Big Jungle, Big Data

Jonathan Cox / Khmer Time No Comments Share:
Large areas of the Cambodian forest have been illegally logged for years. Rich Garella

Can a free piece of open source software help rangers combat the country’s rapid deforestation? 
A long with their camouflaged jackets and AK-47s, rangers in Preah Vihear protected forest now carry tablets or smartphones into the jungle when they go out on patrol. When they encounter loggers or find evidence of illegal logging, they type in details about the encounter, such as how much timber was found, or how many chainsaws were confiscated into the device. The data is linked to their location, and the team moves on to the next bust. 
At the end of the day, the rangers return to base, and upload their new data points to the Forestry Administration servers. Even if the illegal loggers have evaded capture this time, better data collection makes the rangers more likely to catch them on the next patrol. 
A popular saying in data analysis goes: “If you count something interesting, you will find something interesting.” Cambodia’s ranger teams have taken this to heart, counting everything from the number of chainsaws to encounters with illegal loggers in 10 locations around the country. 
This data collection and analysis system is called the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, or SMART for short. Developed by a team of conservation organizations and first adopted in Cambodia in 2013, it is becoming the new standard for recording and analyzing data about illegal logging and poaching in forests around the world. 
Part of the popularity of the SMART system is the price – the software is free and open-source, so rangers can use it without paying licensing fees. 
“The training has enabled patrol teams… to strategically assess, interpret and adapt protected area management using the monthly SMART reports submitted to the FA [Forestry Administration] Project Manager every month,” said one source involved in conservation in Preah Vihear forest who requested anonymity.
Where once the teams of rangers had to rely on anecdotal evidence or reports from community volunteers around the protected forest, they now can compute exactly where illegal loggers are more likely to be found. After starting with an empty database in 2013, the rangers now have thousands of data points and continue to add more.
With this new information, a picture has begun to emerge of where most of the loggers are operating, enabling the rangers to answer more questions. Which areas were under-patrolled last month? Where have the most illegal loggers been found? 
“When we send officers into the field, I can give them specific data,” said Kong Socheat, the database officer for Preah Vihear Forest Rangers. “I can find data about poaching of a particular animal simply by searching for it in the database. When someone reports logging in a general area, we can guess at exactly where it is taking place based on data we have already gathered.”
The system also provides an incentive to the rangers, by tracking which teams find the most illegal logging operations. 
With this powerful store of information at their fingertips, officials in the Forestry Administration are better equipped to plan out patrols, based on the hotspots where logging seems to be most common. Searching for loggers and poachers in Preah Vihear protected forest is not a simple task. But the SMART system will make it easier to find the needle in this 1900-square kilometer haystack.

Community crocodile wardens using SMART while patrolling a crocodile conservation area in the Cardamom Mountains. Photo supplied.

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