The Digital Naturalist

Andrew Quitmeyer shares his hard-earned lessons from setting up a makerspace in the middle of the jungle in Madagascar.

Explorer Interview with Digital Naturalist, Andrew Quitmeyer.
Full transcript below.

David: Hi everyone! I’m David Lang. I’m at the OpenROV Headquarters in Berkeley, and I have Andrew Quitmeyer here. Andrew, where are you located right now?

Andrew: Howdy! Right now I’m in Atlanta, GA at Comingle HQ.

D: And the weather looks pretty good there.

A: It’s gorgeous! I’m out on the front porch enjoying all of the pollen we’ve got everywhere. All of the leaves, everything blooming — it’s great.

D: So I don’t want to try and give the introduction. I want to know: what do you describe yourself as? Researcher? Citizen scientist? How do you identify?

A: It’s tricky. I would say the core of what I like to do is adventuring, and I like going out and being in nature. I like exploring the avant garde of technology and art. I would say: digital adventurer. That’s what I tend to go by. I just want to be out with nature, find new things, and also invent new things. That’s my goal.

D: I think that’s noble. I like that. But you are also an academic. You’ve told me you’re working on your dissertation right now. Where are you studying? What are you studying?

A: I’m a PhD. student over at Georgia Tech. I’m in this great program called “Digital Media” there. It’s kind of like a traditional humanities approach for looking at how digital devices of all sorts can be used in new ways. What I particularly look at with my research at Georgia Tech is: how can we use everything that digital media is able to present to help scientists explore nature?

D: Interesting. Awesome. It’s funny that you call it “digital naturalism,” because everybody I know who’s working in this area calls it something different. Some people call it “citizen science.” We’ve called it “connected exploration.” Some people call it “the postdocalypse.” Some people call it “extreme science.” I really like “digital naturalism” too, but it’s funny because it seems like we’ve all come across this idea that these tools for exploration and science and conservation have all of the sudden gotten really cheap and modular: something that anyone can actually play with and get their hands on. It’s worth experimenting with. Nobody really knows what it means, but everyone is kind of hitting around the same idea.

A: Exactly. We’re all kind of funneling in from a lot of different areas and meeting this same nebulous cloud and figuring out what it is.

D: One of the things that I also like about this movement is there are fantastic stories. It’s not just the tools, it’s also the adventure and the romantic idea of it all. I don’t think anyone has done that quite as well as you have. You guys just got back from a trip. Can you tell us about it?

A: Totally. We most recently went on this trip to Madagascar. This was with me, Hannah Perner-Wilson — who is a fancy e-tech style designer, really amazing craftsperson, and badass adventurer — and Brian Fisher, who is the head entomologist from the Cal Academy of Sciences over in San Francisco. We put together this mission where we went to Madagascar. The biological mission [came about] because there is an ant that was accidentally discovered there that had never been described in scientific literature. It was this unknown ant that was accidentally collected by a French expedition in the seventies. Nobody has been recorded as actually going up to this mountain since then. Brian discovered this ant in the annals of some museum — I think the field museum in Chicago — years and years ago. For 15 years he’s been wanting to go to this one particular mountain and try to re-hunt for this ant. This was the culmination of all that. Along with the biological goals, I came along with my research, and I used this as kind of a test bed for my dissertation.

Andrew’s hand drawn map of the expedition.

My dissertation is about finding design guidelines that can help engineers and technologists make technology that better suits the values and the goals of naturalists, of ecologists, of people studying animals and animal behavior in natural settings. That’s the goal of my dissertation, but what’s the point of coming up with these goals if you’re not going to actually test them out and evaluate them? I used the Madagascar trip for this. I came up with this framework of ideas, and then we tried it out. Things that we tried out were like, building digital devices entirely in the wild. We set up a jungle maker-space, built work tables out of woven sticks and vines, used butane-powered soldering irons, and just tried to make all the crazy devices we could while we were out there.

D: It was such a joy to follow along with your updates on OpenExplorer because they were always surprising and always interesting. Even from the preparation: from what tools you bring, to the handwritten notes you sent us from the jungle, and then the artwork and everything you created afterwards. It was always a joy and I never knew what to expect. Maybe a little more about that: what for you was the biggest surprise in this whole trip?

A written update from the field.

A: Oh man! There’s just so many surprises that it’s hard to figure out a biggest one. I had been doing lots of work in Panama. I’m a guy who really likes adventure, and I’d been spending the past three field seasons on my dissertation, which normally isn’t like a technology school, and my program does a lot weirder things: people who do art projects about graffiti in digital media and stuff like that. In general it’s a lot more tame, and I’m the one going down to Panama and encountering deadly snakes and all kinds of stuff like that. So I was like, okay this is pretty crazy, but then when we got to Madagascar it was a whole other level of craziness. We’re so many days and so many types of transportation removed from even the closest electrical outlet you could think of — or from a hospital or anything like that. It was terrifying and thrilling. Like, I’m on the side of this mountain, and we need to get to the top of this mountain, and the only way to do that is to climb up this waterfall, and so that’s what we’re gonna do even though it seems super scary and crazy. Then you find out you’re able to do it! Those were probably some of the most surprising things.

D: My friend Ariel Waldman who runs this project called “Science Hack Day” did a science hackathon in Madagascar, and her big takeaway was that she was shocked at how hard it was to get that many Arduinos there. They just weren’t available there, and that was actually a big challenge — just getting these devices there. Is that something that was surprising or true for you? I know you guys packed them all…

A: Yea! It really was. I really didn’t know anything about Madagascar before I’d been there. One thing was that I was going from a smaller country like Panama where I interacted with the locals and we hung out and stuff, and you encounter some serious poverty there, but then I got to Madagascar and it was just this whole other level of extreme poverty that I had never encountered my entire life. The rich person in a village would be like the person who had a metal knife, and that was probably the most expensive thing that they had. We were showing up with all of this strange future-gear that is very rare in Madagascar, and that was kind of a strange feeling, but it was also kind of nice because we were able to donate all of this stuff to basically start up a little hacker-space in the capital of Madagascar there. So we had this great guy, Aranjaka, who was already trying to use a bunch of the tools and kits that we left for him. They’re starting up a little hacker-space with some French funding that’s coming in now. Hopefully we can just kind of foster and seed this.

D: That sounds great. To me that’s something that was surprising in this whole process. Like, okay that’s great. The tools are getting cheaper. We’ve done that with OpenROV, and Foldscope is another good example — the origami microscope that costs 50 cents. We wanted it because we didn’t have any money. Eric and I were building in his garage and we just needed it to be low cost. We thought it would be a good tool for people like us who are amateurs and have different ideas about what they wanted to do and didn’t have big NSF grants. One of the things that has surprised me has been how good a tool this has been for researchers in the developing world. These are really smart, bright, curious people, and the problem is just that their institutions haven’t had the resources to acquire some of these tools, so OpenROV has fit really nicely there.

A: Ya when I was giving this stuff to Aranjaka he was like, “This is great. We have all of these people lined up who are trained in electrical engineering and all of this stuff, but they don’t have anything to do electrical engineering with. Now we can actually start messing around with stuff.” It’s terrific.

“What I’ve started seeing is, like you were saying, having this cheaper technology lets people kind of formulate and quickly ask and address their own questions rapidly.”

D: When I think about this whole thing — citizen science, digital naturalism, whatever it is — to me that is the most encouraging part. It’s not just amateurs and it’s also not just researchers in the developing world. Like the “postdocalypse,” all of these people who are studying things but maybe can’t get access to something in their lab, so they try this on the side and they use these low cost tools to prototype these ideas. I think what it’s doing in general is just lowering the barrier to pursuing a question. If you have a question, the barrier to pursuing that answer has just gone down, and that is really exciting. I don’t think that people realize that it’s happened yet. I don’t think it’s obvious.

A: I think [that is] one of the important parts, especially for me. The whole reason that I call my work “digital naturalism” is that I am building off of this more romantic side of this ecological science that was developed in the 1800's and 1900's. [It was] kind of pushing against this very strict empiricism of much broader, bigger technologies. What I’ve started seeing is, like you were saying, having this cheaper technology lets people kind of formulate and quickly ask and address their own questions rapidly. At the same time we have this really amazing super high-end technology that is incredibly expensive — like million dollar DNA analyzer machines and stuff like that that lets scientists answer and ask these really specific questions. Then you start seeing this kind of split in science where just in order to ask this one question you have to be part of this lab and you’ve already invested a million dollars in this machine that you have to feed. With these simpler, cheaper tools you can still kind of craft on your own, and we can reclaim some of these earlier naturalist ideals of just playing and being inspired by nature — to then ask questions and kind of iterate on these very simple questions that just haven’t been explored. So that’s the part I look at: all of these little bits that are still super ripe for exploration, and not as much of the “buried deep” exploration that some of the really expensive high-end technology is going for.

D: Like, there’s not going to be like a DIY large hadron collider — you know?

A: Maybe not anytime soon (laughs) but maybe in the future! And it will open up these whole new worlds for people like me to be like, “What if I want to find my own bosons?!” Or whatever!

D: So every time we go out on one of these expeditions we always have an idea of things we want to learn. Every time we go out we come back with a slightly different take on that question. We’re always excited to pursue the next iteration. What for you is the next iteration of these hiking hacks? Of these jungle maker spaces? What’s next?

A: Well one thing that jumps out immediately is when Hannah and I were out there, we started really thinking about the meta-structure of these jungle hiking paths. The original hiking hack I did was last summer in Panama, where I got a bunch of my scientist friends and some other people who applied, and the goal was, “Okay I’ve been doing workshops with the Smithsonian in this kind of laboratory next to the jungle for a couple years now. What if we just cut a laboratory out of this?” Like, let’s grab everything we can, put it in our backpacks, hike three days into the jungle, and just see what can come out of this and see what we can make. So that was great because it taught us so much. Everything failed, and we got there and we were still able to build some things, but a lot of the infrastructure we hadn’t even thought about. For instance, it’s much easier to build something if you have a surface to build it on. We were kind of just trying to solder things in the dirt.

So I was there with Hannah in Madagascar most recently, and we had all of these other ideas for building up this kind of meta-infrastructure. What do you need in order to more easily build and create really cool things while you are completely separate from regular, modern conveniences? So originally we were just thinking that we’d just need solar power and butane to build anything we want. Now she’s making these really gorgeous portable hacking workspaces, where it’s kind of like a messenger bag or a backpack that you toss on. It completely unzips and you can hang it on a tree, and it has all of your conductive threads already in areas you can pull and snip off. It’s organized. It’s a gorgeous, brilliant idea. Working on building up infrastructure like that — like maybe a deployable work table that can hold itself taut that’s also not going to melt if you accidentally drip solder on it — things like that. Things that allow us to use the environment to help support us and help lighten our load. Those have been some of the really cool finds.

D: I love that. I love that idea. We’ve found that too — that there very much is this need to go meta a little bit. We started with these underwater robots but then we found that we kind of need a way for everyone’s community to share what they’re doing and where they’re going, and that’s what OpenExplorer grew out of. I think it’s really a natural thing to start doing this and realize that there are bigger holes that actually need to fill first.

A: That’s one of the cool things about doing these very specific projects out in nature! You discover these huge gaping holes in the infrastructure of the world that don’t really exist. You’re like, “Oh hey, this is open to explore and work with too!” That’s one of my favorite parts about all of this. It’s really cool.

D: I’ve described it as feeling more on edge. It feels like true exploration because it feels like we’re on the edge of what’s possible. That really is a thrill to be there and to say, “Wow, nobody knows what happens if we do this — and we do it!”

A: It can be thrilling. It can be also very frustrating at times.

D: Sure.

A: Like, “I just want this thing to work! My whole goal is for this to work!” And then it fails. You end up really frustrated two days later, and then you’re like, “Oh we came up with all of these other ideas though on the way to this one idea that fell apart.”

D: I think that’s the important part of documenting all of this, you know? Everything we do and everything you’ve been doing — I think we’ve tried to do a really good job of documenting so that we can all learn together, so we’re not all necessarily making the same mistakes, but actually all getting smarter together. So tell me about the next hiking hack you guys are about to go on?

A: So the very next hiking hack that’s coming up is technically the “wearable hiking hack.” There’s a big wearable technology department at Georgia Tech, and I applied for a grant from them to basically design technology that fits on your body. Our goals for this mission are twofold. One, take existing wearable technology that lots of other researchers have made, like dancing equipment or different eye-mounted things like Google Glass kind of stuff, and take them into the woods and push them to the test and, you know, see if we can break them. They have lots of stuff that needs to work in really harsh environments. They have this dolphin microphone thing, and that thing is really robust. But some of the other technology they’re building in this wearables department could use some beating up! We figured the forest is a good place to put any technology to the test.

D: That sounds amazing.

A: But then the second part of this is going to be, what can we build with the wild, and inspired from things that we find in the wild, that we can also wear and have embodied interfaces for interacting with all of the surroundings and things like that. So those will be the goals that we have going on there.

D: I’m excited to follow along. Are you guys going to be documenting this on OpenExplorer so we can tag along?

A: Ya! It’s going to be kind of tricky, because in Madagascar we were able to have the funding [to provide] this satellite connection. Even though in Madagascar we were much further away than we are now, we’re not sure if we’re going to have any kind of data link while we’re out there. We’re going to go on some pilot trips in two weeks to see what kind of data coverage we can get in the places we’re going to be, but it may be like a collect-and-then-post method for sharing the expedition.

D: That sounds great. Either way it’s going to be great because there’s so much to learn! I’m so interested to see how these things go. I think there’s so many question marks, and that’s exciting. Well I don’t want to keep you too long, and I also don’t want to make it too long for viewers that might want to catch up, but we should do this again after your next hiking hack and see what you’re doing!

A: Ya, that sounds great!

D: Alright, thanks so much, Andrew! Take care and have a great day.

A: No problem! Great chatting with you as always.

Artwork inspired by the expedition.

Follow Andrew’s expeditions on OpenExplorer!