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Ask the Conservationist: May 2013

Can Cell Phones Help Conservation?

Everyone seems to have a cell phone these days. Recent numbers indicate there are 6 billion cell phone subscriptions in a world of 7 billion people and by 2014 the number of cell phones will exceed the world’s population.

You can view this as a good thing or bad, but here’s one benefit to the hyper-connected, instant-information age we’re living in now: Mobile phones can help collect important data that had been previously difficult or time-consuming to obtain. For example, global health organizations are able to track the spread of disease using mobile phone data and text updates.

How can mobile phones help the environmental movement? Can mobile phones revolutionize how we care for the planet…and improve people’s lives in the process? Read on to find out.


Dale Weaver of Salt Lake City, UT, writes: I’ve heard that global health organizations are now using cell phones to collect public health information, especially in the developing world. For instance, mobile phone data can help track the spread of disease. Are there any efforts like this for environmental work? How can cell phones benefit conservation?

Eddie Game conservation planning specialist with The Nature Conservancy, replies:

Protecting the environment depends on finding solutions that also improve people’s lives, especially for the billions worldwide who still live in poverty. Promising solutions exist, but how do we know if they’re working, and how can we improve them? For conservation to succeed, we need to know the answers to questions such as: Do communities involved with conservation projects have improved food security? What are their economic opportunities?? Are their livestock healthier? Do men and women perceive the project the same?

The methods used today to monitor and track changes in human experiences, knowledge, attitudes and behavior are the same that were used half a century ago: conducting in-person interviews or surveys. But in-person surveys can be intrusive, expensive and unreliable, hampering attempts to understand and improve the impact and reach of our conservation work. That’s why text message surveys by mobile phones are so groundbreaking.

Mobile phone use in developing countries has exploded at a rate unmatched by any other technology in history. A person in a developing nation is more likely to have access to a mobile phone than clean water or electricity. Indonesia is a great example. In 2007 Indonesia had 40 active mobile phones for every 100 people. Four years later it is 97.7 per 100 people. Globally, 77% of all mobile phones are owned in the developing world.

In Rwanda, mobile phones help health workers diagnose and track diseases, while in Niger, farmers get critical market information via their mobile phones. The availability of mobile phones in the developing world is radically changing the approach to data collection in health and agriculture. We believe mobile phones can do the same for conservation.
Why is collecting data via mobile phones better?

  • Quick. Compared with in-person surveys, text message monitoring is quick and unobtrusive. When was the last time you were enthusiastic about spending an hour to take a survey?
  • Accurate. Which is easier to answer more accurately: Did you eat meat yesterday? Or, how frequently did you eat meat last year? Text message questions can be asked in near real-time, thus collecting more accurate answers.
  • Frequent. The environment changes continuously and understanding how these changes influence human well-being and behavior is difficult with surveys conducted once every few years. Mobile phones will allow for nearly continuous data collection, giving the power to relate trends to important environmental or social events. 
  • Cheap. Getting the same information through in-person surveys costs 10 times as much as the mobile approach.

Together with our partners in northern Kenya, The Nature Conservancy is developing a mobile phone based process to collect data that will tell us if our investment in creating grass banks and alternative livelihoods is improving peoples’ lives. If our conservation is helping wildlife and improving lives, then we’re doing our job.

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