This blog post originally appeared in Tech Crunch on December 19, 2014.

A growing suite of digital tools is emerging to better manage the world’s natural resources.Development Alert! maps where new infrastructure projects overlap with environmentally sensitive areas in Jamaica. Global Forest Watch uses satellite and crowd-sourced data to track deforestation around the world in near-real time. The Sarawak Geoportal collects geographic as well as deforestation, infrastructure, land use, and other data on the Malaysian state of Sarawak to increase transparency around environmental and policy issues in the area. And the EIA Resource and Response Centre monitors environmental impact assessment (EIA) processes in India and serves as an independent resource and database for EIA reports.

Yet at the same time, many key natural resource users—such as indigenous communities and civil society groups—often struggle to utilize these technologies. Roughly 1.3 billion people around the world lack electricity, and more than 3 billion live in rural areas that may experience poor internet connectivity. How can we ensure that digital tools benefit the communities that oftentimes need them the most?

The Fifth Global Gathering of the Access Initiative, held last month in Bogotá, Colombia, brought together more than 90 civil society and community leaders to discuss this very question. Several opportunities and challenges emerged that shed light on how to better align technology with local communities and civil society organizations (CSOs).

Global Forest Watch platform.
Global Forest Watch platform.

Participatory Tool Development

Constraints that affect people’s ability to use digital tools can be individual (e.g., knowledge, literacy, technical skills, financing and time) and/or systemic (e.g., electricity and internet access). Involving communities and CSOs at the development stage can help ensure that these kinds of constraints are considered and addressed.

Take the Sapelli mobile data collection platform, a low-cost, mobile tool designed to help communities map and report forest activities. Developed by the Extreme Citizen Science(ExCiteS) group at University College London for use by non-literate and illiterate communities, the platform is text-free, relying completely on icons.

Researchers co-design the icons—which might include trees, buildings, food, and activities like logging and farming—with community members to make them context-appropriate. So far, communities have used the platform to monitor poaching and obtain evidence of logging activities in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Increasing Capacity

Online mapping platforms are increasingly used for environmental protection. However, many Global Gathering participants reinforced the importance of working collaboratively with communities in documenting land and natural resources, both to strengthen the accuracy of mapping and to ensure that communities have ownership over the information. As Cristina Coc of the Maya Leader Alliance and Julian Cho Society emphasized, “Mapping can isolate communities if it’s not participatory.”

In southern Belize, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council and the Toledo Alcades Association worked closely with indigenous Maya communities to document their lands in a Maya Atlas. Forty-one communities participated in mapping their lands, boundaries, vegetation, rivers, land use, and more through drawings overlaid on geographical maps.

The 1997 Maya Atlas not only serves as documentation of Maya land, but incorporates histories, stories, photos, and artwork from village leaders and community members. By uniting geographical maps with cultural detail from village members, the atlas is a powerful way of asserting Maya life and heritage.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Internet access issues—including if and how communities can get online — hold huge implications for the uptake of digital tools. In Africa, for example, 20 percent of the populationis projected to be online by the end of the year, but only one out of 10 households is connected (the difference in this internet usage comes via mobile phones). In the developing world, 25 percent fewer women have access to the internet than men. It’s increasingly important to consider all aspects of the global digital divide to ensure that tools are accessible to intended users.

New initiatives may tailor their tools to work within a community’s constraints, or they may strive to overcome constraints by supporting infrastructure development. For example,Digital Democracy developed “Remote Access” to help indigenous communities in remote areas document and map environmental degradation. The group is currently working in the Amazon and in Mexico to develop a mobile reporting platform for these users.

Integrating Governance

The wealth of environmental and spatial information from digital tools is a starting point, but it is often not enough to create change. Tools that diagnose governance strengths and weaknesses can help identify legal reforms, monitor how policies are being implemented, or understand capacity needs for government institutions to address environmental problems. For example, the forthcoming Environmental Democracy Index evaluates national rights to information, participation, and justice in 70 countries around the world. Putting this type of information at citizens’ fingertips can support data-driven campaigns to strengthen their rights, including the ability to access information and participate in decisions over forest resources.

Building Communities of Practice

One of the most significant lessons to come out of the Global Gathering was the importance of building communities of practice. Bringing together diverse groups of advocates and researchers can help developers gain feedback on their work, reach a greater audience, and share insights into how technology can improve social and environmental outcomes.

Development Alert! platform.
Development Alert! platform.