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O’Reilly Animals Enlists Technology Community to Help Save Endangered Species from Extinction

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What do the Sumatran tiger, Philippine tarsier, and Galapagos land iguana have in common? They are all endangered or critically endangered species; they have all appeared on the covers of O’Reilly Media’s iconic software manuals; and they are all featured in the publisher’s new O’Reilly Animals campaign, which aims to mobilize the technology community to help save these species from extinction.

O’Reilly has been using old etchings of various animals as the covers for its programming books for decades and already includes some information on each species in the colophons of each book, but the new Animals campaign takes it further. The Web site presents detailed information on 10 of the animals (with more to come) as well as current technology projects that are aiding conservation efforts and a short list of opportunities where developers can volunteer their time and expertise.

This is the first time that the company has participated in a project of this scope, and it embodies founder Tim O’Reilly’s mantra of “work on things that matter,” says creative director Edie Freedman, who designed the earliest “animal books” and spearheaded the project. The campaign was first suggested by O’Reilly senior production manager Karen Montgomery, who currently designs the book covers and has been researching the animals for years. “We do a lot of advocacy in the tech community for ideas we think are important but we’ve never done anything like this that is so specific and so targeted, but it just seems to make sense,” Freedman says.

After four months of work pulling the site together, O’Reilly Animals was announced and publicly launched July 16 at the OSCON open-source programming conference in Portland, Ore. The response was immediate. Freedman reports that developers flocked to the Animals display at the conference to ask how they could help their favorite cover models. “The animals have done so much for the developers over the years. And they love the animals,” Freedman says. “Quite a few of these programmers have backgrounds in biology and ecology academically, so they’re really interested in this stuff.”

In addition, Freedman was able to connect the community liaison for the open-source microcontroller project Arduino with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which is looking to use Arduino electronics to build a new generation of remote-sensor cameras. A software company said they were willing to donate Web hosting to conservation organizations and a sensor manufacturer said they were interested in donating some of their hardware to other projects. They are also talking with the volunteering site Creative Cares, which matches designers and other skilled people with nonprofits in need.

“There are all kinds of ways to connect the dots,” Freedman says. “If nothing else, we hope this will bring some awareness to the animals and some projects that are doing interesting things. Maybe people will donate money. I’d rather they donate their time and expertise.”

The O’Reilly Animals site currently showcases four technology projects that are aiding conservation efforts, including the Instant Wild app from the ZSL, which allows people around the world to identify the animals photographed by camera traps (“I’m hooked on it,” Freedman says), and an open-source GPS system to protect livestock from lions in Kenya. They’ll showcase other projects in the coming weeks and months. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. I think the more that we point to them and highlight them and follow them, and hopefully show some of the results that happen, that people will at least know about what’s going on. It’s harder when people feel something like this has no direct impact on them because it’s taking place halfway around the world and they don’t see it. We just like to do whatever we can to make it real.”

The site will also list other opportunities for developers to volunteer, although Freedman says these are harder to find. “We’re not set up to seek out opportunities for developers, but we’re talking to conservation organizations about what they’re doing, and if we hear opportunities we’ll pass them along.”

The O’Reilly Animals project has a special resonance with Freedman, because some of the animals she used on the covers of the earliest programming books, such as the Javan tiger, have since been declared extinct. Many others aren’t doing well. “Because we use old engravings from the last century or the century before, many of those animals are now either critically endangered or gone,” Freedman says. But she hopes the O’Reilly business and philosophy can help reverse some of that. “The whole thing is just such a great expression of what we do. We convene people. We spark a connection and then the people carry it forward.”

Photos: Philippines tarsier by Roberto Verzo. O’Reilly tarsier by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid. Sumatran tiger by Roger Smith. Used under Creative Commons license. O’Reilly book cover and O’Reilly Animals conference display courtesy O’Reilly Media

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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