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Nerds for Nature brings tech and environmental enthusiasts together

on October 10, 2014

A Bay Area collective, Nerds for Nature (N4N), is trying to bridge the gap between techies and nature enthusiasts by designing low-cost equipment—like underwater robots and eco-drones—used to monitor the environment.

Comprised of amateur scientists, engineers, ecologists, environmentalists and GIS professionals, N4N gathers once a month in either Oakland or San Francisco to discuss new Do-It-Yourself projects.

Victoria Bogdan, an environment law student, co-founded the group after she noticed a lack of tools designed to protect the environment. “Technologists really care about the world as much as environmentalists,” Bogdan said. “So I thought people should meet.”

Nerds for Nature debuted in February 2013 in San Francisco. Although only 60 people came to the N4N inaugural meeting, the group has since grown to hundreds of participants.

N4N now hosts monthly project nights, where people pitch new ideas and find partners to work with. At a recent project night, attended by about thirty people, Ken McGary, an electronic engineer and co-organizer of N4N, shuttled between groups talking about different ideas. “When you put all those minds together,” McGary said, “amazing things happen.”

While some N4N members focus on robots and drones, McGary’s group has been designing air quality sensors. Over the past year, McGary and two other members have created a sensor that detects toxic gases. The team constantly redesigns the sensor, but has created a recent model—called E-Chem 2.0, for electrochemical—which measures carbon monoxide. McGary’s team recently won a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to install fifty of the sensors in Louisville, Kentucky. Volunteers will use E-Chem 2.0 to assess carbon monoxide levels throughout the city.

The $200 sensors, which are designed for personal use, offer an alternative to expensive air quality monitors that are already on the market. According to the East Bay Air Quality Management District website, Oakland only has three air quality monitoring stations, each of which cost more than half a million dollars. Much of the city lies outside the range of the monitors, which is a problem for people with respiratory diseases such as asthma or who want to measure carbon monoxide and other toxic gas levels near their homes and businesses.

“[Our monitors are] about five to ten times cheaper than equivalent commercial instruments with similar accuracy and many times cheaper than a typical EPA lab,” said McGary. He added that the sensor has a 1 percent error rate, far surpassing the performance of most Do-It-Yourself air quality sensors.

McGary plans on open-sourcing the design in the near future. “People can modify them.” said McGary. “The benefit for us is to have people around the world use [the sensor] and critique [it]. This will help us improve the design.”

Besides developing high-tech hardware, N4N also develops “citizen science” activities that anyone can join. After a wildfire raced over Mount Diablo last year, N4N encouraged hikers to record the affected area by taking smart phone photos from five burn locations, then post the pictures on Twitter or Instagram. The photos helped biologists keep track of how Mount Diablo recovered from the blaze.

N4N also hosts Bioblitz—quarterly gatherings in various Bay Area parks—in which over 150 people record plants and animals within designated areas. N4N then uploads the photos to a website called iNaturalist, which helps to create an overall map of biodiversity. McGary said that when people see animals in their natural habitat, they care about them more. “After you know the name of something, it becomes part of you, “ he said.

Bogdan’s original plan to bring together technologists and environmentalists has gained traction over the past year. Two main organizers who are moving to Virginia want to start the first branch in that state. “Many people have called and asked to start chapters in other areas,” said Bogdan.


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