Applying tech and data to help protect Cambodia’s forests

A few times a month, members of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) head into the dense Prey Lang forest on patrol, often for days on end. They used to collect data on the state of natural resources, illegal hunting and logging activities and overall deforestation effects using scraps of paper, but since the creation of a mobile application in 2015 the network has recorded a total of 3034 instances of what it claims are illegal activities using basic smartphones and a custom application.

It has proven to be a simple yet effective way for collecting data on what is happening in the Prey Lang forest. The app was developed by Phnom Penh-based web agency Web Essentials for the PLCN, in collaboration with Danish organisation Danmission and the University of Copenhagen, with the intention of providing better analysis and data to various stakeholders, including the government on the status of Prey Lang.

Regular updates of the state of the forest have been released monthly on the PLCN website, with regular monitoring reports analysing the situation and making recommendations for improvements. These reports have helped increase talk on forest conservation in Cambodia, have come up in Cambodia’s media on publications like the Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post.

“Data management is much easier now and we can better document the damage is done to our forest,” notes Sopheap Hoeun, one of the volunteers of the group of over 400 active volunteers from Prey Lang and surrounding areas.

While the app is helping his volunteers in recording what they see, he speaks starkly of the problem facing what remains of the important forest.

Hoeun Sopheap (left) and Sovanna En showing off the application.

“We can see the abuse to our nature…We are the indigenous people, we live around the forest, we depend on the forest and we want to protect our forest for future generations.”

The application makes data collection easier, more accurate, instant, and secure. By having secure channels for photos to be uploaded by patrollers, collecting evidence and coming up with  reliable monitoring reports has become much easier.

A 2016 report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery showed that the total forest cover in Cambodia decreased from 61% in 2002, to less than 50% in 2014 and predicted that the country’s forest cover will continue to decrease unless forest crimes and land conversion are curtailed.

While app-based solutions to problems in Cambodia have not always met with the success that their developers and funders hoped, Chitra Sen, who is overseeing the app’s creation at Web Essentials, is confident this app is different.

“Multiple rounds of on-site testing and consultation workshops in the field enabled the villagers to give early feedback. Hands-on training and feedback rounds with the community as new features are added ensures the successful adoption of the app by users,” she explained, noting the focus on understanding intended users — who might be illiterate and never used a smartphone before — was integral to the whole design process.

The app is therefore heavily image-based to help make it easy to use, and the recorded data is accurate. And this is the crux of the whole debate surrounding the creation and (hopeful) adoption of mobile technology to solve identified issues in Cambodia, and other developing countries: if the intended users are unable to use the app for whatever reason, then it will always be a failure.

One of the main pages of the application.

With the severity of the environmental situation in Prey Lang — and elsewhere in Cambodia and across the region — being widely known, it is important that the money being spent to offer assistance to the local affected communities, and the advice to governments to combat the damage, is effective.

Geeks in Cambodia is excited at the potential of the data tracking and forest monitoring app that the PLCN have at their fingertips, and the possible creative and informative application of the data it provides.

If this data proves successful in informing government and NGO action in protecting Cambodia’s forests, then the future is very exciting for other user-focused data collection and monitoring apps in Cambodia, and what this might mean for agriculture, health, the environment and education across the country.