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Nerds for Nature harnesses citizen scientists to monitor environmental change

[Note, this is a press release for an ongoing project of which Amy and myself are involved.]

n4nMonday, May 26, 2014 — In September 2013, a large wildfire, ignited by careless target shooters, blazed across Mt. Diablo, leaving 3,100 acres of state park scorched. Wildfires are an important component of chaparral ecosystems, clearing the way for younger growth to take hold, but monitoring recovery after wildfires is an intensive prospect for over-committed park staff. Enter the Nerds for Nature and their change monitoring brackets.

Inspired by monitorchange.org (created by Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey), Nerds for Nature combined low-tech angle brackets with high-tech smart phones to allow hikers to help monitor the ongoing fire recovery. Park visitors are invited to take pictures at predefined locations, aligning their phones against a simple angle bracket that ensures images will center on the same area. Photos are then uploaded to one of several social media services, where a program scrapes the publicly available images and compiles a time lapse video.


The response to the Mount Diablo change brackets has been overwhelming. After a photo of one of the signs went viral on Twitter, images came pouring in. Most uploaders stayed true to the intent of the project, while a few, expectedly, took a more whimsical approach. The images featuring photoshopped Godzillas won’t make it into the time-lapses, but they do help promote the project. According to change bracket software designer Ken-ichi Ueda:

“Crowdsourcing requires a crowd, and the bigger the crowd, the more need for crowd control. So far we’ve been able to programmatically filter out some forms of tag misuse, like replies and retweets, and flag the rest by hand, but if that becomes unmanageable I’m confident we can bring smarter solutions to bear on the problem. We’re nerds, after all!”

While the Mt. Diablo brackets have been in place since February 2014, a second set made their debut at Maker Faire last weekend, enticing participants to “Monitor the Makers” and highlighting the potential for these simple installations to generate data while engaging the public. The main sign was attended by a rotating crew of volunteers from Nerds for Nature, eager to field questions and share information about the project.

The international response to this project demonstrates a global interest in citizen-based environmental monitoring. Media outlets from Greece to Australia have queried Nerds for Nature while governmental and non-governmental agencies within the United States, including the National Park Service and National Forest Service are expressing interest in adapting the program to their own monitoring needs. The software needed to scrape images from social media is open-source and plans are already underway to develop clear, concise instructions for bracket construction and installation. Kits may become available at a later date.

The change brackets have potential beyond fire monitoring. They can be adapted to track visible environmental change across a range of issues, from wetlands restoration to sea level rise, while engaging the public. This simple setup is a powerful tool for promoting environmental education while harnessing the enthusiasm of citizen scientists to generate important scientific data.

The Mount Diablo monitoring stations, created in collaboration with California State Parks and scientists from URS Corporation, are just one part of a larger scientific effort to study how the mountain responds to fire.

Nerds for Nature is a grassroots collective of nature and technology enthusiasts who develop solutions to local environmental issues, particularly those centered around environmental monitoring.

Additional resources:

Nerds for Nature: http://nerdsfornature.org/

Change brackets: http://nerdsfornature.org/monitor-change/diablo.html

Media inquiries: admin@nerdsfornature.org, (510) 842-7540

Marine science and conservation. Deep-sea ecology. Population genetics. Underwater robots. Open-source instrumentation. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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