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Koko.org Builds Apps for the Apes

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 03-30-2016 Print

The world-famous Gorilla Foundation turns to self-built applications to take primate research into the digital age.

For more than 40 years, The Gorilla Foundation has worked to preserve and protect gorillas and other great apes through interspecies research and education. The organization is best known for its "Project Koko," which involves an ongoing communication and behavioral study between humans and gorillas, including the now famous lowland gorilla Koko and another gorilla, Ndume. Researchers and Koko now share more than 1,000 signs—mostly based on American Sign Language (ASL) but also some that the gorilla has created—to interact about the animal's thoughts and feelings.

The Redwood City, Calif., foundation, which aims to educate the public about rapidly disappearing gorilla habitats in Africa—and the demise of these animals—is working to advance its research through the use of digital technology.

"Our mission is conservation but there's internally a need for more advanced ways to collect, manage and analyze data," said Gary Stanley, executive director of The Gorilla Foundation, which also is known as Koko.org.

As a result, the organization has developed apps—known as the Gorilla Diary—to monitor health, mood, behavior, training and enrichment for the apes. The applications hold coded data that helps identify Koko's words, phrases and emotions.

"It's important to know whether she is modulating, repeating, excited or acting in a spontaneous way," Stanley said. "We have entered this data on paper for decades but we now have an opportunity to advance the research dramatically."

The organization uses the applications, which run on iPads, to help train new caregivers and support efforts outside the offices. "New caregivers are able to get up to speed quickly using the sign language database," he said.

The organization relies on a FileMaker Pro database to manage more than 40 years of notes, photos, video and other data. It began using the software in 2000 for its donor database but created a new database to support the research and conservation application about five years ago. Volunteers catalog videos, including the signs they see, and The Gorilla Foundation includes other criteria such as care data, nutritional data, eating habits, mood and health observations. In the future, the organization also helps to crowdsource research and allow the public to aid in observation and cataloging functions. It is currently looking for a technology partner to aid in the task.

Today, The Gorilla Foundation has more than 1 million individual records contained in the database. It adds about 300 additional images per week. Stanley said that FileMaker makes it relatively simple to consolidate multiple tables into a single file, and that helps manage file counts more effectively. It also facilitates collaboration and file sharing; both are key feature requirements for the organization. The Gorilla Foundation has two main workgroups, divided between business and research staffs, that use the system on a daily basis. There's also a need to share content and data with outside organizations for critical research projects.

"The software is changing the way we work and advance research. We have been able to advance our mission without a dedicated IT staff and complex technology requirements," he said.


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