Open Source #Okavango14: The Heartbeat of the Delta

On day two, we found ourselves hushed and intensely listening on the side of the channel in our mokoros, the traditional canoe of the baYei people. The air was tense as we waited as a result of the nearby rumblings of a male elephant. I have never felt so simultaneously excited and anxious at the same time. It was in that moment that this trip started to feel real; that I was venturing into the wild.

Photo: Okavango Elephants after the encounter (By: Shah Selbe)
The three elephants after they passed in front of our mokoros.

I am an engineer, which is something that you wouldn’t expect deep on an expedition in the African wilderness. I came here by request from a fellow Emerging Explorer, Steve Boyes, to support his annual Okavango Delta research transect. Steve was the first person I met back at the Explorers Symposium in 2013 and hearing him speak about his passion for this place left an impression on me. So when he proposed that I bring my skills to this magnificent wilderness, my answer was an emphatic ‘yes’ before he even finished his sentence. I found that there was a place in the Delta for an engineer, given the right motive.

Photo: Fish Eagle takes off from his perch.
Fish Eagle takes off from his perch.

My focus is on using engineering and implementing technologies that can aid conservation causes. I typically look to open source low cost implementations to try to create disruptive solutions to traditional problems. I passionately believe that engineers and technologists can make a difference in conservation. My traditional concentration was on ocean conservation, but many of those efforts have been applicable to terrestrial issues as well. The time I spent with Engineers Without Borders and the insight I gained from some recent projects led me to realize that I could help the Okavango Wilderness Project find the data they were looking for. In Steve’s words, I could show them how we can “measure the heartbeat of the delta.” That heartbeat is in the health of the water. This is the one thing that makes this place possible and is fundamental to the survival of every Tiger Fish, Fish Eagle, Lion, Hippopotamus, and African Elephant.

We can hear this heartbeat by listening to what the environment tells us through sensors and testing. I proposed that we build low cost sensors using open source hardware and software. In recent years there has been quite a disruption in computing ability as a result of the prevalence of smartphones. Increasingly small and powerful components and processors have created an opportunities that we would have never thought possible. One of the results of that is the single-board Raspberry Pi computer. Originally, the Raspberry Pi was created to enable students to learn hardware and software development. For the Okavango Wilderness Project, we are using them to take environmental readings and send those to us for inclusion into the Into The Okavango website. Jer will cover this more in his expedition post. We are using them to measure water temperature, pH, conductivity, total dissolved solids, salinity, and specific gravity.

Photo: Programming the Raspberry Pi’s at base camp.
Programming the Raspberry Pi’s at base camp.

So I built three prototype units to take readings and send them to the website using simple text messaging on a local cellular network. We deployed the three prototypes near base camp, with the plan to build a network of these for the 2015 expedition. The field-testing and deployment was not without issues, which lead me to do some programming out in the delta. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first time Linux and Python coding was used out here. Once this network is deployed, local baYei people and volunteers from Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation will maintain and repair them (which Gregg will cover more in his post).

Photo: One of the prototype sensors deployed in a channel.
One of the prototype sensors deployed in a channel.

For the rest of the expedition, I am performing a series of water quality tests that will help us in development of the sensors for next year. We are gathering a baseline of the water quality throughout the delta as we transect. These are being posted real-time to Into The Okavango. This includes testing near human settlements, elephant crossings, papyrus channels, and more. So far the readings we are getting are pristine, which shows us even more why we need so badly to protect this area.

Photo: Shah Selbe with one of the many water samples we collected en route.
Shah Selbe collecting one of the many water samples we collected en route.

Additionally, the 2015 expedition will include a Raspberry Pi-powered sensor datalogger on Steve’s mokoro. We are planning to collect high accuracy measurements of water quality and air quality parameters, trended and displayed as his mokoro travels this same journey. If you’re enjoying what our team of Explorers are doing for #Okavango14, then just wait to see what the 2015 expedition has in the works.


  1. Shah Selbe
    August 30, 2014, 2:30 am

    Thanks Joyce.
    Vaibhav, I am a passionate believer in the ability for engineering to make a difference in these causes, particularly in the area of open source development. It is what my work focuses on. Keep posted on these efforts here and Ocean Views to learn more.

  2. Vaibhav
    August 29, 2014, 6:01 pm

    Big thanks to you for sharing your experience, I have never thought that an engineer could be a fit in such kind of expeditions.From a long time, I wanted to do something in the area of conservation but I was unable to figure out….So this is really a great help.

  3. Joyce Bordarampe
    August 27, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Thanks for sending the links Shah. I am learning about somthing new and wonderful. Wish I could be ther too!!!