Human-related challenges to the use of smartphone apps for community forest monitoring
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Community forest monitoring is considered a cost-effective way of obtaining extense field data sets for conservation programmes in developing countries. It creates local employment and involves communities in the management of their resources. NGOs and research teams are increasingly betting on the use of mobile phone technology to standardise and simplify the data collection process. Geographical visualisation tools can guide survey campaigns and make them more efficient in terms of cost-effectiveness and quality of data. Providing local communities with an overview of their resources strengthens their commitment by empowering them to take informed decisions and actively participate in the monitoring process. This dissertation aims to identify potential human-related challenges to the use of smartphone technology and overhead photographs by non-sophisticated user groups. Fieldwork was undertaken in a forest community in Northern Malawi. A baseline survey was conducted to get an idea of the participants’ technical literacy, their linguistic skills and their potential willingness to participate in a community forest monitoring project. Furthermore, exercises were performed to assess the quality of crowd-sourced data collected by the sample community, and their ability to use Google Earth as a geographical visualisation tool. In the sample community, potential human-related challenges for the use of smartphone apps are related to a low level of knowledge of English and the lack of familiarity with standard computer paradigms. Although initial training would be required, there is enough human potential to reach an acceptable level of crowd-sourced data to make ICT-based surveying a feasible option to complement professionally carried out field inventories. From the exercises with Google Earth imagery it becomes apparent that the perception and interpretation of geographical visualisation is not universal, as is often assumed by software developers. The findings from field research were used to make recommendations for designers of future smartphone apps to be used in poor rural communities. No assumptions can be made about the comprehensibility of softwares if non-sophisticated users are targeted. People’s ability to perform apparently easy tasks using Google Earth cannot be presumed. Ideally, technological tools to be used in remote cultures should be designed and tested in close collaboration with the final users, to make sure that they fulfill their promise to simplify data collection and to empower novice-user through giving access to information.