the road through a lens

Sensing a change: apps for the future

By Andrew Weston 24 October 2017

How would you go about counting every tree in a forest to track deforestation? Tricky. Maybe you could get together lots of volunteers, some environmentally friendly paint and head off marking as you go. How about if you needed to count trees in forests spread across the world over a number of years?

This would once have been impossible. But the work of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) highlighted in NPC’s Global innovations in measurement and evaluation showed it can be done. They used satellite images to record changes in forest density over time to understand its impact on a global scale.

Not everyone wants to measure trees. But the use of sensors helps us overcome certain human limitations, and could help some charities improve service delivery.

Take United Communities (UC), a housing association in Bristol, for example. It has recently started using the Noise App, which records antisocial behaviour. If a resident wants to report antisocial behaviour such as loud music, they can switch on the app and record what they hear. This is then sent to UC, which lets them accurately measure the severity of the behaviour.

Before this, if a complaint was made a case worker would have to travel to the house in question, potentially multiple times, and often found the source of the complaint was no longer present. The app allows UC to save time, while providing a better quality and more accurate service for its residents. By having all of the data about this intervention in one place, hosted on the app, it is also much easier for United Communities to collect data on antisocial behaviour, potentially supporting future measurement.

United Communities are now building a new tool to tackle domestic violence. The app, still in development, builds on UC’s experience of using the Noise App. It’s designed to be installed hidden on a phone and allows users to record instances of domestic violence. The app could be used both to alert police or other statutory bodies and to provide a more solid evidence base to help increase the chance of conviction. This shows how you can build from a relatively simple intervention to something more sensitive as you become more confident with using technology to enhance your impact.

If your charity has a task that could be enhanced through sensors then it’s important to consider privacy implications. There’s rarely a simple answer when examining the sorts of issues. But taking ethical conflicts into account is a key part of designing a technological intervention.

And if you do go ahead, it makes sense to partner with external tech expertsHactar is one of many examplesto help build a practical plan. In many cases it may even be the product already exists and all you need to do is figure out how it can be integrated into your work. In UC’s case the Noise App software already existed as an off-the-shelf product developed by RH Environmental, making it simple for them to integrate the tool into UC’s work.

If you want to learn more about how sensors can help enhance measurement, check out Global innovations in measurement and evaluation.

Have you had experience of technology helping with your service delivery or measurement? Let us know in the comments blow.

Find out more about NPC’s work on technology and the social sector.