Citizens, mobile coms and bio-diverse engagement coming of age

youngcitizenSomewhat more than a decade ago in 2000 I sat with my webdesign team, two education colleagues and a research scientist hatching a pioneering web application – Walking with woodlice. For generations amateurs in the UK have been primary contributors of biodiversity observations working through their societies and schemes. This was a pioneering experiment to get to a young audience and promote learning and engagment with nature using the internet. We provided on-line resources, including simple identification keys to see if we could gather information about the relatively small number of species of these beasties across the UK. Over the course of four years (2001-2004) it had some thousands of responses via the web-based report forms and the data gathered, shown on-line via simple distribution maps, showed interesting results. It included showing one species appearing where it had been previously unrecorded in the north of England. Scientists verified the results – possibly an indicator of environmental change – but certainly appearing where it wasn’t known previously through conventional recording methods. Over the intervening decade many organisations have been using the web to encourage citizen records of nature. The largest projects, such as those of the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, draw on the large membership of these organisations to gather significant numbers of reports on an annual basis; reports which contribute to formal biodiversity records for conservation policy.  Meanwhile the recording schemes of many of the Natural History Societies and Trusts such as the Big Butterfly Count and those associated with official Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPS)  are also disseminated and reported on-line following the emergence of the National Biodiversity Network (NBN). This brings much of the UK biodiversity data into one place where it is much more accessible to interrogation. Meanwhile projects such as the Open University’s iSPOT and a variety of projects developed by the big-lottery-funded OPAL project and Natural History Museum continued to build on the aims of Walking with Woodlice, trying to engage and inform non-specialists using the activity primarily for learning with the data gathering a rather secondary outcome.  Generally contributions to these have been in the low thousands, partly because they are rather parochial, developed on limited resources and benefit from limited marketing support. It doesn’t help that rather than collaborating some projects are effectively overlapping and competing; such as iSPOT’s Treezilla which follows independently from the already established NHM’s Urban Tree Survey

However the potential of getting wider engagement from a larger pool of public contributors hasn’t gone away, and over recent years many interesting developments have been emerging. Technological advances have been significant, particularly the emergence and convergence of mobile technologies and the development of apps with automatic recognition software and the capabilities to create records which are Geolocated automatically by Global Positioning Systems and/or phone transmitting data. In the US a research group from a number of major universities have been developing LeafSnap, a mobile application with pattern recognition software. When it was launched in 2011 more than 150,000 copies of the App had been downloaded within a month. While its not without its limitations it is being used to help recognise common tree species from photographs of their leafs taken by I-phone users; the app can also direct the images data automatically to a central database along with the geo-coded location data for where the image was recorded.

Back in 2011 at a meeting in Copenhagen the European Environment Agency set out a policy position on citizen science. Then Executive Director Jackie McGlade argued that a basic feature of a green economy would be various forms of public participation, particularly for the protection of the public good. One particular example was in respect to the inability of the agency to significantly monitor the status of alien species across Europe, it simply had too few operatives to do this directly. Instead it proposed to establish a citizen science portal to encourage  responses from the pubic which would help identify the presence of alien species and act as an early warning and rapid response system. The experience in the United Kingdom by Defra,  the English government’s environment department and Fera the Food and environment research agency which opperates across the United Kingdom’s four countries has been somewhat ambivalent to this potential. These departments are focused on serious alien invasive issues, rather than on learning and encouraging engagement. As a result they were if anything irritated by amateur reports of such things a giant hog-weed. These spread rabidly in highly urbanised areas, cause considerable nuisance to gardens and damage pavements; so it should be no surprise that the public report them frequently. However these departments found such reports a distraction or even an irritation; while hog-weed is an invasive, the agencies do not recognise it as a significant economic or environmental threat. While the EAA is seeking to encourage participation it is clear that expectations need to be managed on all sides in regard to the rewards and outcomes. For such a scheme to successful participants will want their contributions to be valued rather than dismissed; the systems would need to recognise this and anticipate significant numbers of reports which might not be on the priority watch-list, but which nonetheless are significant to the amateur participants and represent important steps towards participation participation.

Earlier this year in March the power of citizens with mobile devices was demonstrated much more dramatically in Uganda where the technology infrastructure is still less developed. Lyudmila Bujireanu a technical adviser with the World Bank working with the Ugandan Agricultual Technology and Agribusiness Advisory Service learned about a bacterial disease Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) which was spreading rapidly in the country with the risk to the economy of some $360 million. His colleague Rasit Petev had already initiated a Rabid Response initiate with the aim of trying to decrease the rate of incidence of the disease from 45% to 5% within a year to prevent the devastation of an industry which was key to food security. Lyudmila has an ICT background and, working with other colleagues, came up with an dramatic idea. Unicef had developed a product called Ureport which allowed, by working with phone operators, mass SMS messages to be sent to phone users; developed to work with volunteers in the development sector. Using Ureport they sent out a series of short SMS messages to the 19000 volunteers. The first message sent on 26 march was designed to raise awareness it said simply ‘Do you know any farmers whose banana plantations or crop are infected with banana wilt? YES or NO.‘ Within 24 hours they had received 35,000 responses, because they could trace the signal origins from the phones they were able to immediately generate a map of the spread of BBW across the country.

Mappping of Banana Bacterial Wilt from SMS responses (55% of crops reported as infected shown in Green and 38% reporting as not infected shown in green).

The following day a follow-up message was sent to all of the respondents regardless of whether they had answered yes or no, ‘Banana Bacterial Wilt is a disease spread by insects and cutting tools that causes rotting of bunches and drying of male buds‘. This was followed on the 28 by a third message ‘55% of U-reporters know plantations with Banana Bacteria Wilt. Its attack ripens bunches prematurely and dries male buds. SMS ‘BBW’ for more info’. More than 17000 of the Ureporters requested further details and got a message ‘To control, avoid moving infected plant, break male bud, cut infected plants, clean tools with [disinfectant]. Tell someone you know’.

Over the course of just 5 days more than 5200 reporters had provided information, requested information or both, a response rate of 19%. The process had created a significant distribution map of the spread of the disease and rapidly disseminated information across the country to help combat spread of the disease. It takes little imagination to see that approach could have been developed further even within the limits of SMS capability – for example by identifying the call origins, the software could be developed to segment by region the callers so that SMS messages could direct people support in their local districts.

Technical developments are spurring innovation, Sam Droege of the USGS has come up with an interesting idea – a simple L-shaped metal bracket that can be fixed at a view point where change is happening, be it to monitor a retreating glacier or record the seasons. People can come along, place their camera or phone in the bracket and take an image from this fixed position. The image is mailed or transmitted via social media to a  server where some clever software adjusts and standardises the image size and contrast etc. It also has the time and place meta data to drop the adjusted image into a time-lapse sequence created by the multiple-users who stop by and record the site from this fixed vantage point. Instead of leaving expensive equipment people make the records using their mobile communication devices be they cameras or phones. I could see this being of real interest to organisations such as the Royal Geographic Society’s regional members or on a trail in a National Park; places where it is fun and fulfilling to contribute to a crowd sourced record.

More exciting still I think is where communities are taking ownership of the technology and using it for their own purpose; such as how in Ecuador the Huaorani indigenous people are using GPS and GIS technologies to map their traditional territories to record its resources for the protection and their traditional forest lands and their livelihoods (see my blog Lost Tribes or Global Stewards).


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