IT fun for a better world

My name is Tim Hunt and I am a lecturer in Information Technology at Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) in Hamilton, New Zealand.  I first heard about The Cacophony Project, and the work that Grant Ryan and others are doing, at this year's ITx conference in Wellington.  Grant's presentation outlined the 'big picture' aims of the project - to return New Zealand's bird life to its former glory, by using technology to help eradicate the pests responsible for killing so many birds.

I have to say, that idea of the Cacophony project struck a chord with me.  I am a huge fan of the benefits of modern technology to improve our lives and the world, and I believe 'we ain't seen nothing yet'!  Also I am at the stage of life where I have been wondering what I can do to leave the world in a better place - the Cacophony project seemed to be something that had a bigger purpose than just creating another piece of technology for the sake of fun or making money.

How will we know if any pest eradication interventions actually increase the amount of bird life?  Apart from relying on people’s judgment of how it used to be, we intend to actually measure the current state of affairs to give us a baseline for future comparisons.  One of the projects members, Cameron Ryan-Pears, has among other things, developed an Android phone app (we call the Cacophonometer) to record sound at periodic intervals and upload the recordings to the 'cloud' for safe keeping.  I've been doing some testing and deployment of the Cacophonometer and would like to share my experiences here.

I have two teenage daughters so there are obviously a few old "useless" phones lying around the house as well as some from previous work research projects.  I took the code that Cameron had written and using Android Studio ran the code on one of the old phones.  After a few tests and requests for code/feature changes, was able to successfully and repeatable get the app to run on three different phones - HTC One V, Samsung Galaxy 3 and an old useless Alcatel.

We want to have these phones out in the bush (that's the woods/forest if you are reading this from the UK) which will mean we will need to have a remote power and data solution (possibly a solar panel and a cellular phone data connection), but, there are lots of places still within Wi-Fi and mains power reach that are worth getting some baseline information.  I have made recordings by placing the phone under the cover of a deck in my back garden.

So if you would like to try the app out yourself and have an old phone running at least Android version 4.03 then ask me to email it to you.  You will need to enable non Google Play Store apps (Android Settings | Security | Unknown | Tick the box if it isn't already ticked).  You can now select the attachment (on the email) but DO NOT Open with Package installer (it just gave a blank screen for me), but instead choose 'Save to' by pressing the download icon.  Go to notifications (pull down from the top of the screen) and select the downloaded file.  If you get the 'Install blocked' message, you must have forgot to tick the allow 'Unknown sources' box - you can do that now.  Follow the on screen instructions for installing the Cacophonometer - i.e. Next | Install |Open

The app is configured to immediately start to make one minute recordings every hour and send them to the cloud storage - that is easy!  You can add more 'rules' to make more recordings if you wish, but this is not necessary.

Warning - you now have a phone that makes audio recordings on a regular basis and therefore has the potential to record your private conversations - testing shows that a phone can hear you speaking at a normal level from at least 15 meters away - must stop yelling at the teenagers :-)  We are currently working on addressing how we can deal with privacy issues, see below, but for now please assume that anything your say could end up being made public!  We recommend that you place the phone away from your home, perhaps you have a shed at the bottom of the garden that is still within power/Wi-Fi reach.

What next:

We are thinking hard about how to improve privacy.  One idea is to send all recordings to the Google Speech service and if it detects any words, just delete the recording.  Initial tests have shown that it can detect words spoken when the person is close to the phone, but not when more than about 5 meters away - but you can still understand them when listening to the recording.  Michael Field has been looking at using some signal analysis to solve this problem - see his separate post.

The number of recordings made is going to be vast and so it is unlikely that we will have enough people to do analysis of the recordings.  This means we will need to develop automatic analysis of the recordings, which also means that there is never a need for a human to listen to the recordings - this could be a safety mechanism for privacy issues.  However, it would still be nice for the person setting up the phone to have feedback on whether the system is working and we need to work out how this can be done in a secure way.

Once we have enabled a safe way of giving feedback on the recording we hope to involve many more people and hopefully get schools involved with recording our bird life.  If you would like to try the app out yourself, please send me an email, we would love to hear how you get on so that we can improve the system.  If you would like to be involved with The Cacophony Project, we are looking for all sorts of help and would really love to hear from you also.


Tim Hunt