Photo monitoring for the flax roots
Exploring possibilities for environmental conservation in a ubiquitous smartphone era
This article is the latest from my Masters of Design exploring how we can improve the impact of environmental conservation projects.
In it, I share the journey to developing a photo monitoring solution for the smartphone era, and where I’m heading from here.
Back in 2008, I found myself in Punakaiki, on the West Coast of the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. I was in a rare position of being a team leader with Conservation Volunteers NZ, right at the very beginning of a landmark conservation project to restore 80 hectares of coastal land to protect the only known Westland Black Petrel breeding habitat in the world.
I was experienced in managing and leading volunteer teams, but still learning the ropes when it came to environmental conservation planning and management. That wasn’t really my job, but whilst CVNZ were recruiting a project manager, we were on site and starting work.
I was struck by the beauty of the area and already a keen photographer, so I had started to take lots of photos of the volunteers on site. Very quickly I realised the land would be undergoing huge changes over the coming years. We had plans to plant at least 100,000 trees, eradicate a range of environmental weeds, and I envisaged it may even one day become a mecca for locals and tourists who wanted to see the petrels return to their burrows at night, during breeding season.
It was at this point that I developed a Photo Monitoring program for the site. The plan was to have a quarterly photo set from 16 photo points around the site, which I marked with metal spikes. I envisioned a multi-year photo set to show the impact we were having on the ground, as well as generate useful data for environmental scientists interested in forest regrowth on the West Coast.
Photopoints are the simplest, quickest and cheapest monitoring you can do. Photopoints are just a series of before, during and after shots that document visual changes over time. They are extremely useful for demonstrating project progress to other group members, funders, agencies and for media releases.
My first photo sets weren’t bad, they looked a little something like this when compiled:
What I rapidly realised, is that the art of photo monitoring isn’t collecting your first sets, it’s in maintaining the positioning, angle, focal length, lighting, and perspective. The site will change, and suddenly a tree will pop up where you’ve been monitoring for months. Or a flood will decimate the area you were monitoring. Or a cow will knock over and bury your metal spike.
“Best Practice Monitoring”
Now, there are a lot of guides out there for photo monitoring, a few at first search bring up old and newer versions. The older tend to focus on equipment, documentation, and mapping.
The newer ones seem to focus more on the quality of the photographs themselves — angles, lighting etc — most likely because of the advance and proliferation of technology making photography more accessible.
There’s even whole sections of wiki’s dedicated to Photo Monitoring now, from open innovation groups like Public Lab:
🎈 Public Lab: Photo Monitoring
Photography is a powerful and affordable way to document all kinds of environmental issues. We'll...
The Case for Photo Monitoring
Many environmental professionals agree that photo monitoring is one of the most accessible forms of monitoring for groups.
Photographic monitoring is a fast, simple, and effective way to determine if changes made to an area have been successful.
— Frederick C. Hall, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service 
Closer to home, the case is made for better monitoring by Monica Peters, whose PhD was focused on the ecology of community environmental groups :
Volunteers engaged in community-based environmental monitoring (CBEM; a form of citizen science) can track changes in species abundance and distribution, measure ecosystem health, and provide data for local, regional and national environmental decision-making. A total of 296 environmental restoration-focused community groups throughout New Zealand responded to an online questionnaire, the objective of which was to investigate the current state of CBEM and contextual factors shaping groups’ monitoring activities. Over one-half of groups reported using photo points and 5-Minute Bird Counts (5MBC), with just over one-third (35%; n=218) able to quantify their restoration project objectives through management outcome monitoring (e.g. 5MBC + predator control). Ecosystem monitoring toolkits specifically designed for community users were not widely used (19%; n=157).
— Monica Peters, The current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand 
Pains of Photo Monitoring
Despite all these guides, there still remains some serious pains for community-led conservation groups, which hold them back from doing this important monitoring/evaluation task, let alone more in depth evaluation.
From my own experience, and interviews with various group coordinators, I found some of the barriers to be:
- Setting up a photo monitoring framework and system can be daunting, and time consuming. It is unlikely to be funded work for small groups.
- Often there are no group members who are sufficiently comfortable with the technologies needed to capture, store, edit and present photo monitoring sets.
- Committing to following up the photo monitoring periodically, to do another set feels like too much of an ask.
- Finding the specific points at which the photos were taken, and recreating the previous photo to make it comparable can be difficult.
- Photos don’t always show the true nature of the impact of the project. “Removing green from green” isn’t easy to capture.
- Sometimes photos are stored by volunteers, who then leave the project, along with the photos. Likewise hard drives sometimes fail.
- Funders often don’t give any feedback on the photosets, so they are treated as a compliance overhead.
Monica Peters adds:
Major challenges for establishing new monitoring programmes were reported as a lack of funding, people (both 45%; n=98), and technical skills (31%). Overall, our results show that significant gains in CBEM could be made by targeting support towards groups managing small areas.
— Peters, M., The current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand. 
Evolution of photo monitoring for the ubiquitous smartphone era
My Masters is focused on improving the impact of environmental conservation projects.
In my interviews and observations, I found that the systemic underinvestment in the environmental conservation sector in Australia and New Zealand is harming the sector’s ability to invest in the human and social capital needed to adequately address the scale of the challenges which face us.
This led me to looking at ways that we could grow investment, but also find new ways to leverage the talent and skills in the sector. As I dug into the problem, I kept coming back to feedback loops and impact stories as the acupuncture points I wanted to explore, as they could be pivotal in disrupting the vicious cycles at work.
How could we bring more funding and investment into the conservation sector, without knowing what impact the sector was having?
How could the community groups at the flax roots of conservation better communicate the value they create?
How could we leverage the compliance-based administration overhead of groups, to capture and tell the story of their work?
As I dug into the daily lives of group coordinators, I found that more and more were being asked to provide photographs as proof of work, for the small amounts of funding they received. The photo sets they created were passable, but were fairly inefficient in how they were being created.
Take camera into the field. Capture photos before the on-ground work begins. Bring them home and store them on a hard drive. Get on with the project for 3 months. When funding reporting time came around, go and get the camera again. Go back into the field. Try to find the points the photos were taken. Capture photos. Go home and compare them to the originals. If they weren’t good enough, go back to the field and do it again. Go home and store them on a hard drive. Put them together in Microsoft Word, with a short description. Work out the GPS locations with Google Maps. Send off the Word Document by email. Find out it is too big to send as an attachment. Work out how to compress the image sizes. Send by email again. Don’t hear anything back from the funder — which means they are ok. Get an email from the funder in 3 months asking for the images in a higher resolution as they can’t put the compressed files into their GIS mapping database. Send 8 original images, one by one as emails.
It was a crazy workflow in my mind.
It got me thinking about how things could be better. Not just less onerous, but higher quality pictures, better communication of impact, available at any time for the funder, stored in a place the photos wouldn’t be lost.
There’s an app for that, right?
It would be remiss of me to present my ideas without mentioning there are already some tools on the market to support Photo Monitoring. Having discounted the manual method as too time consuming, I found three main contenders and two build-it-yourself options:
Photomon Environmental Photo Monitoring App - NACC
Photomon is a smartphone application that has been designed to improve the quality of data collected by environmental…
GrowApp allows you to make animations of nature by taking pictures with your smartphone. The platform transforms these…
Airtable: Organize anything you can imagine
Airtable works like a spreadsheet but gives you the power of a database to organize anything. Sign up for free.
BuildFire | Mobile App Builder for iOS and Android
BuildFire empowers businesses to rapidly build mobile apps, while delivering elegant solutions to connect and engage in…
Having downloaded and played with all of these, I found they were:
- limited in their user experience — the users I am focused on need intuitive user experience and all functionality in the app (PhotoMon)
- limited in their financial accessibility — the conservation groups I aim to serve are mostly limited financially, so the service has to be affordable (PhotoMon, Buildfire)
- limited in their geographic scope — focused on existing research projects or locations, thus not accessible to people in other areas (Fluker Posts)
- limited in their functionality — provided one or more functions, but not the full stack of capture, storage and presentation (GrowApp, Airtable, PhotoMon, Buildfire)
- too much work — provide a flexible general solution, but isn’t targeted at photo monitoring, so lacks core features or would take too much time for set up and maintenance (Airtable, Buildfire)
So I decided, I would look at the problem myself.
Photo Monitoring Concept Development
In late 2017 I began working on a concept which would wrap some of my ideas into a working prototype which I could put in the hands of users.
The basic concept was:
- A smartphone app which would do the end-to-end process of capturing, storing, and presenting photo monitoring, for small to medium conservation projects.
- Utilise existing technology (iOS and Android smartphones) to enable a rapid shift in the quality and ease of photo monitoring.
- Provide it as a low cost service which bundles the whole end-to-end solution, and set it up as a social enterprise which will reinvest a portion of the profits back into the environmental conservation sector.
At this stage, I have a fully fledged concept for a mobile app, and the intention to develop it into software-as-a-service for environmental conservation & restoration groups.
Here’s a couple of the screens to illustrate some of the features:
By sharing this, I’m hoping to gain some interest from people who would like to use the app, as well as partners and funders who would like to see this app become a reality.
I believe that using this app, we can drastically reduce the amount of time and energy needed to capture, store and present photopoint monitoring for conservation groups.
I hope it will support more groups to get into this basic, yet important form of environmental monitoring, and act as a crucial feedback loop to grow our collective ability to tackle the challenges facing our sector.
You can contact me through my website:
This Masters is rooted in my personal experience of working with volunteers across Borneo, Australia and Aotearoa New…
 Denyer, K., Peters, M., (2012). WETMAK: A wetland monitoring and assessment kit for community groups. Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from www.landcare.org.nz
 Hall, F. C. (2001). Ground-based photographic monitoring. United States Forest Service. Portland, OR. Retrieved from https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/publications/pnw_gtr503/pnw_gtr503a.pdf
 NRM South. (2014). Photopoint Monitoring: Fact Sheet. Hobart, TAS: NRM South. Retrieved from https://www.nrmsouth.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Photo-Monitoring-Fact-Sheet-NRM-South.pdf
 Peters, M. A. (2016). The ecology of community environmental groups: Integrating restoration, partnerships and citizen science. University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10618
[5, 6] Peters, M., Hamilton, D., Eames, C., Innes, J., & Mason, N. (2016). The current state of community-based environmental monitoring in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 40(3), 279–288. https://doi.org/10.20417/nzjecol.40.37
In the meantime, if you’re interested in the ‘Technology for Environmental Conservation’ area, check out some of these awesome initiatives highlighted through WILDLABS.