A rural village on the outskirts of Mkuwazi forest reserve in Northern Malawi. A woman, stops, takes out a smart phone, starts up an app, takes a picture of a tree, then walks on and continues her business. A short while later she takes another photo, then another. Each time she uses the app, information is automatically uploaded over a mobile phone network, and her SIM card is topped up with a small amount of credit, perhaps only the equivalent of 10 or 20p, but enough to make it worthwhile. Meanwhile, the data is being used to verify that the community’s forests are still intact, that nothing much has changed, and as a consequence, the community continues to receive a more substantial income for the carbon credits accredited to their forest.
Its easy to imagine, but is it feasible any time soon?
Last week in Washington DC, Google.org and the Global Canopy Programme held a two day workshop for a wide group of researchers and NGOs who are trying to develop mobile-based tools to help communities manage the forest resources in their local vicinity. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take up their invitation to attend, but Ed Mitchard, a PhD student at Edinburgh, was able to fill in for me. Edinburgh was invited because we have been working through the details of how to take the idea described above and make it a reality. Indeed, this summer, two masters students have been working on the problem. Louise Thompson has been working on an app for android phones that extracts tree height and trunk diameter from two photos, with the intention of deriving tree biomass from the measurements. And Stefanie Kaiser has spent the last 4 weeks in Malawi, three of those in communities around Mkuwazi forest reserve, with the aim of quantifying levels of map literacy and ability to make tree measurements with a smart phone. Its tricky, but the early results indicate that while individual errors for each tree measurement may be high, the collective effect of lots of measurements is to reduce the error in measurements such as tree height to below 15%, which is almost as good as traditional measurements by field experts.
At the moment its all a bit clumsy — pacing out distances to trees, or taking two measurements (one at the base, one at the top), but as trends move forward in smartphone functionality, we are anticipating the addition of features such as 3D photography. If the phone is designed to take 3D photographs it will have two camera lenses — this would allow the app to calculate the distance to the tree, and from that, the diameter of the trunk and the height, two parameters that are needed to estimate the total mass of the tree.
If you are still sceptical, consider these facts. Cell phones arrived in sub-saharan Africa in the late nineties. Now, over 50% of the population has access to mobile phones and this is expected to rise to 80% by 2014. It is true that only 6% of these are currently smart phones, but this is largely driven by the cost of data subscriptions, not handset prices. Farmers use phones to access crop prices. Women access healthcare information. And, in Kenya, where Vodafone’s mobile money service, M-pesa, was first launched, it allows people without a bank account to send and receive money via a mobile handset. Ideal for micro businesses and rural smallholders.
The final step in the process is linking the phone data with satellite observations at a national scale. The smartphone data provides ground corroboration for the satellite data and the results of the satellite analysis (forest change, forest health) can be relayed back to the community. The participants at the Google meeting were very enthusiastic about putting their resources behind this fresh approach to getting communities more engaged with the national monitoring process, while at the same time supplementing their income. Its surely a win-win.
A final thought for Malawi. The population is relatively low at 14 million, but the population density is extremely high, even on global terms – about 130 people per square km. That’s an average of about 1 person every hectare. As the saying goes… “Many a mickle makes a muckle” ; i.e. Lots of small things can accumulate to something very large).
 In fact, this is usually misquoted, and should be “Many a little makes a mickle”, meaning many small amounts accumulate to make a large amount. Apparently George Washington misquoted it in 1793, and so it is now mostly used in the way I have used it above, even though mickle and muckle are actually synonymous. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mickle