Conservation? There’s an app for that.

The number of smart phone users is set to increase to over 2 billion by the end of 2016. Technological advancement has altered may aspects of our lives, from the way we interact with others to the way we conduct business.

Apps in particular have had a large impact, the latest huge success being Pokémon Go, which became the most downloaded app in the app store and resulted in huge numbers of users making significant adjustments to their daily routines.

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From an environmental perspective, they have the potential to provide innovative solutions to problems and even change the way that we engage with nature. For example, if Pokémon Go players were identifying real animals they could collect as much data in six days as has been collected in 400 years of natural history effort.

There are many examples of apps providing solutions to problems facing sustainability, for example the FoodCloud app that addresses the duel issues charities struggling to feed those dependent on them and the huge amounts of food wasted from major retailers (estimated at 1.9 million tons of food in the UK).

The retailer simply uploads the details of what is available to the app; local charities then receive the information and collect the surplus food at an appointed time. Tesco Ireland have introduced the service to all of its 140 stores and the start up is partnering with FareShare in the UK to help Tesco donate to 3,979 charities.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has also developed a possible solution to the decline of wetland habitats for migrating and wintering water birds in California using the data from eBird. eBird allows its users to upload their observations and contribute to an online database which can then be analysed. TNC uses this source of data to identify areas of high bird occurrence and low habitat availability. Local farmers are then invited to participate in a reverse auction; they submit bids for the costs of flooding their fields and bids with the best return on investment are then selected. Farmers can generate income from fallow fields and water birds are provided with suitable habitat through their migration.

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It is fair to suggest that apps are fulfilling their potential to provide solutions to the difficulties facing conservationists or those working towards increased sustainability. But what of their ability to transform the way humans interact with nature?

It would appear that biodiversity or nature themed apps are lagging behind in their efforts to excite people about nature’s vast range of species. Of the 6301 nature themes apps available on the app store the 2 most frequent were personalisation apps; only 25 had the ability to upload information and only one mixed reality game was identified.

In an age where humans innate interest in living things is being redirected towards human artefacts (8 year olds surveyed were better able to identify Pokémon “species” than common species like badgers or oak trees), some impetus is required to stem the waning interest in wildlife and the natural world.

But can apps and technology really excite people about nature and biodiversity when many consider them to be one of the driving causes behind the popularised  concept of society’s ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’?

There are concerns that mixed reality nature apps may prove a distraction from natural wildlife and the problems that biodiversity faces. In addition, constructing the problem as dissociation with nature reinforces the idea that humans are separate from the natural world. Lastly, I would suggest that they could simply add to the environmental values-behaviour gap, where peoples declared concern for the environment is not mirrored in any effective action to support it.

However, increased research and the development of nature related apps does provide the opportunity to get more people outside, exploring new areas, and exposing them to wildlife and biological concepts. Moreover, visitor attraction and citizen science apps have the potential to generate public interest at specific sites and increase the quality and resolution of biodiversity data.

Perhaps there is scope to expand the linkage of such apps with the increasing trend of nature photography. While the numbers of wildlife observers has remained approximately constant, the numbers of nature photographers continues to increase.  This trend is likely to continue with the technological advancement of cameras and as they become more affordable.

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The ability to record and instantly share your observations coupled with human’s innate desire to catalogue could have a significant influence in the way people approach nature.

For people to actively engage in conservation action they have to care about what’s being conserved. Despite some of the concerns, I would suggest that apps and technology could provide a powerful tool to inspire commitment to environmental causes in a way that some of our previous efforts have failed to do.

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