Over six weeks from the end of March to the start of May 2013, five ExCiteS members – Julia Altenbuchner, Gill Conquest, Jerome Lewis, Matthias Stevens & Michalis Vitos – travelled to the Republic of the Congo, a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville. We spent the majority of this time in or near the rainforest of the Sangha and Likouala regions, in the North of the country. We visited very remote settlements deep in the forest, only reachable by backbreaking 4×4 journeys over tiny dirt roads or the occasional boat ride.
This expedition is part of one of the ExCiteS projects, the goal of which is to develop a system of participatory monitoring for forest management – specifically the social impact of logging. Concretely, we want to enable local people to give direct feedback on the behaviour of the logging companies who control the areas in which they live through the IM-FLEG approach (Independent Monitoring – Forest Law Enforcement and Governance). Until now, these communities have seen little benefit from the logging that takes place in their localities (despite the timber industry being the second most important source of income for Congo after oil), have had little say in how the logging concessions are managed, and have no recourse if loggers destroy resources on which they depend.
Within this project we, the UCL ExCiteS group, in collaboration with the local watchdog, sought to capitalise on the introduction of the new EU FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) law in the Congo. The Congolese FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement accords a number of new rights to local communities, and places obligations on logging companies to respect the local population and the resources they use. However, unless it is accompanied by a strong system of enforcement on the ground, the legal framework itself is unlikely to make a big difference to local people’s lives. To address this concern, ExCiteS was contracted by the international NGO Forests Monitor and their local watchdog to develop an application that members of local farmer and hunter-gatherer communities could use to map the locations of their important resources, make observations concerning any evidence of illegal logging activity, and then communicate this information to IM-FLEG. By allowing locals to make these observations themselves, this system will not only benefit from their extensive knowledge of the forest environment, but will also serve as a means of empowering them in their relationships with other forest stakeholders.
Our activities during this trip touch upon all aspects of the overall ExCiteS mission – developing methodologies, tools and platforms to support communities anywhere to participate in scientifically valid data collection and analysis.
With regards to tools and platforms, an important goal of this trip was to do a thorough field test of our newly developed data collection and transmission platform for Android smartphones. Like the app discussed here, the user interface of the data collection side of this platform is built on the concept of pictorial decision trees – to deal with literacy issues and bridge language divides. However, unlike the earlier app our new platform has been developed entirely in-house and does not rely on a third party system like Open Data Kit or EpiCollect. During this trip we wanted to identify any technical issues with the software itself, as well evaluate its usability.
As most of the forest people we visited had no experience with this kind of technology, the methodology to introduce the smartphones and the software was very important. The approach we used was adapted from similar projects conducted previously in the Congo Basin (Lewis, 2012) and we had plenty of opportunity to refine it further in response to local conditions.
Upon arrival in a community we always began with a thorough introduction of ourselves and the project, first to the local chief or elders, and after having received their consent, also to a wider assembly of community members. Rather than moving straight to showing people the phones themselves, which may have been too abstract as a starting point, we would introduce them to the decision tree icons using a pack of large laminated flashcards. To ensure that each image was clearly understood (since some hunter-gatherer groups have no culture of drawing), we would ask the assembled crowd to guess what each image represented – this also had the effect of making the exercise more fun. If there were any images that were unclear, or situations that were missing, we would make note of suggested alterations or additions.
Next, we would introduce the phones and demonstrate how to navigate the decision tree. Once people seemed comfortable with the way to “tap” the images and move between screens, we would ask them to find specific icons in order to familiarise them with the different options available. From prior experience we knew it would be important to contextualise these activities to make sure people understood what they were doing and why. So once we had trained a couple of people to use the phones we would ask small teams of men and women to take us for a walk in the surrounding forest so they could use the app to do some actual mapping. Throughout this process we kept listening and asking for suggestions for possible improvements.
Upon returning from community visits many suggestions were immediately incorporated in new versions of the decision tree, which were then used in subsequent visits. This is part of our effort to evaluate and improve usability aspects of the the data collection tool, both on the level of the content, namely the decision tree and images it consists of, and the level of the app itself (e.g. control flow). This participatory, iterative design process is an integral part of our methodology.