by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 April 2020
Alasdair Davies is reimagining conservation technology to drive down costs, increase equity of access, and protect our planet and its species.
With the Arribada Initiative, he designs, develops and delivers monitoring technology to the conservation community, opens up more opportunities for research, and breaks down the systemic barriers that limit our ability to meet unprecedented environmental challenges. We spoke with Alasdair to reflect on his achievements and experiences over the last three years as a Shuttleworth Fellow and to discover more about the intriguing road ahead for Arribada.
Working at the Zoological Society of London in the UK was virtually a dream come true for Alasdair. He was a full-time senior technical specialist helping solve conservation technology challenges in the field. And he was comfortable, settled, with no motivation for moving elsewhere. He loved it - apart from one persistent concern.
“I was in a constant cycle,” Alasdair explains. “I’d write grants and source partnerships, but conservation technologies and solutions were often excessively expensive, proprietary, and closed source, and there were far too few professional-grade open solutions available. It was wholly unscalable and limited our impact.
“It was a continual annoyance and a huge barrier that needed breaking down. For example, if you want to go and do satellite communications in Antarctica you would have to spend tens of thousands of pounds on supporting hardware. Few can afford that. But nobody was doing anything about it, and nobody was even questioning the expense. I knew it didn’t have to be this way.”
With a keen interest in the open software and hardware movements, Alasdair could see low-cost technology being employed in an array of different environments and began to play with a few conceptual ideas of his own. While working on the ZSL’s Instant Wild project, he presented a few of them at the Extreme Citizen Cyberscience Summit in 2012.
“That presentation was about a mesh network in a rainforest,” he recalls. “We had a theory we could connect cameras in a canopy together and create a cheap, Raspberry Pi-based mesh network and use it to beam live photos on the web. It was just a vision, and we had no budget to achieve it.
“But I remember someone came over from the back of the class at the end. It was Helen Turvey. She told me she was interested in what I was doing and that we should talk, and she gave me a card. I didn’t know about the Shuttleworth Foundation or what it did, so I did some research. It was full of incredibly driven, amazing fellows with some seriously interesting ideas. But I didn’t instantly have a desire to become one. And I certainly didn’t see it as a world I could inhabit.
“But over the next few years, Helen and I kept bumping into each other in the same circles - open source meetups and such, or small, completely separate projects. And all the while, the barrier to access issue I was experiencing kept niggling away.”
Alasdair’s frustrations with the vast expense and proprietary nature of conservation tech eventually culminated with an idea to apply open source methodologies to his field of expertise. Three years after discovering the Foundation, he felt he was ready to apply for a fellowship.
“I didn’t get through,” he smiles. “It’s a common thing amongst many of the Shuttleworth Fellows for their first applications. But I did get some interesting feedback, saying they were keen on the idea and could see where I want to go. They knew why I wanted to make the change but felt my methodology needed tweaking. And they were 100 percent right.
“I’d written my application with the assumption I could work with every other fellow in the Foundation at the time. I tried to fit myself and my idea into their world and didn’t understand the individuality of projects within the community. But the door wasn’t closed. They asked me to think about it again. I did, and applied the next year successfully.”
Alasdair founded the Arribada Initiative to make vital conservation technology open, affordable and available to all. He had intimate working experience of the system he wanted to break down, where organisations are forced down a proprietary route sorely lacking in customisation, adaptation and replication opportunities necessary to keep costs down. We believed an open approach could make a substantial difference.
Lower costs unlock more research opportunities in the field and solves a significant access to knowledge problem: with more information and better quality data, we can pursue social and political change with greater urgency. His vision set out a future where global communities can afford to take ownership and tackle the local issues they are often best-placed to solve.
“When I set out to do this on day one, it was quite broad,” he recalls. “The idea was that open source conservation didn’t exist in a way that it should. There were too many barriers, and I wanted to find out what they were and why they existed. And then I’d try to unlock them, and open up conservation technology as a whole.
“It was generic in the sense that I didn’t know the specific open tools and solutions I would make but knew we could do it in a better way. With increased access, conservationists get more of the tools they need and develop more knowledge. And that data translates into effective action.”
Alasdair became a fellow in March 2017. He already had a wealth of experience behind him and well-established relationships with an assortment of partners from his years working with ZSL. Both were quickly used to significant effect. The initial focus was to reduce the high cost of sea turtle tags, a barrier to conservationists he had been trying to crack for some time. From a personal perspective, he saw it as an opportunity to make an impression.
“It was a little like low-hanging fruit,” says Alasdair. “But although I’d been pushing away at this for a while, I hadn’t got anywhere with it. I felt I had a year to really nail it, and at least I could get this one thing done and prove myself. There was also an immediate need and opportunity for tagging sea turtles in Principe. It just felt like a good starting point. So while you experiment a lot during that first year, you also want to get to the end of it and show you can be trusted.”
Alasdair’s fellowship saw the introduction of a vibrant range of conservation technology solutions, including thermal imaging devices for human-wildlife early warning detection and conflict mitigation. But his early work on the green sea turtle tag is a central thrust to much of what he has achieved over the three years. It is also a striking example of the benefits of openness and collaboration.
Luka Mustafa was a Shuttleworth Fellow in 2017 when Alasdair invited him to help work on the tag’s first iteration. Luka’s organisation Institute IRNAS offers expertise in hardware engineering and is remarkably flexible, capable of applying its technical knowledge to almost any field. The partnership yielded not only a high-quality turtle tag but a foundation for further innovation.
Evolving the technology a step further resulted in a number of solutions, including a rugged, solar-powered camera unit to monitor penguins nesting in Antarctica. The sea turtle tag was also customised to track plastic waste flows from freshwater to ocean in a collaborative project with the National Geographic Society. Alasdair’s bio-logging tool designs, openly released and licensed, can be modified by Arribada - and its wider community - to create devices for almost any conservational monitoring need. Interestingly, you can take the technology a step back to see this ‘evolution through project’ philosophy extend further into the past: the first version of the solar-powered camera’s power board was developed initially for former fellow Sean Bonner and his Safecast project.
“It’s quite a unique relationship within the fellowship,” explains Alasdair. “Fellows work together all the time, although not usually so closely. But it’s been enabled by the Foundation’s environment. And there’s a nice story there, with the two of us from different paths merging as fellow and alumni to build a more accessible and functional platform, working better together than on our own.”
There is an important educational aspect to this work, too. Tagging turtles on Principe led to Club Arribada, a free, after-school digital literacy class. It offers the island’s children conservation technology activities and enables them with skills and ownership of Arribada’s open tools. Alasdair is not only creating the tools and processes for the future of conservation technology but also training the generation of the future who will use them.
While Alasdair’s open processes and practices reduce development time and costs significantly, many other expenses are tied to the creation, distribution and running of conservation hardware and technology. With this - and long-term sustainability - in mind, Alasdair began to scratch deeper beneath the surface of the system, digging into the root causes and developing alternative approaches.
“The second year became more about the next steps,” he explains. “So thinking of sustainability and playing with business models. I’d started exploring a group buying scheme, where the community comes together to bulk-buy and reduce the cost of materials. I wanted to test this on my product as a possible business model, but it wasn’t ready. So when the Audiomoth project asked for my help, I thought it would be a great experiment.
“It was a huge success - they shifted 10,000 units and ended up with a nice chunk of profit. And because it was so successful, it really gave me the confidence to move forward and do the same with the turtle tag. I’m now implementing that myself with pre-made, ready-to-go tags.
“I don’t know if I would get that opportunity to experiment with another foundation as they are often very strict with deliverables. With traditional grants you pretty much have to steer clear of risk but the Fellowship welcomes it.
“With the Shuttleworth Foundation, even if it’s a crazy idea, you get great feedback. The team might tell you it’s highly risky or advise you to think about things differently, but if you believe it’s right, they could also say ‘go for it.’
“The Foundation allows you to pivot and is supportive about it, even if it’s down a completely different path. What’s important is the destination. You rarely see this with funders. It’s given me time to experiment, and as I’ve gone along, my approach has changed.”
It’s a transition that sees a move from being an in-house tool developer to a service provider catering for open technology developers and the wider community. By talking about his experiences and reaching out to others, Alasdair has found a growing number of people who share his concerns. He has realised he is not alone. And importantly, it’s pushed him to break new ground in directions he hadn’t considered at the start of his fellowship.
“I started the turtle tags to lower the cost of GPS tracking,” he explains. “And I had people behind me in the community saying it was great, but what about open access satellite communication? Now, satcoms are entirely commercialised, proprietary and locked down - and also expensive. I hadn’t even considered it, thinking satellite companies would have no interest releasing open source designs for transmitters.
“But more and more voices were telling me conservationists need it. They needed to track migratory turtles, whale sharks, you name it, and they also needed to send data from a camera trap in a remote location over satellite. They just couldn’t do it at low cost.
“So the highlight of my third year was developing an open access Argos Artic R2 transmitter. It is the first open transmitter reference design for Argos satellite communications that has ever existed. We worked with the French satellite company CLS to adopt it. Anyone - engineer, student or citizen scientist - can freely download the schematic and build their own transmitter. It’s all pre-certified and ready to go.
“That was a huge win, and an excellent example of how things have changed in my head along the way. It’s become a focus on real, tangible tools and real, substantial change. And I’ve found that it’s only when you have actual devices that you start turning heads.
“We’ve built a platform and blueprints of the processes needed to manufacture, distribute and financially sustain viable conservation technologies. The next step is to work with our current and future partners to bring in income. I want to replace traditional grant-based funding with actual income from organisations who would like to pay for the design and production of new technologies they need. And then we give them ownership of that device afterwards.”
As Alasdair progresses to Shuttleworth Alumni status, he can look back on the last three years with enormous satisfaction. You get the sense this is just the end of the beginning. He has refined his initial, broad ideas, and successfully developed valuable relationships with a range of high-profile conservation organisations, scientists and partners.
“There is no stopping this,” he continues. “There is so much you build up and develop to reach the next step, and so many people rely on you once you’ve started pushing the ball down the hill. You build a name for yourself over the three years, and there’s no getting off the train and finding a cushy 9-5 job with a nice salary. So I see myself doing this forever - forever open, and forever accessible.”
“I really wanted this fellowship, but even when I got it, there was colossal apprehension. I worried I was getting dropped into this world of high achievers and would be ripped to pieces. There have been some big-name fellows - high-rollers - who have made millions for their organisations but didn’t get two years with the Shuttleworth Foundation.
“But then you start to realise that you aren’t in the venture capital territory where you get investment and belief only until you fail. With the Foundation, you get the sense this is about you, and it’s a trusting relationship that allows experimentation. It’s a real fellowship that gives you the support you need to give it the best possible shot. I think I’ve managed to do that.
“The community aspect is fascinating. It’s a little like being in an online learning group in that you have a shared working space, but there’s also a considerable effort to provide a fully supportive environment to make sure the fellows have the best possible experience. So there’s a real social element too, which I have found meaningful.
“Wherever you are in the world - and I go to some remote places - you know you can ping someone in a similar time zone and have a chat, get advice, or just offload with people who understand what you’re facing. It’s a vital aspect of the fellowship’s success.
“It’s had a massive impact. I’d been a technical specialist with ZSL for 12 years, with a whole organisation supporting me. But when I became a fellow, there was a new spotlight on me as an individual to take on the challenge I’d just set without an organisation of my own. I partnered with ZSL early on and we continue to co-design a number of solutions together. Since then, I’ve been talking about everything we do socially and out in the open. People see that, and they see all the progress we’ve made. It makes a massive difference - people are messaging other people on Twitter asking if they can connect to talk about open source tech. It opened up a different world.”
We are excited and intrigued to see what comes out of the unique space he has successfully carved out for himself. And we look forward to him sharing his coming experiences with the Shuttleworth community long into the future. He remains as committed to his cause as ever.
Connect with Alasdair