Fighting Deforestation with Technology
Cambodia's deforestation is accelerating at an alarming rate, with an overall rate of total forest loss of nearly 75% since the end of the 1990s. Primary rainforest cover fell dramatically from over 70% in 1970 to just 3.1% in 2007. (source: Wikipedia)
The Prey Lang forest is one of the largest forests left in Southeast Asia. (source: Wikipedia) It covers four provinces in the northwest region of Cambodia. Though it is rich with resources for local Cambodian villages and teems with endangered plant and animal species, its existence is threatened by daily illegal logging and economic land concession (ELC) activities.
Local villagers in the Prey Lang area have organized themselves with the support of local and international organizations to patrol the forest and chase out illegal loggers or destroy products of illegal logging activities. These villagers go on these patrols despite the dangers involved. Many see that there is no other option if they want to continue their way of life, living from the natural resources in the forest. Danmission, in collaboration with the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) and Community Peace-Building Network (CPN), has been working in Prey Lang to provide support by helping volunteers set up patrols and equipping them with materials such as gasoline, food, and torches.
Danmission approached us to develop a mobile app for the local villager to systematically monitor the resources and activities in Prey Lang. We worked closely with the University of Copenhagen (KU) to design the concept of the app, its features, and the online database. We participated in the initial meeting with the Prey Lang communities to determine what kind of monitoring they wanted to do most within the forest. It was no surprise that their greatest desire was to record and report all of the illegal activities they regularly observe in the forests. They also wanted to create maps of the location of valuable resources such as medicines, trees, and sacred sites.
While developing the technical concept for the app, we faced some interesting challenges:
- How can we design a user friendly app for villagers who may be illiterate and have never used a smartphone?
- How can we get that data out of the forest reliably?
- How can we make sure the data collected is accurate, so it can be used to generate reports for advocacy?
- How can we keep the data confidential and protect the identity of the villager?
We developed a delightfully colorful, and simple Android-app that allows the villagers to take multiple photos which automatically store the GPS locations. The app allows them to record audio files of their interactions with loggers and other events that they observe in the forests. Then, the app leads the villagers through a pictorial decision tree to help them categorize the content of the photo they just took or audio file they just recorded. If the villagers observed chainsaws, they will take a photo and label this as illegal logging. If they observed a specific type of tree, they can take a photo, label it as a tree and record the name of the specific type of tree.
The app uses 3G to upload the data immediately to an online database through Dropbox. However, jungles often do not have data coverage. In this case, the app saves the record and synchronizes with the database as soon there is an active data connection via Wireless or 3G. A TYPO3 website helps to manage the records and aggregate the data. It allows users to view and edit records and to observe the progress of patrols in the forests.
One of the larger goals of this project is to increase volume, accuracy and quality of data gathered on deforestation and other similar illegal activities and to decrease the time elapsed between observation and publication. This means evidence can be recorded, submitted, stored, aggregated and disseminated quickly. Using this data, Danmission has compiled reports with hard figures and actual photos of the current activities in Prey Lang, to raise greater awareness of the urgency of this issue. Web Essentials is responsible for the app and database development, technical project management, training and maintenance.
We are excited to be involved in the fight to save this beautiful forest and continue to look for opportunities where technology can meet local needs and transform communities & businesses around the world.