SMARTer Conservation

How has the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) conservation software grown to become the de-facto standard tool for protected areas and wildlife managers across more than 600 sites in 55 countries since its initial public release in 2013?
SMART was piloted with tiger conservation and has since been deployed across many situations
Image credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

The grant to support SMART conservation software’s pilot test phase 2011 -2013 across tiger range countries was the single largest in IUCN Save Our Species portfolio. It was an investment in a much-needed technology as well as a recognition of the value well-managed partnerships can play in scaling up conservation results. Since then it has also been deployed by grantees across most landscape-scale projects in IUCN’s Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme.

In sharing the story of its success, Dr. Drew Cronin, SMART Partnership Program Manager presents three key approaches that have guided its development and progress: 1) Committing to a shared ‘SMART’ vision; 2) Ensuring sustainable benefits by embracing collaboration and integration; and, 3) Investing for adoption. Together, these points illustrate how, through partnership, SMART has met a broad conservation need and overcome challenges familiar to many in the conservation sector, including strong competition for limited resources and short-term gains in favor of longer-term strategic approaches.

What is SMART?

There is growing global awareness of the crises facing our planet’s biodiversity, including poaching and habitat loss. Where conservation has been successful, efforts are often structured around effectively managed protected areas. However, far too many protected areas lack adequate capacity for enforcement and adaptive management. Practitioners need information on the distribution in time and space of threats, wildlife, and protection efforts, in order to make informed decisions on the deployment of the limited resources at their disposal.

To meet these critical needs, a broad partnership of conservation organizations developed SMART. SMART software makes it possible to collect, store, communicate, and analyze data on illegal activities, biodiversity, patrol routes, and management actions to better deploy resources and evaluate patrol performance. SMART now encompasses desktop and online applications, mobile data collection, and adaptive management principles, and is enabled for both cloud and Internet of things (IoT) connectivity. Combined with a powerful analysis and mapping interface designed for, and customizable by, local users, SMART can be applied in a variety of connected and disconnected contexts. The ‘SMART Approach’ combines a cutting edge software tool with capacity building and a set of best practices for its effective implementation.

The SMART Partnership currently consists of of nine conservation organizations (Frankfurt Zoological Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, North Carolina Zoo, Panthera, Peace Parks Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife Protection Solutions, World Wildlife Fund, and Zoological Society of London), 80 government agencies, over 1,200 people trained in SMART, and an active community of more than 340 online forum members. SMART has been also been officially adopted by 12 national authorities as a standard for protected area management. Together these professionals work to conserve biodiversity, reduce the impacts of illegal extraction and trade of natural resources, strengthen law enforcement related to biodiversity conservation, and enhance overall management of conservation areas.

Committing to a shared ‘SMART’ vision

The first key to the success of SMART has been the commitment of the Partnership members to the ‘SMART mission.’ With growing demand for wildlife products supplied by increasingly well-resourced organised crime networks putting increasing pressure on poorly resourced protected areas, there was a fast emerging gap in relevant tools and skills. Other tools were available and meeting some needs, but were not adapting quickly enough to such dynamic circumstances in terms of software upgrades, system adaptations or harnessing the benefits of emerging technologies, such as GPS, real-time reporting and cloud-computing. In response several international NGOs had begun working on independent solutions with different software developers.

“Each of the founding members of the partnership had recognized that there was a need to develop a new tool for protected area management that met the changing needs of the conservation community” explains Cronin. “These organizations realized that they could be stronger together, and rather than pursuing competing solutions, they decided to pool resources in an effort to create a shared solution that could be deployed across all the protected areas where each was working. The thinking was that a standardised tool would also be easier for others to adopt, offering opportunities to expand beyond existing sites, and providing something that could be used by a diversity of organizations in many different contexts.”

Committing to a shared mission was a process; building trust, establishing common goals and gaining consensus to focus resources and effort on one project all required time. However, by emphasizing collaboration and partnership, SMART member organizations were able to identify common needs and opportunities, and by leveraging collective resources and expertise, increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and improve overall conservation outcomes.

Ensuring sustainable benefits by embracing collaboration and integration

A second key to SMART success principle was the realisation that ensuring sustainable, long-lasting benefits could only come by embracing collaboration and incorporating other solutions into the design of the software. It may seem ironic, but “to create a standard tool, we had to design and plan for long-term growth, and for immediate, yet differing, local needs such as language requirements, terrestrial versus marine environments, etc”.

What is more, developing a new technology from scratch can be a complicated and costly process. In the case of SMART, there were existing technologies already in place, including MIST, CyberTracker and CITES-MIKE databases. To facilitate the transition to SMART, the system was designed to be compatible with MIST, CyberTracker and CITES-MIKE databases. This meant protected areas professionals could convert old databases into SMART ones. It also meant they could continue using existing data collection forms minimising the need for retraining rangers in new methods or protocols.

This longer-term thinking freed up the team to continue developing the SMART software tool, introducing new features over time. There have been five releases of the software to date. These have introduced ability to collect data using mobile devices (e.g., smartphones), SMART Connect (an online extension to SMART which facilitates centralized data management), integration with other data sources (e.g., Global Forest Watch), and ‘close-to-real-time’ availability of field data. SMART’s architecture facilitates future integrations with other external data sources, such as ArcGIS, R statistical software, and Vulcan’s Domain Awareness System (DAS).

Beyond the technology, a focus on the needs of the user community has been integral to SMART’s success. This begins with efforts like the SMART Community Forum, which has grown to over 350 experience and engaged users, and which provides a space for SMART users to share ideas, ask questions, and troubleshoot issues. This also includes piloting phases for each iterative release, training workshops and regular reviews with current users to help improve the design or user-interface, for example. These efforts have fostered a collaborative relationship between the SMART Partnership and its user community, and resulted in an inclusive development process, which has, in turn, resulted in a better product that is adopted and supported by a more engaged user community.

Investing for adoption

The third key principle was investing in and marketing SMART for rapid, but managed, adoption. While a free-to-use, open-source technology, the Partnership has worked with Partners and sites to manage the adoption and implementation process whenever possible, ensuring that most SMART sites around the world are either directly or indirectly supported by the Partnership and/or its member organizations. This followed an initial piloting phase of the SMART beta version – supported by grant funding from IUCN Save Our Species between 2011 and 2013 – on projects across key tiger landscapes, as well as the first SMART ‘Training of Trainers’. These were invaluable steps for testing the whole system in a real world scenario while promoting the technology to the conservation community simultaneously.

The Partnership had also planned from its inception in the 80/20 rule of implementation vs. software development. That is, across the Partnership, the focus of most member investment has been on implementation and impact, rather than on the software itself. “The key has always been empowering the community, focusing on the outcomes and impact, and remembering that the technology was a service, rather than the ultimate goal,” explained Cronin. Communications also followed the same vein, marketing clear, tangible benefits to different stakeholders at various levels; national authorities, protected area managers and frontline conservation personnel, supported by customisable materials and shared branding.

Testimonials and success stories played their part in promoting SMART, giving potential users an understanding of how SMART can be used and benefit them. In Nigeria, one founding member’s work to improve law enforcement in conserving gorillas, contributed to a doubling of patrol coverage over seven years, the identification of hunting hotspots and a major drop in hunting indicators. In Cambodia, SMART patrols helped protect the country’s first Marine Protected Area through the identification of illegal activity hotspots and optimal patrolling times, reducing fisheries infractions by 40% over three years.

SMART continues to evolve and respond to the increasingly sophisticated needs of the frontlines of conservation, with development centered on the principle of delivering solutions that are free, open-source, and of benefit the entire conservation community. This collaborative approach has made the SMART Partnership an example of “how other NGO sectors should collaborate to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges” according to Erik Arnold, Chief Technology Officer with Microsoft Philanthropy.

Through development of innovative solutions and support of the global community, the SMART Partnership and its members are committed to delivering on its mission to supporting frontline conservationists and improving conservation outcomes for wildlife in the long-term.