Mobile Phone Applications

Possible objectives

  • Collecting evidence of deforestation or forest degradation
  • Capturing evidence of wrongdoing towards individuals or communities
  • Recording and monitoring the environmental value of land or forest areas
  • Providing concrete evidence to governments to encourage them to recognise indigenous lands

This introduction to mobile phone applications is part of a Primer for using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. It is designed as a starting point for organisations and activists interested in adding technology to improve their advocacy work, and is the product of a partnership between Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room.

Rainforest Foundation Norway The Engine Room

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What is it

  • Mobile applications (or ‘apps’) are software programs that work on mobile devices like phones or tablets. In rainforest-related projects, they are mainly used to collect data in the field and transmit it directly to an organisation.
  • Mobile applications can be used for many purposes, including recording illegal mining or logging; biodiversity surveys; helping communities to map their own land; or validating government maps.
  • Applications can work on both low-tech ‘feature phones’ using SMS (Short Message Service) or more expensive smartphones (which include GPS sensors and cameras).

How it can help

Collecting information from the field can be a time-consuming process that involves physically transporting large numbers of paper forms through remote areas, then manually transcribing them. Mobile applications make this process much quicker and easier. One common approach is that forest monitors are given a mobile device pre-loaded with an application. They upload data to this application and transmit it over phone networks or a mobile internet connection to a server, where an organisation can access it. Most applications automatically capture common errors and ask for corrections. Most smartphones capture geolocation data that can be mapped and combined with other forms of data (see Online maps).


You can choose from a wide range of applications: the right one for you depends on how much data you’re collecting, how much technical support you need, and how specific your needs are. There are websites that can help you identify what tools and mobile apps are the best fit, including Humanitarian Nomad and Solutions Center. Specifically for forest monitoring, Forest Compass has collected a range of options and discusses their strengths and weaknesses for use in community-based mapping.


Type of device: For collecting geolocation data, dedicated GPS trackers are more accurate, and usually have longer battery life and are more durable. For collecting other types of data, smartphones with Android operating systems are available for under USD100, and prices are dropping all the time. If you only need simple functions, cheaper feature phones are a good option. These can be used to collect data using SMS or programmes designed in Java (J2ME).

How complex is the application? The more features you want, the more training and troubleshooting support you’ll need. Support is included in services like ArcGIS, but it is expensive. Open source solutions like Open Data Kit, on the other hand, force you to figure problems out (which takes staff time) or call external experts (which usually costs money). Remember that remote technical support may only be available and accessible if you can access a good internet connection.

How much data do you want to collect? The more data you capture, the more you’ll spend on the database that holds the information, backing up data offline, or SMS message fees.

To give you a taste of the options available, here are two examples from opposite ends of the cost spectrum:

Free and open source, but technically challenging - Open Data Kit

Open Data Kit (ODK) is a collection of open source tools for mobile data collection that has been used successfully in a range of rainforest-related projects. It is free, can be modified for you, and has an active community of developers providing technical and strategic support. The downside is that it is not perfect software: built by layers of volunteers, you can expect things to go wrong. You will probably need to budget for a software developer to modify, and make sure you can get technical support for when things go wrong. See Forest Compass for more on ODK.

Free and user-friendly, but with some limitations - Forest Watcher

Forest Watcher is a free mobile application for forest monitoring and field data collection available on Android and Apple devices. The app integrates remotely-sensed deforestation and fire data from Global Forest Watch, letting you navigate to alerts and report on them even when you’re offline. You can design your own surveys and add custom contextual data layers using a complementary desktop website. The app is built to be accessible for non-technical users, but that also means that it has some limitations in integrating with outside GIS software and doesn’t track as many data points as more complex apps.

Highly capable, but not cheap - Collector for ArcGIS

The ArcGIS suite of applications is a premium GIS product that offers powerful options for producing and analysing map data. A basic user licence currently costs around USD 1,500 per year, which includes some technical support online and by telephone (though a limited free version is available for non-profits). To make the most of it, you will need to pay for its full suite: an Android app, a programme that manages the collected data on your server, and a programme to publish the maps online. The advantage of using premium paid software is that it will have more features, and you can rely on it to function as it supposed to. The downside is that it is expensive, and because the code is closed, you cannot hire a developer to change it to match your project better.

Risks and challenges

It is impossible to collect and share data completely securely on mobile phones because of the way that the devices themselves are designed. This could threaten people collecting information; sometimes just possessing an application can put a community monitor at risk. People and environments can also be threatened as a result of information that you publish about them (see the Responsible Data sections of the Strategy section).

Case studies

Using community-based monitors for mapping in Guyana

Since 2011, the Global Canopy Programme has run a community-based monitoring system with 16 Amerindian communities of the North Rupununi (Guyana) to provide information on causes of forest loss, land-use practices and socio-economic issues. Community monitors complete forms on Android (Samsung Galaxy X Cover) smartphones using a mobile application developed from Open Data Kit. Each form submitted contains location data from the phone’s in-built GPS and photos from its camera. The resulting data is then uploaded to an online data storage system for analysis using Microsoft Excel, ArcGIS, and ODK Aggregate, and later SMAP software, QGIS, and Google Maps Engine.

How did it help?

  • The technology enabled real-time, straightforward collection and aggregation of data, and removed the need to transcribe data from the field.
  • It was popular with local communities – 87% of local leaders and village councillors said the phones had been a positive addition to the community that helped them improve their knowledge of local resources.
  • The project encouraged collaboration between elders with knowledge about natural resources and young people, who were quick to pick up mobile devices.

Using GPS devices to document invasions of indigenous territory

The Pro-Indian Commission of Acre (Comissão Pró-Indio do Acre, or CPI-AC) trained indigenous people in the Acre region to use GPS devices to record invasions of indigenous territory.

How did it help?

  • The information that the indigenous people gathered was then used to make maps that highlighted the problem and presented evidence of where the situation was worst.
  • One of these invasion maps was presented to the country’s former Minister of the Environment, prompting a multi-sectoral action from the federal government against invasions.

A mobile app for forest monitoring in the field

In 2017, Global Forest Watch launched the Forest Watcher mobile app, designed to bring forest change data directly into the hands of people monitoring forests on the ground - even in areas without internet connectivity. Developed in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute and Vizzuality, Forest Watcher allows users to monitor deforestation and fire alerts and submit custom reports from the field. The app is available for free on the Apple Store and Google Play Store.

How did it help?

  • Forest rangers in Uganda’s National Parks used the app to investigate deforestation alerts and discover an illegal logging site. They used the data they collected to prosecute the illegal loggers.
  • Reports submitted through the app get fed into a desktop site, where users can log in to download the data, collaborate with teams, design custom reports and add custom data layers.

Using participatory mapping with online maps for advocacy in the Congo Basin

In 2013, Rainforest Foundation UK used the MappingForRights (MfR) platform to present information about the presence, land use and rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities in the Congo Basin. MfR enables communities to map their lands through simple icon-based apps that can be downloaded onto most Android phones.

How did it help?

  • Communities in the region used MfR to defend their rights in relation to strictly protected areas and lobby for community forest legislation.
  • Authorised users can view the data through an online interactive map, which also shows the use of (and claims on) particular forest areas. This allows users to identify where logging activities, and infrastructure and agricultural expansion, affect areas, as well as analysing the implementation of REDD projects and protected areas. MfR was used to inform a major REDD project development in Democratic Republic of Congo support the development of a new mapping tool aimed at reducing the damage caused by palm oil expansion in Cameroon.

Further resources

  • The Guardian Project’s CameraV app can help to collect video and photo evidence securely and in a way that can be verified by others.
  • The StoryMaker app for Android phones helps you create multimedia stories on your Android device
  • WITNESS and Video4Change both have useful resource libraries on using video in your work
  • Small World News offers guides on making video and audio
  • Audacity offers free audio editing capabilities, while Lightworks Free version can tackle many simple video editing tasks


This site was created by Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room as an introduction to using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. Download the whole primer here. It was first published in July 2016. Last updated in July 2016.

Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) is one of the world’s leading organisations in the field of rights-based rainforest protection. Its mission is to support indigenous peoples and traditional populations of the world’s rainforests in their efforts to protect their environment and fulfil their rights by assisting them in:

  • Securing and controlling the natural resources necessary for their long-term well-being and managing these resources in ways which do not harm their environment, violate their culture or compromise their future;
  • and developing the means to protect their individual and collective rights and to obtain, shape, and control basic services from the state.

RFN collaborates closely with more than 70 local and national environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations in 11 countries in the Amazon region, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.


The Engine Room is an international organisation that helps activists, social change organisations, and change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact. The Engine Room provides direct, project-level support for social change organisations; brings together communities to coordinate emerging ideas and collect practitioners; and documents and publishes findings to help anyone in the sector make better decisions about using data and technology.

Tom Walker and Tin Geber researched and wrote the main narrative, while Ruth Miller led work on the design and visuals creation. Vemund Olsen and Christopher Wilson provided invaluable input and editing support. The site sourcecode is available on Github. Comments or questions? Contact or

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