Posts by jerthorp

We’re looking for a Community Manager!

May 27, 2020 Posted by Careers, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “We’re looking for a Community Manager!”

From the outset of the project, we’ve imagined FieldKit as being three things at the same time. First, it’s sensing hardware, open-source and modular and custom-built to be easy to use and durable. Second, it’s a software platform for managing, analyzing and the data that the stations collect. Finally, FieldKit is a place for people who are curious (professionally or otherwise) about the world around them to come together to share, learn, question, and contribute. It’s a community of environmental care.

We’re looking for someone to join our team and help to build this community, to work with scientists, teachers, activists and developers to get the most out of FieldKit. We want the FieldKit community to be built on a shared interest in environmental advocacy, but also on generosity and kindness.

Our mission is to empower everyone to monitor and advocate for the world around them. We know that online communities have historically been unwelcoming places for marginalized groups, and we know there is real work to be done to make FieldKit truly inclusive. We’re inspired by communities like p5.js, Glitch, Adafruit and Hackaday, who have made meaningful openness a priority.

If you’re excited about the opportunity to build the bright and wild future of FieldKit’s community, we’d love to hear from you: Send us a few paragraphs about why you’re interested, and a link where we can learn a bit more about you. We’re particularly interested in hearing from people in the aforementioned marginalized groups, and from people with experience working with communities outside of North America & Europe.

In the meantime, here are some things that make working with FieldKit team special:

Comprehensive health care

Medical and dental insurance for you and your qualified dependents covering 100% of your employee costs, and will also cover 30% of any dependent costs.

Work hours that you can live with

Most of the company gets in around 9am and leaves around 5:30pm, but some of us come in early and/or stay later. We prioritize letting people live their lives and have their downtime.

As community manager, there will be times when you’ll need to be able to take calls or respond to emails in the evenings or during weekends. We try our best to avoid this, but we prioritize being responsive to our community. Part of this job involves planning and running community events, which might happen outside of typical work hours.

Meaningful work

We’re making FieldKit because we care. About the environment, about the climate crisis, about giving people and communities tools for activism and advocacy. We believe this thing we’re making will have a measurable positive effect on people’s lives and on the world around them.

A connection to nature

FieldKit was born in the wilderness, and every year we venture into the field to help scientists, to test our products, and to engage with communities. Working with us means an opportunity to go to incredible places, meet amazing people, and get some mud on your boots.

#FieldKit50: Earth Day Giveaway

April 21, 2020 Posted by Announcements, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “#FieldKit50: Earth Day Giveaway”

To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day we’re giving away 50 FieldKits to scientists, students, teachers, activists and community leaders around the world. *

On April 22nd, 1970, twenty million Americans took to the streets. In parks and in public squares, in front of city halls and state legislatures, they arrived to demonstrate against the impacts of more than a century of unbounded industrial growth. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, a junior senator from Wisconsin, the first Earth Day was an unlikely bipartisan success. “The movement,” recalls Robin Wall Kimmerer, “was supported by disparate constituencies: rural and urban, left and right, rich and poor. The earth beneath our feet formed our political common ground.”

In the first Earth Day’s wake came a wave of government-led policy change, which would over three years see the formation of the E.P.A, and the passing of the National Environmental Education Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. For the one in ten Americans who marched, that spring day in 1970 must have seemed the beginning of a a new era of environmental responsibility.

Five decades later we find ourselves at a crossroads. Industrial activity has, for the most part, continued unabated. Pollution and extinction threaten life in every corner of the globe. Climate change sits before us as perhaps the greatest challenge that our species has faced.

Nelson believed that meaningful change would come through the cultivation of a “concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy.” We built FieldKit because, like the late Senator, we believe there is tremendous power in collective action. It’s our goal to get thousands of FieldKits deployed across the planet, to empower people everywhere to monitor the world around them. This #FieldKit50 giveaway is out first step toward that goal.

If you’re someone who cares deeply about the environment, and who is actively pushing for change in the field or in your classroom or in your community, we’d love to give you one of 50 FieldKits.

To enter, fill out the form before May 22nd. Tell us who you are and how you’d use your FieldKit; we’ll pick the winners by June 19th.

*Please note that applications are now closed, but we always want to hear from people who are keen to put our FieldKits to work.

A FieldKit LoRa gateway is installed high in a tree in Cameroon

FieldKit goes arboreal in Cameroon’s Dja Reserve

January 12, 2020 Posted by Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “FieldKit goes arboreal in Cameroon’s Dja Reserve”

FieldKit’s Jacob Lewallen installs a LoRa gateway high in a tree on the Bouamir inselberg in Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve (Photo: Peter Houlihan)

Working with the Congo Basin Institute and Peter Houlihan, the FieldKit team is deploying a series of stations in the Dja Faunal Reserve, one of the largest and best-protected rainforests in Africa. The stations, along with a tree-mounted LoRa radio system, will allow researchers to better study the reserve’s unique ecosystem, and will provide much needed infrastructures for Cameroonian scientists and for local communities.

The Place

Dja Faunal Reserve, Cameroon (ancestral Baka territory)

The Tech

The Story

Nighttime at Bouamir camp. (Photo: Peter Houlihan)

If you’re looking for peace and quiet, don’t go to the Congo. Even at night, there is the constant drone of cicadas, the trill of frogs, the chirp of crickets. The escalating screams of the hyrax, the strange bird-like calls of moustache monkeys, the weird electronic beeps of fruit bats. The low hoots of owls, the looping whistle of pigeons, the woop woop woop of a coucal, the kok kok kok kok kok of the Great Blue Turaco. I spent the first nights in my tent awake, listening, parsing, cataloguing

If I’d been able to somehow tune my hearing, to expand its range, the raucous audio landscape of the forest would have filled up even more. Down in the subaudible range I’d hear the rumbles of the forest elephants, low pitched conversations between giants, stretching over tens of miles. Up in the ultrasonic would be the social chatter of cane rats, the quiet courtship songs of moths and, and the radar ping of hunting bats. Somewhere around forty-five thousand times the upward frequency limit of human ears, three thousand times higher than the highest known range of animal hearing (the greater wax moth), I’d find a quite new addition to the jungle soundscape: the chirp chirp chirp of data.

These signals are coming from FieldKit weather stations, installed on two of the Dja Faunal Reserve’s peculiar inselbergs– rocky islands that rise above the dense rainforest. The stations are measuring data about the inselbergs’ unique microclimates, and are sending the information to radio gateways we installed high up in the branches of nearby trees. By later this year, there will be four LoRa gateways in the reserve, which will allow local researchers to easily instrument the forest, tracking its wildlife and learning more about the ecosystem in general.

The FieldKit team makes their way to the top of the Bouamir inselberg. The grasslands on these remarkable rocky outcroppings are home to small herds of buffalo.

Radio has deep roots in conservation technology. In 1894, Alexander Stepanovich Popov demonstrated a device that could detect lightning from more than thirty kilometres away by picking up the radio waves generated by the strike. Recorded on paper rolls, the data points about lightning activity could be used to help the forest service investigate potential fires. As early as the 1950s, scientists began attaching radio transmitters to animals, with the intent of tracking their movement. These radio ‘tags’ emit brief pulses, which are then picked up by Radio Direction Finding (RDF) receivers, which triangulate the location of the signal.

A circuit diagram for Popov’s lightning detector

One of the main challenges in using these technologies for conservation has been a fundamental limit of radio: the relationship between range and power. One of the inherent properties of radio signals is that signal strength is proportional to the inverse square of distance. Moving a receiver twice the distance from a transmitter reduces the signal strength by 1/4th. Moving it ten times farther from the transmitter reduces the signal strength by 1/100th. Put more simply, broadcasting a signal across a wide geographic range requires a lot of power. This relationship will be familiar to anyone who has tried to tune into a community radio station: unlike big corporate stations with high-powered broadcasters, smaller stations typically use less expensive, lower power set-ups, which means their signals are broadcast across smaller areas. When I was growing up outside of Vancouver, I could pick up the college radio station (CITR)… only if I parked my car at the edge of a north-facing bluff.

The radio gateways that we hoisted up into trees in the Dja, and the FieldKit Weather stations on the inselbergs take advantage of a clever innovation in radio that allows for something that seems to go against the rules I just told you: they can transmit over long distances with very little power. LoRa (Long Range) radio manages this trick by compressing information into short frequency modulated sinusoidal chirps (yes, that’s actually the technical term) that can be reliably picked up by receivers up about 10km away. Both the FieldKit weather stations and the LoRa gateways we deployed in the Dja are solar-powered; thanks to to small amount of energy needed to send messages they can keep up their data chatter happily without needing extra power.

Spectrogram of a LoRa chirp

LoRa works best when there is a clean line of sight between the transmitter and the receiver, so knew we wanted to get our gateways as high up in the air as possible. In an urban area this would mean putting hardware on top of tall buildings; in the jungle it meant getting up into the trees. The Congo rainforest is home to some very tall trees, some exceeding sixty meters (about two hundred feet). We had an extra advantage in the Dja because of the inselbergs, which rise above the forest as high as thirty extra meters.

Getting a radio gateway with batteries and a solar panel up into a tree is a delicate task, one that requires careful engineering, a careful eye on safety, and more than a little sweat. Luckily for us, we’re partnering on the Dja project with Peter Houlihan, a conservation scientist and lepidopterist whose area of specialty– the rainforest canopy– sees him spending a good chunk of his life off the ground. With Peter’s help, we were able to get gateways up into a tree on the Mussfelli inselberg and one at the central research camp; on our return trip in April we’ll install two more on the Bouamir and TK inselbergs. Over the coming years we hope to expand LoRa radio coverage to include the entire Dja reserve.

The Congo Basin Institute’s clearest and most urgent goal is to create research infrastructure in Southern Cameroon. In the short term, these technologies will work to attract outside researchers working on conservation, biodiversity, health, and other environmental projects. In the long term, it will support Cameroonian scientists to train with cutting edge technologies, and to plan and lead their own projects in the reserve. Another fundamental objective is to engage the local indigenous community – the Baka People – with the work being done in the reserve. Local knowledge is critical to the success of the Dja project, and during our next visit to the reserve, we’ll be training Baka guides to use the FieldKit stations, and exploring meaningful ways to give people ownership over the project’s long-term future.

Responsible Environmental Sensing

September 24, 2019 Posted by Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Responsible Environmental Sensing”

Early on in the development of FieldKit, we had a meeting to discuss the project’s goals, in as broad a sense as possible. We also wanted to look closely at what we thought were the project’s values– the things that would define how the project existed as an entity in the real, human world. We ended up with five: Reliable, Legible, Open, Responsible, and Accessible

Reliable means that FieldKit is not disposable tech. We want you to use our tools for years and decades. It also means that the data from FieldKit is certified to be accurate and scientifically valid.

Legible means that data from FieldKit should be easily read and understood by anyone, not just people with science and math training. Likewise, our documentation and instructions should be readable by everyone (not just english language speakers)

Open means that we release our hardware plans and software code, but also that we share our processes and plans, our philosophies and values. We open ourselves to collaboration and critique. 

Responsible means that FieldKit products are built and shipped using environmentally responsible methods, and that we teach users how to deploy responsibly. It means that we have a plan for recycling our hardware. It also means that we take our users privacy and their data rights seriously.

Accessible means that the entire project – hardware, software, community – is open to everyone. Specifically this means people who have historically been excluded from tech projects like FieldKit, including women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, the elderly, disabled people, and users from the global south. 

As we’ve been building the three core parts of FK (the hardware, the software platform, and the community), we’ve tried to keep these five pillars of the project in clear view. With any step, small or large, we can ask ourselves how well we’re fitting to these values. If a new interface feature seems really cool, but gets in the way of accessibility, we might revisit or even discard it. Same goes with hardware development– if there’s a high environmental cost for a certain part or process we’ll work to find better alternatives.

Responsible is the value that I’ve thought the most about. I’ve been involved in tech for twenty years, and in that time have had a front row seat to the damage that (mostly) well-intentioned products have inflicted on our lives, and on the environment around us. Our political systems are being hacked, and our landfills are filling up with toxic waste in the form of discarded phones and tablets.

In the last two years, I’ve become specifically aware of how much harm data systems have caused – from invasive ad-tech to facial recognition, the collection of data and its operationalization continues to put people and ecosystems at risk. We’ve become very good at envisioning the benefits of data collection, but not good at all at imaging its possible risks.

In building FieldKit, we’ve focused on two paths toward data responsibility: mitigating potential harm and educating users. The former means building our data systems on secure protocols, and giving users control over how their data might be shared and to whom. The latter means asking questions about possible environmental and social harms of data collection before a FieldKit user heads out into the real world to deploy:

  • Have you spoken to local wildlife experts to ensure your FieldKit station won’t disrupt the ecosystem you’re putting it in?
  • What is your plan for retrieving and reusing/recycling your station?
  • What indigenous territory are you deploying your station in and do they have rights to the data you’re collecting under data sovereignty claims?
  • Are there local schools or community centers where you might bring the results from your station back to the people who live where you’re collecting data from?
  • Are there other parties who might be interested in using this data? How do their interests differ from yours? Will making this data public cause potential harm?

As we head toward a public release of FieldKit in 2020, we’ll be continuing to build on these questions. More broadly, we’ll be working on ways to evaluate how well we’re doing as a team to stick to our values. A big part of this is speaking these things aloud, so that our community can hold us accountable if and when we stray out of bounds.

(Photo from D.J. Patil – Ethics + Data Science)

From Sensor to Sensorium

September 12, 2019 Posted by Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “From Sensor to Sensorium”

An abstraction of data from a FieldKit station in Peru, monitoring water conditions in the Amazon basin.

Five years ago, I met a neuroscientist who was wearing a strange, vibrating vest. The device, hidden under his clothing, took real-time data from the stock market and sent it to an array of quietly buzzing pads that were in direct contact with his skin. The vest was an experiment in sensory substitution— the idea was that if he wore the vest for long enough, his brain would accept the stock market stimulus as sensory data and he’d begin to actually hear, or to see the data. He would, in effect, gain a new sense.

It’s a really cool idea. Scott Novich and his then advisor David Eagleman have gone on to start a new company marketing the vest and other similar technologies to people with hearing and vision loss, and to budding cyborgs. I’m writing about it here because it’s a good reminder that our own experience of the world isn’t so much about the sensors— our eyes and ears and taste buds —as it is about the sensorium, the whole brain and body system that gives us the ability understand the things that are around us.

Much of the focus of environmental sensing has been on gathering data. We deploy our humidity sensors and anemometers and geophones to turn real world conditions into numbers, which we dutifully write to SD cards and hard drives and file into sqlite databases. Less attention has been paid to what happens next. How do we recognize important patterns in the data? How do we share these findings with others, and how do we make impactful visual narratives to tell data stories to the wider public?

In our FieldKit design sessions, we’re asking questions about how data from sensors might lead to real value for individuals and communities, regardless of technical ability.

We’ve spent much of the year at FieldKit designing interfaces and workflows that let users easily visualize their data, without having to write code or learn complicated tools. Core to our data platform is the capability to make comparisons, between data from separate sensors or from different time periods, and then to share these comparisons with other. A user in North Carolina might notice that water levels in the Tuckasegee are rising faster than they did for the same period in the previous year; by sharing this finding with collaborators and comparing their data to information from other FieldKit stations along the river, they are able to put their discovery into context.  FieldKit also makes downloading and sharing data easy, so people can perform more detailed analysis, post their findings to social media, share the data with a governmental monitoring agency, or use it to make a sculpture, or a performance or a poem.

FieldKit’s mission is to break down the existing barriers around environmental sensing. This means lowering the cost of sensors, but it also means empowering a wide range of individuals and communities (not just the usual suspects) to be able to discover and tell the stories that are encoded in the data they collect. It means that we’re not only making sensors, but also designing an entire sensorium which writes people into the full process of collection, analysis, and telling of environmental data.