Community methodology

Forest communities collect data with smartphones and FOSS

Michael McCall
Graciela Peters-Guarin

A study by the Kyoto: Think Global, Act Local project shows that using free open source software for data collection can be efficient and cost-effective for forest communities.

Communities need to be able to accurately map and geo-reference forest resources to participate in carbon credit payment schemes. ICTs are essential for both the initial mapping process and for assessing, at a local level, changes in carbon stock and forest cover over time. However, most of the methods available make use of expensive software and mobile devices that are well beyond the reach of the budgets of communities and local NGOs.

One project, called Kyoto: Think Global, Act Local (K:TGAL), has pioneered the use of free open source software to map forests throughout the world, including in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, India, Nepal and Mexico. The project has developed a methodology to make data collection easier, efficient and inexpensive using Google Earth imagery, which is available for free on the internet, and CyberTracker geo-spatial software, which is also freely available, and which users can modify to suit their particular needs.

The project used both technologies in combination with handheld computers, or personal digital assistants (PDAs), and also on newly released HTC smartphones. The main advantage of using smartphones is that they have built-in GPS capabilities, as well as camera and video functions, meaning that the number of pieces of equipment needed in the field is minimised. Smartphones are also generally simpler to handle than PDAs. Moreover, smartphones have a large capacity for storing images and software on a chip, and can access the web directly to upload and download the data.

Hardware comparison:
PDA with GPS device versus HTC smartphone

Feature/device PDA + GPS Smartphone
Battery consumption (in a two hour session) 15 % 60% (mostly because of the use of built-in GPS)
Full charging time About 4 hours ½ hour
Time between initiation and GPS connection (cold start) Around 3 minutes Up to 15 minutes, afterwards it may take 1 or 2 minutes to reconnect to the satellite signal
Average precision for GPS readings 0.8-1 m 2-3 m
Ease of use Clear, bright screen; simple controls Smaller screen, fiddly controls, but similarity to cell phone layout makes it familiar to use
Cost Around US$750 Around US$500

To participate in future carbon finance projects, communities need to measure and monitor the forest to estimate its existing carbon stock. This means they also have to gather information on community forest boundaries, the location of activities contributing to forest degradation, and areas of conflict, such as illegal sales of community land, private infrastructure, illegal settlement and encroachment.

The K:TGAL project had already demonstrated the value of using handheld computers and mobile GIS (geographical information systems) technology in its earlier work. They wanted to build on that experience and test Google Earth, CyberTracker and new hardware to see whether communities would be able to use these as well as, or better than, the more expensive and more complicated satellite imagery and GIS software used previously. CyberTracker is not designed to analyse data, so it has to be downloaded to a computer equipped with a standard GIS program (such as free open source software ILWIS) for analysis.

Google Earth provides a map of the earth by superimposing images from many types of satellite imagery and aerial photography. The program allows users to search for addresses (in some countries), enter coordinates, or simply use the mouse to browse to a location. CyberTracker is a data collection program that usually runs on a PDA or, in this case, on the HTC smartphone. Data is entered by clicking on icons or text. The most recent version of CyberTracker automatically accesses, from Microsoft’s Virtual Earth application, the most up-to-date images for the place where the geo-referenced information is to be collected.

Increased visibility

K:TGAL first tested the technology in two communities in Michoacán state, Mexico. The project provided training in how to create forest inventories, assess and measure forest resources, measure trees and quantify the current carbon stock of the forest. The two communities are not currently engaged in any carbon payments programme, but they participate in a government programme that provides payment for forest management practices, such as cutting and maintaining fire lines, prevention of illegal felling, grazing control and erosion control.

Communities are therefore encouraged to make sustainable use of their natural resources based on traditional ways of controlling their use and access, and to develop technical and social tools to motivate and support community initiatives. There are a number of situations that can hinder this kind of community management, such as illegal encroachments, overlapping boundaries with nearby communities, and construction of private sector infrastructure (e.g. communication antenna towers). By mapping these features, the communities can make them ‘visible’.

The project involved the communities from the very early stages. It is important that they are included in the initial process to determine the sequence in which they will capture the information and to decide on the icons used for the data capture process. CyberTracker works with sequences of screens that lead the user through a logical process of data collection. The screens come in a variety of formats with, for example, panels, memos, or dropdown lists, and data (numeric, alphabetic, multiple-choice) can be entered by touch. Users can enter several data elements per screen (e.g. data on tree species, girth, height, condition) along with coordinates for particular trees or other features.

The communities developed two sequences of screens to conduct carbon surveys in the forest. One sequence was dedicated to mapping and geo-referencing infrastructure such as roads, pathways and firebreaks, and the boundaries of other features. The other sequence was for ‘point’ data such as individual trees or the centres of sampling plots.

Each community chose two adult men with secondary education and experience in forest management to carry out the data collection. One of the reasons for their selection was that they had sufficient free time to participate in the training. Most young people, who may have been more familiar with the technology, had to study while other adults were working or had home duties during the day.

Since communities do not get much direct economic benefit from the forest, collaboration in such institutional projects, and performing the related administrative duties, is usually through personal interest. However, once communities receive income from carbon payment schemes, it is likely that the level of participation will increase. Having one or two members already trained in the methodology for carbon measurement will allow communities to access such markets more rapidly.

The approach allowed participants who were not familiar with computer use to collect basic data

The approach allowed participants who were not familiar with computer use to collect basic data. The use of such low-cost, adaptable software coupled with local knowledge of the forest area makes data collection more efficient. A further advantage is that the spatial and non-spatial information produced can also be used to support other types of community projects, such as land-use planning, payment for environmental services programmes, ecotourism and community socio-economic projects.

The K:TGAL study showed that it is relatively easy to collect data for carbon-sequestration schemes, and requires only a small amount of training to use PDAs and smartphones, and software such as CyberTracker. It also indicates that new technologies and software may contribute to a deeper involvement of local communities.


Michael McCall is an associate professor at ITC Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation of the University of Twente, and senior researcher at CIGA, National Autonomous University of Mexico, (UNAM). Graciela Peters-Guarin is currently a post-doctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA.


Related resource

Community Forest Monitoring for the Carbon Market: Opportunities under REDD. Edited by Margaret Skutsch. Published by Earthscan (2010)


Related links

Tracking wildlife in the Kalahari
In this article from issue 28 of ICT Update, Louis Liebenberg discusses how CyberTracker software is helping a community in Botswana to monitor and manage local wildlife resources.

Developed by a South Africa not-for-profit company, CyberTracker data collection software for mobile devices can be downloaded for free from the website.

26 April 2011

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)