An Expedition for Everyone: Open Data in the Okavango

Image courtesy Okavango Expedition Team

By their nature, expeditions are dangerous. Wild animals, treacherous terrain, painful labor—a lot is risked in sending groups of people into the extreme. So why do we do it? Historically, the answer has been one of two things: for money, or for measurement. In the first case, expeditions might have brought back tons of ivory, or iridescent butterfly wings, or unusual gemstones. In the second, they returned with records and observations of rare places, noteworthy phenomena, or peculiar species. In either case, there was an exclusivity attached to an expedition—hard-to-get things from hard-to-reach places.

This largely remains the case. A difficult expedition offers scientists a way to get data that is unavailable to their peers. It offers a documentarian the chance to get footage that no one else can get.

What happens if we keep all of the hard work of an expedition, but we get rid of this exclusivity of the results? What happens if we give it all away?

This is the central idea behind our efforts with “Into the Okavango” and with the Okavango Wilderness Project. Using a set of open-source tools, we’ve developed a system that puts every piece of data we collect onto the web, in near real-time, for anyone in the world to use and share. Here’s an example of how it works:

Photo courtesy Okavango Expedition Team

On day 10 of our expedition, Chris Boyes, poling his mokoro down a channel next to Mombo Island, spotted a pair of rare African skimmers.

Giles Trevethick, sitting in the front of the lead mokoro, used a custom-built Android app to immediately record the sighting.

The Android app then communicated wirelessly with a Raspberry Pi file server which we’ve designed for the expedition (the Raspberry Pi is a tiny, $30 computer) which stored the sighting and put it into a queue for upload.

At the back of the lead mokoro is a solar-powered battery which feeds the Pi and an Iridium Go!—a satellite unit that acts like a wifi hotspot. The Iridium Go! sent the sighting up to our servers.

iridium go
Photo courtesy Okavango Expedition Team

The African skimmers appeared on the map on, precisely where the sighting occurred, within 5 minutes of it happening.

A record of the sighting is also available in our database, and is accessible to researchers via our public API (an API is a bridge that allows one piece of software to talk to another). A scientist can cross-reference this sighting with habitat photos, and with data from previous expeditions, to learn more about how Skimmer populations are changing in the Delta.

In addition to wildlife sightings, we’re also making available water quality measurements from along our transect path through the Okavango. Next year, we’ll be deploying a set of remote sensors which will permanently stay in the Delta; data from these sensors will also be accessible, live, through our website and API.

To help share the human experience of the expedition, four team members (G.B., Steve, Chris, and I) are wearing Suunto Ambit watches which record our exact GPS location, our heart rate, and energy consumption. This data is again available to the public (uploaded at the end of each day) and can be cross-referenced with animal sightings, Tweets, and photographs.

Image courtesy Okavango Expedition Team

Like the expeditions of old, we are still pushing into the unknown, in search of measurements. However, far from being exclusive, we are endeavoring for our efforts to include as many people and as many perspectives as possible. We hope that our data will be used by researchers and conservationists, and by school children and artists, in ways that we never would have thought of or dreamed possible.

Ultimately, the story of the Okavango, and its fate as a pristine wilderness, belongs to all of us. We hope that you’ll explore the results of this year’s expedition at, and that you’ll keep in touch with us on Twitter at @intotheokavango. If you’d like to help out, or if you have any questions about our live-data efforts, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us at

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Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Jer Thorp is an artist and educator from Vancouver, Canada, currently living in New York. Coming from a background in genetics, his digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science, data, art, and culture. Jer is an adjunct professor at ITP at NYU, the co-founder of The Office for Creative Research, and a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.