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Playing technology catchup: What conservation might learn from human development

In 2007 a student ecologist walked out across the African savannah, armed with a clipboard and a ballpoint pen. They were off to record evidence of the presence of different grazers in the landscape. In 2012 that same ecologist set off again to monitor the impact of grazers in different habitats. This time though it was not a clipboard that swung in their hand, but a mobile phone.

By Gina Maffey

How we collect and collate information on the natural environment is rapidly changing. Ecologists, conservationists and NGOs around the world are embracing advances in digital technology, and recognising the opportunities that such technologies can bring. Yet, when compared with other disciplines, conservation has been rather slow to incorporate digital technology in its methodological toolkit.

Radio collars are a valuable tool when it comes to following an animal's movements (Credit: Gina Maffey)
Radio collars are a valuable tool to help conservationists follow an animal’s movements over wide areas (Photo credit: Gina Maffey)

One discipline that has exploited digital technology is human development. In particular it has capitalised on more than 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions across the globe, to develop software that improves livelihoods, health and wellbeing. However, not all projects have been successful, and where some have brought new opportunities and progression, others have failed.

Bringing together experience, literature and discussion a team of researchers and practitioners identified the following five key lessons that conservation can take from the use of technology in human development.

Lesson 1
Digital technology develops rapidly and in some instances disappears, or is replaced, just as quickly. Projects that consider existing and persisting (non-) digital platforms, not just the latest development, have better chances of improving their resilience.

Lesson 2
Approach the design of projects with the conservation goals in mind – not the technology. It may be that there are a range of (existing) tools that may serve a conservation goal – do not let the development of digital technology reinvent the wheel.

Lesson 3
Take a bottom-up approach. For a digital tool to work, it has to have relevance for both the project and the communities it is to be deployed in. Once the tool works locally, consider scaling-up – but maintain an awareness of differences in local context.

Lesson 4
Do not shift the problem. Development of a tailored piece of digital equipment for a conservation project requires resources. If possible develop software that can run on existing hardware to reduce secondary problems such as e-waste.

Lesson 5
The impact offline is just as important as the impact online. Numbers of individuals subscribed, or number of units distributed, do not equate to numbers of engaged individuals or impact on the ground.

As a consequence of the lessons above a proposed ‘Digital Conservation Charter’ was developed. Building on the ‘Donors charter’ the Digital Conservation Charter contains a series of questions to be asked throughout the development of a conservation project. The questions aim to help ensure that digital technology is used the most suitable and applicable way, and allow conservationists around the world to embrace the advent of digital technology coming their way.

Proposed ‘Digital Conservation’ Charter

Preliminary questions to be asked by the project team or main stakeholders in the initiative:

  1. Have the community of groups or individuals identified a problem that an appropriate form of technology may be able to address?
  2. Why will the initiative benefit from technological development, and who will be using and managing it?
  3. Do the team/collaborators have the necessary knowledge and experience to address both the environmental and social components of the conservation issue, as well as the technological challenges that may arise?
  4. Is there already an initiative or organization working to address the conservation issue? Is collaboration possible? Have initial studies been undertaken to understand the scale of the conservation issue?
  5. Does a technology or initiative currently exist (possibly in a different domain) that could be used to address the problem? Could it be adapted to address the problem?
  6. What are the possible risks and undesired side effects (economically, technically, socially and culturally) of the proposed technology?

Implementation of the project:

  1. Will the implementation be piloted on a small scale first?
  2. Have financial estimates for the project been made? Is there appropriate funding for both establishment and maintenance or sustainability of the project?
  3. Will you be collaborating with locally based individuals and organizations to carry out your implementation? If not, why not?
  4. Are you incorporating local understanding and 
working practices into the technological development 
process? How?

Evaluation and post-implementation of the initiative:

  1. How will the impact of the initiative be measured – both environmentally and socially? Do you have indicators for whether the initiative was successful or not? How will the end-users/collaborators be involved in measuring the impact of the initiative?
  2. How has the initiative actively contributed to local, national, or international conservation goals?
  3. Does the initiative have an exit strategy and review process? That is, if a technological solution to a conservation issue has been developed, is the local community able to continue to employ the solution without external support?
  4. Will the results and technological developments be openly available for other (digital) conservation organizations and individuals to access and learn from?

A copy of the original (full) paper that inspired this post can be found here.