The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust
The challenge and the organization
Founded in 1976 to protect imperiled crocodile species, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust & Centre for Herpetology (MCBT) is a reptile zoo and research center in Tamil Nadu, India. MCBT’s mission is to promote the conservation of reptiles and amphibians and their habitats through education, scientific research, and captive breeding. With help from Google Earth and Open Data Kit, MCBT is researching the behavior of king cobras and sharing knowledge about them with local people so they can co-exist peacefully with the snakes.
How they did it
Part of the king cobra research project involves tracking snakes in MCBT’s Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, studying their movements and mating behaviors. Gathering data in the humid, remote rainforest is difficult. Agumbe is one of India’s wettest places, and one where internet connectivity is poor or nonexistent. Volunteer researchers who recorded their findings with paper and pen found that their notes were hard to read or became damaged by rain and humidity.
Once researchers brought back paper records to the research station, transcribers had to enter the information into spreadsheets. The process was slow and often introduced errors, making the data less reliable.
“Because of the rain, life can be very difficult at the research station,” explains Allwin Jesudasan, Joint Director of MCBT. “When things go wrong, the first thing that suffers is the data. Much of our data was backlogged for weeks, and some of it never even made it to the research stage.”
In February 2018, Jesudasan attended the Geo for Good summit in India and learned about Open Data Kit (ODK), free and open-source software for collecting, managing, and using data in resource-constrained environments. After the summit, MCBT researchers started using ODK on smartphones to collect king cobra tracking data in Agumbe.
Because the ODK Collect app doesn’t require internet access while collecting data, volunteers don’t need to worry about connecting their devices in the field. They can save location points and coordinates of the king cobras on their smartphones. When the volunteers return to the Agumbe research station, they can connect their phones to the internet and upload the collected data directly to a Google Sheet or on Google Drive. At that point, Google MyMaps can help researchers create custom maps of the king coba locations.
Using ODK, the MCBT researchers have eliminated the problems of collecting data on paper. The errors caused by transferring data from paper to spreadsheets have just about disappeared. Data is now available as soon as the volunteers return from the field, instead of weeks later.
ODK helps researchers around the world work with the same updated data set. Jesudasan is based in Chennai, while Dr. Matt Goode, one of the project’s principal investigators, is at the University of Arizona in the United States; Romulus Whitaker, a renowned herpetologist and another principal investigator, works in Chenngalpattu near Chennai.
“Even with all of the stakeholders in different places, we can access data in real time, every day,” Jesudasan says. “We can work with the data much sooner, instead of spending time on data entry.”
Before using Open Data Kit, MCBT hired a person solely for data transcription. “Now we have that person doing other tasks that advance our research,” Jesudasan says. “It’s a much better use of our money.”
Beyond the Agumbe research station, MCBT leaders are exploring other ways to use Open Data Kit to better understand the reptiles in its care. In the MCBT zoo, zookeepers use ODK to keep track of feed amounts for each reptile, which is helpful for studying diets over their life cycles. One of the keepers can’t read or write; MCBT’s technical teams are in the process of customizing ODK’s data entry workflow to include pictures of animals and their feed type. The zookeeper can enter data simply by choosing the right pictures. “With ODK, it’s easy for non-technical people to enter data,” Jesudasan says.
Researchers are considering using ODK to collect data to improve the availability of snake antivenom throughout India. Some 50,000 people die from snake bites each year in India; there is no coordinated system to identify which snakes and which antivenom (which comes from the snakes themselves) can be produced in different parts of the country. The Indian Snakebite Initiative, of which MCBT is a participant, is mapping locations of “medically important snakes.” The goal, says Jesudasan, is to reduce the number of fatal snake bites and save lives. ODK has been instrumental in collecting data on venom sampling, which is then shared with the Indian Snakebite Initiative.
“We tend to be conservative about adopting new technology,” Jesudasan says. “ODK has changed that mindset. Now, before I even suggest using it, colleagues think right away, how can we do this project with ODK?” ODK is not only eliminating many of the inefficiencies in the data-gathering process, it’s also inspiring MCBT to find new ways to improve research and reptile care across the organization.