[ Project Watch ]

The Future of Conservation: Data

Something smart is happening in the realm of conservation. People are coming together under a common set of management principles, data collection efforts, and organizing techniques to reduce the impact of illegal and deadly activities throughout the world.

The SMART Partnership is a newly-founded group of global conservation agencies that share a mission to conserve biodiversity, reduce the impacts of illegal extraction and trade of natural resources, strengthen law enforcement related to biodiversity conservation, and strengthen overall management of conservation areas.

The name is an acronym for “Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool” (SMART), and its members currently include World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zoological Society of London, Frankfurt Zoological Society, North Carolina Zoological Park, and the CITES – Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program.


FZL logo       WCS logo    WWF logo    ZSL logo    MIKE logo   CITES logo


Data Collection on a Global Scale

The SMART system makes use of an innovative data analysis and mapping software program to unify monitoring and reporting efforts made by wildlife law enforcement rangers during the course of their patrols.  In addition to being a data collection tool, SMART is also a suite of best-practices that were created to help wildlife managers plan, evaluate and implement their conservation activities, while promoting good governance. It includes a desktop application, training and implementation manuals, web-based training materials, standardized protocols and access to an active and growing community of users and conservation practitioners.

The multi-part management and organizational structure helps local conservation efforts learn how to streamline their efforts and unify their data collection. A persistent challenge in conservation (as with many disciplines) is generating and keeping uniform information. The SMART system provides an access point for local wildlife managers to log and aggregate their data with their entire management team. Conservationists who are on patrol can utilize whichever methods they like (a pencil and paper, for instance) to document illegal activity in their area. When they return to their main site (the location of the SMART software) they can input the data into the SMART tool in a format that is standardized and easily accessible.

Smart system diagram

The SMART system

The SMART system segments wildlife habitat into conservation areas, management areas, and central locations for accessing the SMART software. It also provides guidelines for managing patrol teams, logistics, as well as the master database. By unifying and standardizing conservation efforts, wildlife managers who implement the SMART system can reduce errors, better train new team members, collect higher quality data, and ultimately greatly improve their analysis.

It is designed to be expandable to capture and utilize other types of data relevant to conservation area management, including tracking individual animals, human-wildlife conflict incidents, invasive species, as well as infrastructure monitoring.

I had a chance to correspond with Barney Long, the manager of the Asian Species Conservation Program at World Wildlife Fund about the system and software. He and his team noted that many of the locations where SMART will be implemented are in the developing world, where technical capacity is limited. He says,

“It can sometimes be challenging to find staff on the ground who have the computer skills necessary to utilize the variety of tools that SMART provides. However, we have designed SMART to be relatively user-friendly once it is set up, obviating the need for high levels users after the initial deployment. Many of the sites also lack regular Internet connectivity, so we have designed the software to work in a totally disconnected environment.”

Though the system hasn’t been revealed on a wide scale yet, the partnership hopes to provide correlation and analysis based on the reporting of each field implementation, and use the data to reveal patterns in the illegal activity while helping to strengthen conservation efforts.  The group says,

One of the members of the SMART partnership, the CITES MIKE program, has shown how levels of elephant poaching have varied in space and time, over the last 10 years, across more than 80 sites in 43 countries. MIKE has also identified strong relationships between field data on levels of elephant poaching and a variety of factors at the site, national and global levels. These include poverty in and around sites, law enforcement capacity, governance and demand in ivory consuming countries.

The partnership relies on a governance structure that has been agreed to by all members, and the software is designed to be customizable and adaptable to a wide variety of organizational settings. They encourage data sharing on a global scale, and note,

“Law enforcement data is usually regarded as sensitive by enforcement agencies. Data from SMART will normally flow at least up to the level of wildlife agency headquarters, but many countries implementing SMART participate in global initiatives to monitor the status and threats to key endangered species such as CITES MIKE, and in those cases data are shared at the global level.”

Open Source Software

Development on the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool software started in November, 2011, though the group says discussions about the need for SMART date back to at least 2008 when various conversations began in the conservation community about the need for a more-robust solution than what was currently available.

SMART is built on the cross-platform Eclipse framework, and leverages BIRT for reporting, and uDIG for geographical data display. An interface for R is also planned for the future.

The software development is being done by Refractions Research of BC, Canada. The company was chosen because of their track record in building open source, cross platform geospatial software.

After the initial release, all SMART products will be fully open-sourced. The group welcomes hearing from any developers interested in collaborating on the evolution of the system.

Future Plans

The SMART partnership envisions more than 60 national wildlife agencies using the software in the next few years, and the release of version 1.0 is set for February 2013, with a follow-up release in April.

For more information, please contact them directly.

Dino Citraro is Head of Strategic Design and Operations at Periscopic, and has a strong background in problem solving, creative direction, and writing. A sixteen-year veteran of the multimedia industry, his work has spanned traditional web sites, interactive motion pictures, multi-player online games, immersive data visualizations, and interactive hardware installations. He is the Visualization Editor of the Big Data journal, as well as a contributing blogger to several industry sites.

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