Nature conservation in the Digital Age

Logo: dot.rural

Annie Robinson1,2, Gina Maffey1, Koen Arts1, René van der Wal1

1 dot.rural, University of Aberdeen

2 OPAL (Open Air Laboratories)

Sharks are tweeting i, red kites are blogging ii, rhinos have microchips in their horns iii and all manner of species are living out their lives in front of an international audience iv, v. Digital applications in nature conservation have rapidly become prominent, both through their abundance and diversity, spanning a range of domains, e.g. monitoring & remote sensing, digital public engagement, citizen science, crowd-sourcing & data access and connectivity.

Multidisciplinary dimensions of Digital Conservation
Multidisciplinary dimensions of Digital Conservation

The 2014 Digital Conservation conference ( was convened to bring together academics, policy makers and practitioners to review developments at the interface of digital technology and nature conservation and set a new research agenda for Digital Conservation. At the first gathering of its kind, more than 70 scholars, policymakers and practitioners from around the world came together this May at the University of Aberdeen to discuss such digital innovation in nature conservation.

Opened by Prof Jerry Wilson (Head of RSPB research Scotland) the first two days of the conference were a series of presentations covering a highly diverse range of different aspects of Digital Conservation.   The third day was a rolling programme of demonstrations of different technologies and small workshops to foster ideas for future work and collaboration in this field.   We were delighted with the diversity and quality of the presentations, including those of our invited keynote speakers: Steve Kelling (Director of Information Science, Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Bill Sutherland (Professor of Conservation Biology, Cambridge University), Bill Adams (Professor of Conservation & Development, Cambridge University), Ian Bainbridge (Head of Research, Scottish Natural Heritage ), Ken Banks (Founder of, FrontlineSMS & Means of Exchange) and Lucas Joppa (Head of Conservation Science, Microsoft Research).

In line with the prevalence of digital technology in nature conservation, presentations covered a wealth of topics including:

·         Monitoring – using digital tools for ecological, management, warning and crime-combating purposes;

·         Public engagement - e-learning, digitised citizen science and knowledge generation through crowd sourcing;

·         Information access - database expansion and connectivity, including. biodiversity informatics);

·         Support - decision-making and managerial support systems, e-governance of environmental issues;

·         Pseudo-nature – mediation of people’s relationship with, and understanding of the natural world through digital media, including virtual representations of nature;

·     Mitigation – the environmental impact of electronic hardware for conservation purposes.

Using mobile phones for nature recording
Using mobile phones for nature recording

At the conference’s final ‘demo and practitioners day’ many of the digital tools presented served similar purposes, though most emphasis was on those that facilitated data collection.   Often these tools appeared to be developed in relative isolation, both from other organisations and from the targeted end-users.   Collective development of apps and other digital tools by the numerous small organisations in nature conservation would allow them to keep pace with their larger counterparts when it comes to producing fancy apps and websites. Should we move to an accreditation of nature conservation apps and digital tools so that end-users are not overwhelmed by the multitude in existence?

A few speakers raised that while digital tools play a valuable role in volunteer engagement and retention, ‘traditional’ forms of communication and management should not be excluded. Individuals who have dedicated many years to collecting data for nature conservation without a digital platform, and the experience gained from this labour of love should not be ignored.

In conclusion, nature conservation in general and conservationists more broadly should not ignore digital innovation, nor fall for it blindly, but engage with it to help steer the changing nature of conservation in the Digital Age.  






Logo: University of Aberdeen

Logo: Research Councils UK - Digital Economy

Updated information January 2017:

There has been a paper published from the work which can be viewed here

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 15 September 2014