Until this past semester I had never given much thought to the details of compost. My internal model of the whole ordeal went as far as “food goes in, soil comes out.” As an electrical engineer and computer scientist I could easily have gone all my life without dealing with the details of decomposition. I was searching for a part-time opportunity and heard WeRadiate was looking for someone to build them a system to automatically measure and log the conditions of their compost. Though unfamiliar with the botanical side of things, I figured that I could cleanly separate the technical and non-technical aspects of the project and get together a system that did the job without really having to learn much about compost itself. I’m delighted to have been dead wrong.
The challenges I faced in designing such a system forced me to consider the problem from all angles. Given cost constraints, what features are the most essential to measure in order to accurately assess the compost’s conditions? Can we leverage an understanding of the decomposition process to infer difficult-to-measure qualities using more basic measurements? What’s the mindset of a user of such a product and what does compost mean to them? Often I was forced to turn away from my books and equations and instead seek answers from the community – I spoke with gardeners, chemists, lawyers, and many others as I tried to resolve these questions. This is not to mention the substantial technical effort that the project required: I found myself designing circuits, poring over component datasheets, coding in multiple programming languages, and building custom protocols to realize a functional system. This project has drawn from a breadth of fields few other of my projects have, and I’ve learned an incredible amount about the science of compost, though I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. There’s still plenty of work to be done, but I’m excited to have been with WeRadiate as we took these important steps forward in quantifying decomposition.