In the remote fishing village of Andavadoaka, on the southwest coast of Madagascar, the first flickering hint of mobile reception arrived in 2007. In the year that followed it was only possible to make a call by standing on a purpose-built platform on top of a hill 40 minutes walk away from the village. Reception ranged from poor to barely existent, and was strongly weather dependent, yet the small platform was frequented by an almost continual stream of optimistic phone users.

Given the isolation of this remote coastline it’s easy to understand the platform’s popularity. A lack of roads mean that Andavadoaka is effectively cut off from civilisation An arduous three-day journey by dugout canoe is the only route to the regional capital Toliara, a further two-day bus journey awaits those wishing to reach Madagascar’s capital.

Fast forward two years and a mobile mast was built in the village. By 2012, 2G had arrived, prompting a proliferation of phone ownership, the arrival of new mobile phone operators, and the setup of mobile phone stands and charging points by entrepreneurial locals. This year has seen the long awaited arrival of 4G connectivity.

Witnessing the rapid growth in digital connectivity in Madagascar’s remote coastal regions, field-based researchers were keen to harness these developments for marine conservation, using mobile technology to make data collection quicker, easier and more accurate, while improving the accessibility of fisheries information to those who need it most.

Could mobile phones help tackle the data deficiency challenge facing small-scale fisheries?

The first trial: community monitoring of Madagascar’s artisanal shark fishery

The first trial: community monitoring of Madagascar’s artisanal shark fishery

Grave concerns about the conservation status of sharks in Madagascar, coupled with a lack of systematic monitoring, prompted researchers from Blue Ventures to launch a shark fishery monitoring program across southwest Madagascar in 2006.

Participatory monitoring of vital marine resources has always been a key part of efforts to engage communities in Madagascar in understanding the status of these fisheries. A network of local data collectors was established and supported to collect data on shark caught by fishers. Monitoring empowered fishers to understand the status of these fisheries, and formed a critical first step towards effective locally led management.

Data were originally recorded using paper notebooks, the collection and validation of which involved frequent slow and arduous journeys around the region by research team leaders. Logistical challenges delayed the processing and use of this vital and time-sensitive data, yet they revealed an important trend: that the intensification of this active shark fishery was leading to a decline in population numbers.

Enlisting the help of open access technology

Open Data Kit (ODK) is an open source set of tools that allows users to build bespoke mobile data collection forms with limited prior technical knowledge. Data can be entered into a smartphone and submitted to a linked cloud server, either in real time or with data being saved on the phone until a mobile data signal is reached. Once in the cloud these data can be accessed and downloaded for analysis and sharing.

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Building capacity

Building capacity

In 2013, a smartphone-based monitoring system was introduced to replace the existing paper-based system. With an established network of data collectors and a manageable level of daily shark landings to monitor, the shark research project was a very relevant initiative with which to get community members accustomed to using both mobile devices and this new system.

Dedicated training workshops and one-to-one follow-ups were provided by Blue Ventures staff. In turn, community members provided feedback to improve the app’s user experience, create training and reference tools and adapt the methodology to suit the specific needs of data collectors.

Simultaneous collection of notebook and mobile data at the beginning of the program enabled comparisons in data-collection techniques to be made. Accuracy has improved as confidence, and the quality of phones and cameras, have improved.

Exploring the data

Exploring the data

Between 2015 and 2016 over 1,500 sharks, comprising 22 species, were recorded by thirteen data collectors. The most frequently caught sharks included scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), several species of guitarfish (Rhinobatidae) and the sliteye shark (Loxodon macrorhinus).

Small sharks were caught most frequently, with many immature juveniles, which is particularly concerning.

A scalable solution?

A scalable solution?

The benefits we’ve seen have resonated beyond our shark research, and beyond Blue Ventures.

We’ve since adapted this system to numerous contexts, from the shores of east Africa to the islands of the coral triangle, and from use by fishing communities to monitor marine turtle nesting sites and fishery landings, to gathering feedback from ecotourists and even registering attendance at community health clinics. Each new iteration tests the flexibility of the system and provides new tools and learning, experiences to support partners seeking to adopt this open source technology, from countries and contexts as far afield as Mozambique, Comoros and Indonesia.

We’ve compiled tools to help partners set up a basic mobile monitoring system (and avoid some of the early pitfalls we fell into!); to share our experiences in how to train community members; and to troubleshooting phone issues.

We've distilled our knowledge of community based mobile monitoring into a downloadable toolkit

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Plan for the unexpected!

Plan for the unexpected!

Knowing which data you need to collect, and why, is just as important whether you’re using a mobile device, or pencil and paper. This is especially true if you’re collecting data with a community, or spending funds on valuable equipment.

Mobile devices are seductive, and it can be tempting to over complicate data collection when fancy functionalities are available (look at that automatic GPS registration button!).

The ultimate aim of mobile data collection tools is to improve accuracy and efficiency, while simplifying and speeding up data collection and feedback.

It is important to remember that mobile data collection still relies on the accuracy of data-collectors, and whether information is recorded on paper or into a phone the margins for error remain. Some mistakes can be eliminated using verification tools (such as multiple spellings of the same name) but others may be introduced by selecting the wrong entry in a drop-down list menu. Over time, we’ve learned the benefits of clear communication on project objectives (why are we measuring the length of this fish?) and regular follow-up training to keep data collectors engaged and tackle problems as they arise.

What’s next?

What's next?

Beyond ODK, we’re busy trialling new technologies to improve data analysis, and ensure prompt feedback to the marine resource users and partners who will ultimately benefit from the information being collected.

The vast majority of the world’s small-scale fisheries remain unmonitored – out of sight and out of mind. Throughout much of the developing world, governments, communities and fisheries organisations lack the means to assess stocks, meaning global estimates fail to account for millions of tonnes of fish harvested by this sector each year. By developing user-friendly, open-access technologies, we hope these data gaps can begin to be filled,  illuminating the critical importance of these fisheries, and empowering local communities to manage their marine resources sustainably.

This work was supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation.