Open source hardware for conservation

Last week I was happy to find several papers in Methods in Ecology and Evolution (one of my favourite journals) that presented open-source tools. Two of these present open-source software (the ViXeN stand-alone package for camera trap picture management, by Ramachandran & Devarajan; and the R package ‘BIEN’ to access the Botanical Information and Ecology Network database, by Maitner et al.). These follow the increasingly established culture of sharing software tools in an open way, often linking to data access.

But the prompt for this blog entry is actually the third paper, by Shipley et al., who present an open-source sensor-logger for recording vertical movement in free-living organisms. Not very often one finds the concept of open-source applied to hardware, the physical part of a device (including the electronics and mechanical parts; although often intrinsically linked to some piece of software that controls its functionality). Some other recent papers that present open source hardware include (Whytock & Christie 2016) and (Prinz et al. 2016).

Interestingly, a new journal called HardwareX (Elsevier; 1st issue April 2017) is entirely dedicated to “promoting free and open source designing, building and customizing of scientific infrastructure (hardware)”. It is not specific to the study of biodiversity, but I expect to see a growing number of relevant papers; check for example the “time-sorting pitfall trap and temperature datalogger for the sampling of surface-active arthropods” (McMunn 2017).


Pitfall trap and datalogger from McMunn (2017). Left: trap layout. Right: wiring diagram for the Arduino-controlled system.

Open source hardware (or open hardware) is a growing and maturing movement worldwide with a fascinating history (which deserves its own blog entry!). I’ll just say here that the basic philosophy is simple and will be familiar to anyone doing any coding: if we all shared our hardware designs, and let others modify them and re-distribute their derived designs (as we already do with code and programs), the whole community would end up benefitting of an increased diversity of products, knowledge and support (as we already experience with code, e.g. the R community).

There is a growing open source hardware community in other scientific disciplines, particularly wet labs (Pearce 2012) and it is now slowly getting into ecology and conservation too. As an engineer, I am really fascinated by this topic! And as an applied ecologist and conservation scientist, I believe open source hardware has an important role to play in the developing ‘conservation technology revolution’.

At the last International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2017, Cartagena, Colombia), we discussed a fair bit about conservation technology. And there was a very clear excitement about the open source way and its potential for conservation. As chair of the Conservation Technology Working Group (CTWG) of the Society for Conservation Biology, I can say we will do our best to promote the agenda of open source hardware in our discipline!

Stay tuned…

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