Start-Ups

How recycled solar powered phones could save rainforests and change how the tech industry tackles climate change

Rainforest Connection is trying to stop illegal logging with recycled smartphones and mobilize the masses to make a global impact on deforestation and climate change.

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Rainforest Connection is trying to stop illegal logging with a solar powered smartphone communication system.
 Image: Rainforest Connection

An old cell phone is encased in solar panels, perched high in the tree canopy in the middle of the rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia. It's constantly listening to the sounds of the forest — the insects, the leaves, the wind, the hundreds of species of animals.

Inevitably, the phone will catch one more sound: that of a chainsaw, cutting down a tree up to one square mile away. The sound and location data is automatically sent to the cloud, and an alert is sent to rangers patrolling the forests who can stop the loggers in their tracks.

Stopping them could change the course of climate change. About 17% of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund. One of these devices protects enough trees from logging to prevent 15,000 tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Rainforest Connection is the startup behind this project, and it was recently fully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, raising $167,000. The goal was $100,000. It's no $5 million like the Veronica Mars movie raised, but that's not the point.

The Rainforest Connection team is trying to do much more than just save the rainforest and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. They want to completely transform how we understand and use technology to solve global problems. It's an experiment, and so far, it's worked the way they hoped it would.

"We showed we had an idea that was not the run of the mill, save the rainforest — because frankly, those don't get very well funded from crowdfunding perspective," said Topher White, co-founder of Rainforest Connection.

"We're trying to do something a little bit fresh, were trying to show our idea is accessible enough that you can explain it in a two minute video. Our point is largely to say they can become part of it — streaming live audio [and getting alerts]. It's a totally new way of engaging with the rainforest."

Technology in the trees

A study by Interpolshowed that somewhere between 50% to 90% of logging is illegal, contributing to a multi-billion dollar black market for wood. According to the World Wildlife Fund, illegal logging is a major problem in the Amazon and Congo Basin, but it's rampant everywhere, from Canada to Latin America to Russia.

Illegal logging causes world timber prices to be 7% to 16% less than they should be, according to one report by the American Forest and Paper Association. The World Bank estimated that the global market loses $10 billion annually through illegal logging.

Though they only cover 2% of the Earth's surface, the world's rainforests are home to 50% of the animals and plants. A four-square-mile patch of rainforest contains up to 1,500 plants, 750 species of trees, and 400 species of birds, according to the Nature Conservancy. At the current rate, 5% to 10% of rainforests are lost each decade. As rainforests are destroyed, we sink further into a biodiversity crisis.

The idea for Rainforest Connection spurred from a trip White, whose background is in physics and engineering, took to Indonesia to volunteer at a gibbon reserve. At one point, not five minutes from the ranger station, there was illegal logging occurring, and no one was aware of it. Most of the monitoring relies on satellite imagery, surveying by people, or aerial drones, which are useful but often come after the damage is already done. But in this area with no running water, no electricity, and no real roads, there was cell phone service.

"This was the front of the game when it came to this one aspect, which was real time alerts on deforestations — [so we could] build it without trying to engage new technology, just by using infrastructure that is there and technology we were largely throwing away," White said.

Using smartphones was a simple choice for White. More than 150 million are thrown away in the US each year, destined to pile up in landfills around the world, leaking toxins and polluting the environment. Most of these rainforests, no matter how remote they may be, have phone service — or at least, enough to send data into the cloud and to the village nearby. And mobile technology as a whole is very robust and durable, so it offers a reliable solution for this problem.

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 Image: Rainforest Connection

Figuring out how to power the phone in the rainforest, under the shade of so much tree canopy, was by far the biggest challenge, White said. Rays of light only break through for a few minutes at a time. The team had to work for a year and a half to build the system, and the solar panel design for the phones ended up being the only new invention for the product.

"We wanted to avoid building new things and focus on things that already work [and] focus on things that can scale," White said.

The first tests have only used Android phones (some that are up to five years old) but White said they plan to use others in the near future. Through the Rainforest Connection website, people can find out how to send in their old smartphones. The team will retrofit it and use it for the cause.

The Kickstarter money (and subsequently, money that is donated through the website) will fund three pilot projects in Indonesia, the Amazon, and Africa in late 2014. Rainforest Connection already has multiple partners in these regions. This year they will also release the mobile app, which will allow users to listen to the sounds of the rainforest and eventually receive CNN-style alerts about illegal logging occurrences around the world.

"Our society is waking up to fact that there's no such thing as far away any more," said Dave Grenell, co-founder of Rainforest Connection. "We can no longer live under the illusion that the destruction of rainforests, which seems far away and not something we can impact...we are beginning to suffer the consequences of things happening in these places."

Bettering the system

The technology startup industry, specifically in San Francisco, has turned into a gold rush. The mentality is based on creating instant wealth and success in the shortest amount of time. Realistically, that's rarely the case, but with companies like WhatsApp being bought for $19 billion, it skews perception.

As frustrating as it is for White and other startups trying to raise enough money to build products that can have real, positive impact, there are lessons to be learned from the billion dollar valuations for companies like Yo and Snapchat. For one, it proves that the public's attention is worth something, and it's worth fighting for, he said.

Crowdfunding is a viable — and inspirational — option for many startups like Rainforest Connection, who would run into obstacles in the traditional funding system.

"There's slow money and fast money," said Grenell, who has a background in climate policy and government work. Slow money, he added, is NGOs, non-profits, organizations that require grant funding. Often, these have the right incentives, but there are many levels of oversight and with that comes a cost: loss of flexibility, time, and speed.

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 Image: Rainforest Connection

On the other hand, going the for-profit route, where money often flows faster, often means giving up control and allowing outsiders to derail the original mission.

Grenell explained it further: The first question for most institutions, businesses, and governments is not what the right thing to do is, or what is the greater good is, but primarily questions serving self-interest, he said.

"If you want to move towards a more responsible world of economic actors, [the] culture to change [requires] more role models in startup and business community," he added. "Then begin their decision making processes by asking what's the right thing to do. That doesn't mean you're going to give up all the other stuff, that just needs to be asked when making important decisions."

Idealistically, Rainforest Connection becomes a catalyst for this model. And for this startup, the question of "greater good" involves the international community. About 49% of their funding came from abroad, and the rest from the US. It was a crucial part of the campaign because the problems they're tackling — deforestation, climate change, species extinction — involve everything on this planet.

"Governments aren't going to solve these problems. We think it's really about creating the tools and empowering the people," Grenell said. "Crowdfunding campaigns show people really care about this stuff and they'll get behind it if we give them the opportunity to."

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

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