Apps for animals: Conservation tech’s new frontier

  • A handful of conservation apps have seen light of day in India, ranging in theme from collecting data about roadkills to recording snakebites. All of them share a common premise: the identification of species.
  • For the organisations behind the apps, the numbers of downloads is not necessarily the main goal. They aim to make sure conservation happens better, by gathering much-needed data.
  • Data from apps can help achieve different goals, like closing of roads to decrease roadkill and map out snakebite hotspots.
  • Involving concerned citizens and experts from across the country can help the apps gather data at a larger scale, increasing the chances of impacts like being able to use the data for research, for discovery of new species and enabling conservation action.

Uttar Dhupjhora Road, which cuts through West Bengal’s Gorumara National Park, is no longer the animal death trap it once was. In October, the district magistrate started shutting down the road from 6 pm to 6 am to reduce the number of animals killed by speeding cars.

And it’s all thanks to an app called RoadWatch.

The Society for Protecting Ophiofauna & Animal Rights (SPOAR) had been trying to shut the road down since 2013, said S. P. Pandey, secretary of SPOAR. In 2016, the district magistrate agreed to shut the road at night, but the measure wasn’t implemented, Pandey added.

Then, SPOAR found out about RoadWatch, an app supported by the Wildlife Trust of India and built by Leopard Tech Labs. Pandey and his team got a volunteer to start recording dead animals he found on the road and uploading photos onto the RoadWatch app. After uploading more than 1000 photos of animals hit by cars and sharing the data with the district magistrate, the road was shut at night.

RoadWatch is one of a handful of conservation apps launched in India. Though each app has a different goal, they operate on similar premises: the identification of species. Most of them require users to upload a photo of a species, and the information is verified through metadata attached to the photo, such as the date, time and location where a photo was taken. RoadWatch and Roadkills are two apps that focus on roadkill data. Then there are apps that identify snakes, including venomous snakes, like Big4 Mapper and IndianSnakes. Apps like iNaturalist and eBird allow for global species identification.

Read the Mongabay article on the Roadkills app. “Roadkills: an app to record animal deaths on roads and railway lines”.

Do the number of downloads matter?

When it comes to numbers, it would be easy to brush off many of these apps as unsuccessful. Apps like RoadWatch and Roadkills have only been downloaded one thousand times. Compared to apps like Candy Crush Saga, which has more than 500 million downloads, one thousand seems like peanuts. But for the organisations behind the apps, the number of downloads is not necessarily the main goal.

The Roadkills app aims to use citizen science to collect roadkill data. Image from the Roadkills website.

“The end goal is to make sure conservation happens better,” said Jose Louies, of the Wildlife Trust of India, which has worked on apps like RoadWatch, Big4 Mapper and WildWatch.

Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, feels the same way. Like the Wildlife Trust of India, the Wildlife Conservation Trust is working on an app that tracks roadkill. Their app is called Roadkills.

“As any country develops, there is a huge amount of loss of animals,” said Andheria. Roads and construction can threaten the entire existence of species like leopards and elephants as well as the smaller rodents and reptiles. “We need accurate information,” he added.

The Wildlife Conservation Trust wants data collected on Roadkills to inform decisions about expanding cities and towns, and building roads and railways. Every day, more than 20 kilometres of highway are built in the country, according to data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Many of these roads cut through India’s most iconic national parks, like Kaziranga National Park and Jim Corbett National Park.

“We don’t want to hamper development, but we want things to grow sustainably,” said Andheria.

During the monsoon season in Kaziranga, many animals are hit by cars while trying to escape the flooding to higher ground. In 2017, 14 hog deer were killed on National Highway 37, according to the park authorities.

Data from apps like Roadkills and RoadWatch can be used to help park officials decide how to take action. Just like it did in the case of Gorumara National Park.

“That information [from our app] strengthened the argument [for the road being shut],” said Louies of the Wildlife Trust of India.

A screenshot of the Roadwatch website. Image from the Roadwatch website.

Different apps, different goals

For Big4 Mapper, the goal is different.

“At the end of the day, we want less people to die from snake bites,” said Abhishek Krishnan, Head of Conservation at Leopard Tech Labs.

Big4 Mapper tracks sightings of India’s deadliest snakes: common cobra, common krait, Rusell’s viper & saw-scaled viper. The app has been downloaded more than 7000 times, and has collected 5,336 data points.

Read the Mongabay story on the Big4 Mapper  app. “An app to fill data gaps on snake bites in India”.

Around 46,000 people die from snakebites every year in India, according to a study from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Anti-venom shortages are a major challenge.

Krishnan says the next step will be to get Big4 Mapper to tie up with hospitals. He hopes if hospitals are more aware of what types of snakes are in their vicinity, they’ll be better able to stock up on the appropriate anti-venom. The app will also soon add an additional 30 snakes that can be identified in the app.

Getting people on board isn’t easy, though. The low number of subscribers becomes a challenge and it does hold back the ability of apps to gather a significant amount of data. So the Wildlife Trust of India and Wildlife Conservation Trust are planning on working with people involved in conservation.

Already their main user base is conservationists, but they want to take it even further.

In the case of Gorumara National Park, WTI had called the president of SPOAR to tell him about their app. So getting people to subscribe to the app often doesn’t happen organically through the app store.

“It’s all about networking,” said Louies, adding that they need to be talking to people offline and getting them interested.

Andheria says the Wildlife Conservation Trust will soon launch campaigns to get forest officials to use Roadkills. He hopes that someday it will even be mandatory for forest guards to use the app. The campaigns will focus on areas where they already know many animals are getting killed on roads.

WTI and WCT’s interest in getting their apps in the hands of conservationists doesn’t mean they don’t care about the public downloading the apps.

“We have a really good network of snake experts,” said Krishnan, of Leopard Tech Labs. “Nowadays, everyone has a smartphone. We want to expand it to the entire public. We want other people involved in this.”

The icon of Big4Mapper. Image from Google Play.

When it comes to data, bigger is better

More users means more data which in turn means a better understanding of the natural world around us. Despite working on similar apps, WTI and WCT aren’t sharing their data sets — though both claim they’re willing to send it to one another. Even if they did share their data, it might not be easy for them to use.

“It is often quite tricky to merge databases together because there may not be IDs/names that are shared between databases,” said Durand D’souza, a data analyst at Carbon Bubble. “This means that you often have to either manually match by hand the same items in different datasets, or do some sort of automated fuzzy string matching (similar to Google search suggestions) that will often give you imperfect results.”

But there’s a lot of value in larger datasets.

“All data must be analysed in some way after collection because raw data is never suitable for use as it is”, added Durand. “However, if you don’t analyse the data in the correct way, it may lead you to the wrong results. More advanced data analysis allows you to [get] much more detail from your data set, especially if you combine it with other datasets and with prior knowledge.”

One of the largest conservation apps in the world, iNaturalist, is one example of what a larger data set can do.

iNaturalist started off as a masters project of a team of students from University of California, Berkeley. It was merged with the California Academy of Sciences in 2014, the same year the one-millionth observation was recorded. Now there are almost 15 million observations, of 188,269 species. India alone has 77,456 observations, of 8,608 species.

“[iNaturalist] is not just an app, it’s also a platform and community,” said Tony Iwane, Outreach and Community Coordinator at iNaturalist. Iwane was user number 28 of iNaturalist. “Our main goal is to engage people with nature. It’s a way for people with a shared passion to connect.”

The premise of the highly successful iNaturalist app. Image is a screenshot from the iNaturalist website.

A number of discoveries have been made since the app was launched.

In October this year, a birder in California took a picture of a crab and uploaded it onto the platform. Turns out the crab, a Mexican Fiddler Crab, had never been spotted in California before. So the sighting showed the range of the crab had recently expanded a lot further north.

And Iwane thinks discoveries like this are just scratching the surface.

“There’s a lot of potential that we maybe just don’t see yet,” he said.

Scientists even use the data they collect on iNaturalist for their own research. One team is tracking photos of mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) to see if climate change is having an effect on the species moulting its coat. They’ve found hundreds of photos on iNaturalist so far.

So how did iNaturalist become so big?

“A lot of it has been self sustaining,” Iwane explained.

The platform has a community that engages with one another, commenting on observations people make and helping them identify species they don’t recognise.

The platform also benefits from not having to earn revenue to keep going, because funding comes from its parent company, the California Academy of Sciences, and National Geographic.

Usually, making it in the app world isn’t easy. To be viable, many apps have to rely on advertisement and paid subscription. But less than .01 percent of apps are considered financially viable, according to Gartner, a global research and advisory firm.

Like iNaturalist, Roadkills, Big4 Mapper and RoadWatch are fully funded by conservation organisations, so the apps don’t have pop up ads or require users to pay for a subscription.

“It’s cost-effective conservation technology,” according to Louies, of the Wildlife Trust of India. Building RoadWatch and Big4 Mapper only cost a couple of lakhs of rupees, he added. “We don’t need money for that.”

A smartphone makes the process of collecting citizen science data simple. Photo by jyliagorbacheva / Pixabay.

The number of subscribers also means Wildlife Trust of India doesn’t need a massive staff to verify the data coming in. Especially since RoadWatch only has 2,338 recorded observations while Big4 Mapper has 5,336 observations.

It’s also relatively early days for these apps — RoadWatch has been around for less than a year and Big4 Mapper for over a year. It will be a while before they have a larger data set.

In the case of Gorumara National Park, a lot more roadkill data needs to come in to know if shutting down the road at night really made a difference. They’ll only know after observing the road next summer and monsoon season, when most deaths happen.

“Technology can never replace the human eye or the human brain,” said Louies. “We need technology as a supporting tool.”

Exit mobile version