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Global Ideas

Academics help NGOs get up to speed with digital tech

From satellite tracking of birds to crowdsourced animal sightings, environmental organizations are adopting digital technology to aid their mission and widen their audience. Cooperation with academia may be crucial.

Drone flying into sunset.

Not all conservation organizations have easy access to digital technology that could help their cause

How would a smartphone have helped Charles Darwin photograph and sort through his animal pics while on the move in the Galapagos islands? We can only speculate. Could naturalist Alexander von Humboldt have benefited from Google maps when he climbed the volcanoes in the Andes? We will never know. But there's no doubt digital technology is making a difference for those protecting the natural diversity that the two explorers first recorded in the 19th century.

For the big players in both arenas - digital technology and environmentalism - cooperation has become a well trodden path in recent years. Think of Google using its big data power in an attempt to #link:http://www.mol.org/:map# planet Earth's entire known biodiversity - also and especially including threatened species and habitats. Or the #link:http://www.worldwildlife.org/projects/wildlife-crime-technology-project:WWF's Wildlife Crime Technology Project# that uses digital monitoring to track down poachers.

Gloomy picture of forest

Satellite tracking and online crowd sourcing are part of the digital arsenal to fight deforestation or poaching

But what about the many other and smaller organizations protecting nature - often with a focus on particular species or geographical areas? With limited resources at their disposal, engaging with digital technology to help their cause and learning new skill sets is a challenge. But one that may pay off, #link:http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13280-015-0704-2:write researchers from the University of Aberdeen#. They looked at three British environmental organizations that cooperated with academics to harness digital technology for their mission.

The #link:http://www.rspb.org.uk/:Royal Society for the Protection of Birds# (RSPB) is one of them. Together with the academics from Aberdeen the venerable organization set up the website #link:http://redkite.abdn.ac.uk/:Blogging Birds# which invites users to track the whereabouts of specific satellite tagged red kite birds of prey on an interactive map.

With people immersed in digital technologies in their daily lives, the RSPB tracking website increases the organization's visibility and places their cause directly on PC and smartphone screens of new potential supporters.

"The potential benefits are profound for the [organizations] and their respective users. It helps build capacities and facilitates new perspectives on digital technologies," said Carlos Galan-Diaz a social scientist from the research team.

Yes, the adoption of new technology and perspectives requires extra time, staff and money - something not easy to come by especially for small NGOs. The good thing is that once they go down that road there is no way back. The change of perspective so achieved cannot be undone - and that's a good thing, said Galan-Diaz.

Digital engagement works both ways. The #link:http://bumblebeeconservation.org/:Bumblebee Conservation Trust#, another case study, has installed an #link:http://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/wpn003/beewatch/index.php?r=user/auth:online submission system#, where users can enter their own photos of bee sightings and so contribute to monitoring and protecting the insects. This instance of crowdsourcing really is traditional citizen science in a new digital guise. The cooperation with academia has been important, as it provides that transfer of skills, technology and opens up new perspectives, said Galan-Diaz.

And really, in the absence of a tech giant knocking at your door with a few million dollars to spend on helping your organization - and that would be the case for most environmental NGOs - getting academics on board may be your best hope for upping your digital game.

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