Ground control for the Iceland expedition

I’m not going to Iceland with the Earlham field science people this week –

For context, every year, the Earlham CS Department plays a major role in the Icelandic field studies program, in which a group of students go out and gather data on/near a glacier in Iceland for about three weeks. They do multidisciplinary research that equips students to work on big problems in areas spanning climate change, genome sequencing, and more. Over the years they’ve developed the data model, protocols, plans, schedules, and educational process to make it as effective – and inclusive of newcomers – as possible.

– but I will be around Earlham for the three weeks they’re gone, and a lot of what I do right now revolves around supporting their efforts.

My contributions fall into two major categories. One is helping set up and configure a computational environment that can support their needs when they’re on a glacier with minimal access to the global Internet. That includes a de-facto centralized source code lab, support for OpenDroneMap, and fully-functional databases, all managed in a virtual server.

My other area of focus is – to me – the more intellectually and creatively fulfilling of the two: I’ve become a contributor to the software stack they use to gather their datasets. There are several components, and I (along with dozens of other people) have worked on all of them:

  • Arduino platforms with sensors to collect the samples – samples of elevation, or air quality, or soil…
  • a PostgreSQL database on the server side to store the data according to the data model we’ve developed
  • an Android app to provide the interface between the platforms, database, and user
  • a web interface to display data points on a map for QA purposes

Working on these earned me the informal title, bestowed by a colleague, of “Full-Stack Field Science Developer”.

To me, this is one of the gems of Earlham College. I’m going to share more about it here as we continue working on it.