How I started coding observing nature

Tomás Carvalho
Jun 18, 2020 · 7 min read

All I wanted was to be natural. That sounds funny for an animal of the homo sapiens species. The truth is that I am an environmental manager that had neglected almost everything related to technologies for a long time — almost 10 years.

I used to think that as the more natural my life could be the more satisfied I would be. From eating to watching. Anything that could take me away from reality was potentially dangerous to what I thought was a natural lifestyle. No, I was not vegan. Neither lived in a treehouse — although I remained a vegetarian for several years.

My lifestyle could be called naturalism or primitivism, as philosophers say — a kind of romantic-bucolic way to face reality by considering natural against artificial. The recently increased movement of homemade and support locals has its roots in this point of view. One can say it is the origin of the hippie movement as well, and for me, you are right.

And this way to look through life got deeper in my college days.

I lived in a middle-sized countryside town where I had the opportunity to be in touch with a different way to implement sustainability in my daily life, called permaculture. Permaculture is a design system for resilient living and land use based on universal ethics and ecological design principles. If you want to dive into the concept, I recommend having a look at the materials of the Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the parents of the term. A good starting point is here.

Permaculture is a revolution disguised as gardening

During that time I was taking classes in biology, economics, social sciences, while I was living in a house with a garden. I grew a lot of vegetables, like tomatoes (I love them), bananas, passion-fruits, and tested a lot of ways to decomposing organic matter in my garden. To sum it up, I was astonished by the simple and highly sophisticated technology that vegetables and soil use to interact in harmony, supporting basically almost everything that we know about life.

I paid so much attention to natural processes that it made me feel more alive, connected to life in the simplest way. Gardening is largely recommended to improve mental health, tackling anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. So, stay healthy, grow your own food!

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

These were my bounds, a particular reality that I thought it was more natural and low technology consumption. At least I thought. . .

Permaculture allowed me to realize that technology is not necessarily only spacecraft and super AI robots. Anthropologists say that pretty much everything used by humans is technology, even language itself. Our ability to think and write is a technology. Tools to grow food are technology — and there are a lot of them!

Although I always admired indigenous people and their non-environmental degradation way of living, this sustainable concept gave me a new perspective. And, sometimes, all we need is a new perspective, right?

In my case, understanding that I did not have to move to the middle of the tropical forest to be more sustainable was a huge relief. Indeed, how many urban people are willing to do that? Of course, permaculture won’t change the environmentally destructive structure of our economic system. But it brings the seeds of new horizons of alternatives ways of living.

The bridge between me and the tech world was related to one big passion that I always had: seeing landscapes from above or even just pictures taken from an airplane or space. That is why I love maps.

At university, I had classes about GIS (Geographic Information System), which essentially is a way to use spatial data to support decision making. One of the best ways to support decisions is by creating maps and geo-locate the issues you want to show.

Mountain Elgon in Kenya by USGS

At that point, you can imagine that my aversion to technology was gone right. Once I was presented to the GIS world I fell in love with the technology. It was the right mix of my personal passion and my professional career.

GIS is a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. ​With this unique capability, GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and situations — Esri

I started to look at computers and their power with magic. Mainly because I started to realize that natural resources could be managed efficiently, avoiding illegal deforestation, loss of natural habitat, criminal fires, and so on.

GIS involves a lot of software engineering to create a nice User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). Can you imagine how complex and how many logic issues the developers have to face to make it possible to represent the real world in a computer? It seemed kind of a miracle to me.

If you want to try, the most famous software is ArcGIS (maintained by ESRI) and QGIS (open-source). Both are amazing, but if you are a beginner — and cannot invest much money on this at the moment — I recommend QGIS, which is always improving through a dedicated developer community.

Up until that moment, I had not written any single word of code or something similar, only used software with nice interfaces. The turning point was the data. Data are the strength of GIS (or any other system) which has a profound relationship between geometries and storage.

I understood that to tackle really big social and environmental issues you have to be provided with good data that will convert in precise information. Without data, what can you do? What environment policy can you implement? How to determine the best spot to allocate crops inside a farm? Pretty difficult, right?

More than that, I also realized that life itself is about gathering data, which is then reproduced with a certain level of complexity. A seed, for example, contains all the data the will allow a plant born and develop into an adult. With that in mind, another bridge was built between my primitivism and the tech world.

I got very motivated to be focused on improving my skills to manage data and store it, which at that point was not that much. My horizons opened up once more and I decided to dive into this world.

At that moment, with my environmental background, I felt like Jack Nickson on the movie ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ when I realized that I was transferred to another… world.

The first language that I learned was SQL (Structured Query Language), a famous one to deal with databases. It allows you to fetch data in milliseconds. It is scalable and automatic. In other words, I said goodbye to Excel and welcomed to SQL.

There are a lot of database software out there that you can use SQL, but my recommendation is PostgreSQL, a powerful open-source database manager. For me, a GIS analyst, it is the best because it comes with a spatial extension, the PostGIS. Yes, a database with geospatial references!

Basically, I started to abstract the geometry and the visual side of GIS (which made me fall in love) and started working with tables. The geometries in the database turned into a cell, a piece of a row. Indeed, I have gathered to my life two complementary worlds.

The first, and one of the best, real programming languages that I had contact with was Python. An important addition: SQL is not considered a programming language for many. Python can do almost anything that you can imagine, from satellites to an accountability system for your uncle’s store.

Python and GIS are like brothers, with a strong integration. With Python, I was up to processing geospatial data faster and more accurately, since I did not need to do many clicks. Nowadays I am focusing on JavaScript, and its loads of frameworks, like React.js, and React Native, to develop web-based applications.

My personal journey into this world just recently began. And I am motivated to use this knowledge to improve the way we, human beings, co-exist with all the forms of life.

I would like to tell everybody that doubts technology that we have a lot of power in our hands. We should not be afraid to deal with it, fearing it could take control of our life. We have to align our tech with the most elevated virtues of humankind like justice, equality, and compassion.

Sometimes, we have to face a situation looking several times in different perspectives if we really want to learn something from it.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. — Heraclitus

Photo by Nail Gilfanov on Unsplash

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Tomás Carvalho

Written by

Life learner. Environmentalist. Map lover. Seeker of resolve social-environmental issues in innovative ways. Code enthusiast.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Tomás Carvalho

Written by

Life learner. Environmentalist. Map lover. Seeker of resolve social-environmental issues in innovative ways. Code enthusiast.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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