Topher White, Engineer and Physicist

Picture of Topher White attaching a satellite to a tree
Photograph by Rainforest Connection

Topher White, Engineer and Physicist

Using Old Cell Phones to Fight Illegal Logging in the Amazon

Deforestation, much of it illegal, is one of the main contributors to climate change. Detecting and interdicting illicit loggers in remote areas has always been a challenge. Using recycled cell phones, Topher White, a physicist, engineer, and inventor, has come up with an ingenious new method of detecting illegal activity in real time.

Talking from the Amazon rain forest, White explains how the system works, how Silicon Valley helped him create it, and why working with the Tembé people of Brazil is both challenging and rewarding. —Simon Worrall

How did you come up with the brilliant idea of using recycled cell phones to monitor illegal logging and poaching in rain forests?

That's a very generous definition of it, but thanks for that. It all started when I was in Indonesia volunteering to take care of gibbons. Illegal logging was a problem; it was costly for the organization. They were hiring three full-time guards just to protect the sanctuary from illegal logging. My background has nothing to do with environmentalism. It's in physics and software engineering, so I knew that it would be pretty easy to programmatically pick out the sounds of chainsaws from the forest even if people couldn't hear them. I had done a lot of work on smartphones, so I built them a system using old cell phones that I had. Now, hundreds of people are donating phones every month.

Explain the connection between illegal logging and climate change?

Deforestation is the second largest contributor to climate change, contributing up to 17 percent of all carbon emissions. According to Interpol, between 50 and 90 percent of rain forest logging is illegal. If we can protect just a few hundred hectares of forest with an old phone that's been thrown away, it could be the best way to impact climate change. The phone is inside a plastic box to protect it, along with some circuitry that helps power the solar panels on the outside. There's also a sensitive microphone, which makes it possible for us to hear chainsaw noise up to a kilometer away. Each phone can cover almost a square mile, which means you don't need a lot of phones, especially if you put them along main access points like roads or around the perimeter.

Tell us about the Rainforest Connection.

I was living in France at the time, and it wasn't until I moved back to California that I saw how the Silicon Valley start-up scene had taken off. I thought a nonprofit start-up would be a good opportunity for people to get involved in issues we've heard about for so long but have not really done much work on. In Silicon Valley, there are tons of people with software development experience who are looking to contribute in a meaningful way. So the majority of help we get is volunteer.

What about enforcement? How do you catch the bad guys?

That's the key. The phones pick up the sound of chainsaws or vehicles and transmit the audio over the standard cell phone network into the cloud, where we analyze it in real time. Based upon the detection, alerts go out to rangers and wardens, traditionally over SMS. The faster they can get there, the less damage done.

You are currently in Brazil helping a tribe monitor their lands to prevent poaching and illegal settlement. Put us on the ground.

The Tembé are an indigenous people that have about 6,000 square kilometers of territory in the state of Pará, in the southern Amazon. There are only about 1,500 Tembé left; they're under constant threat from illegal settlers and illegal logging. We have come to realize that one of the best ways to protect the Amazon rain forest is to empower the indigenous people.

The Tembé are extremely well organized and becoming more so. There are about 30 young rangers who patrol the area and keep the borders secure. Much of this area is extremely remote and the cell phone service extremely weak, so these are technical challenges. But I couldn't ask for better partners than the Tembé. For them it's an existential struggle. They're literally fighting for their survival.

What inspires you in your work?

I have to say that at the moment I'm inspired by how much support we're getting from everyone. I'm naturally an engineer, and it gives me great joy to think that something that we're building is useful to people. That was the case when I was building websites or apps. But I've not yet found an application that people are more excited about than this one.

In Their Words

I’m naturally an engineer, and it gives me great joy to think that something that we’re building is useful to people.

—Topher White

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