lab’s Open Source Tracking Project, as it’s called, she could order just a new battery pack for about $200, and retrofit the rest of the collar device simply by adjusting the software code she finds online.
Further, Ground Lab hopes to make data that various conservationists acquire from their devices uploadable onto a database that’s also open to public mining. “The most effective conservation techniques are those that look at the ecosystem as a whole, putting an emphasis on data sharing between multi field research,” says Downs. Plus, with diverse data, “you can compare the health of specific wildlife,” adds Piantella. Doing so allows researchers to gauge which conservations efforts actually work, and which ones have failed.
This past December, Downs and Piantella set out to Africa to field test part of their system in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The main goal was to determine what kind of cell coverage was available, and also to upload GPS locations to a database that they would later visualize. The tests went better than expected, according to Downs—indeed quite well. Their next major fieldwork will involve affixing collars to cattle for a month some time in late summer, most likely. In the mean time, the team plans to hone the way data can be visualized online through the use of maps. Perhaps eventually, those maps will show a successfully separate peace between lions and their very different bovine counterparts.