Trees are important. Not only do woodland ecosystems help mitigate climate change by absorbing atmospheric CO2 and storing it for years, but they also boost biodiversity by creating havens for native flora and fauna.
Which is why the work of NGOs, such as the US National Forest Foundation (NFF), is so essential. The same applies to the technology that supports them in the work they do.
The NFF, which is the official non-profit partner of the US Forest Service, has planted 30 million trees since its inception in 1992, with the aim of reforesting thousands of acres of national woodland damaged or destroyed by wildfires and other natural events. Another important role is to thin the forests and restore watersheds in order to reduce the threat of these wildfires, which have been getting worse year-on-year.
But as the organization has continued to grow - it has tripled in size over the last five years and aims to triple its impact over the next three - it has increasingly found that its back office technology was unable to keep pace with its requirements.
A key challenge here was that three of its major systems, which deal with financial management and accounting, fundraising and engagement, and grants management, were not integrated together, generating a range of inefficiencies as a result. This situation led to the NFF undertaking a discovery process in March 2021, before deciding to migrate all three of them over to the Microsoft Azure platform. Torrie Burwell, the NFF's Information Systems Analyst, explains the rationale:
We have a big, remote workforce [of about 50] working across different time zones who need easy access to our systems. Another issue is that non-profits don't want to spend tons on tech, so it's a better long-term investment to have all of our systems coming from the same vendor.
The benefit of integrated systems
The first system to go live was the fundraising and engagement one, which is based on Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales module and is also part of its Cloud for Nonprofit platform. It was implemented in December with the help of Threshold.world.
Tangicloud's Fundamentals financial management applications, which are based on Dynamics 365 Business Central ERP suite, are likewise due to be rolled out by October to replace Excel spreadsheets for tracking budgets, project investment information and incoming funds.
The grants management system, which is being built by professional services company Avanade - a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture - and will also be based on Dynamics, is scheduled for an autumn launch too. It will include an external grant review portal to enable appropriate stakeholders to engage in the review process.
As Mary Mitsos, the NFF's President and Chief Executive, says:
The biggest benefit of our new, integrated systems is that they'll create significant efficiencies. This means our employees won't have to do things like security patches or spend time phoning people for information - the system will be entirely transparent to everyone, so they'll be able to find the answer themselves. It'll also be easier to communicate with donors about what we've achieved with our funds and to talk about our conservation outcomes with the public.
Over time, the aim is also to use the aggregated data from all three systems for predictive modelling. Possible use cases here include identifying how to optimize budgets, understanding the best time for sending out project requirements and actively tracking rather than passively monitoring project data.
Re-greening with JustDiggit
A second NGO, which is using technology to enhance the effectiveness of its external rather than internal activities, is JustDiggit. The goal of the Dutch organization, which was set up in 2010 and employs about 35 people, is to help re-green and restore ecosystems in highly-degraded rural areas in Kenya and Tanzania - although, it does work with partner organisations in other parts of Africa too.
JustDiggit takes a farmer-managed natural restoration approach to the challenge, which entails encouraging them to look after local trees as they help aerate the soil and reduce erosion. However, the focus is not on planting new seedlings, which have a low survival rate, but on supporting older trees that were previously cut down to clear land for agriculture.
To this end, farmers are trained in how to look after the trees by carefully pruning new growth on existing stumps and protecting them from animals. SMS messages are also sent to their cell phones to remind them when to prune, along with other information about programmes and milestones. This approach means that tree survival rates are not just higher, but the process is also significantly cheaper too.
In the Dodoma region of Tanzania, which is about the size of the Netherlands, there are currently 13 research villages, each with four trainers who are themselves local farmers, that have formally joined the initiative. About 300 other villages have also signed up to JustDiggit's text messaging service and participate in the scheme on a more informal basis too, after having found out about it from billboard advertising and a local, weekly, agricultural radio show. As a result, around 9.1 million trees have been regenerated so far.
In order to monitor the scheme's impact though, village trainers are required to report monthly on how many people they have trained, how many trees are being looked after and how many have grown back. This manually-recorded data is then put into a dashboard to track how villages are performing both individually and in comparison with others.
As the programme continues to expand, however, JustDiggit was keen to find a way of tracking progress that did not rely on self-reporting and random auditing. Sander de Haas, the charity's landscape restoration and innovation expert, explains:
As an NGO, we rely on private companies and individuals to fund our work, so obviously they want to know the impact we're making and whether we're reaching our goals. But we also want to know where we've been successful and where needs further improvement. So we started thinking of how we could independently verify data in a way that was more scalable and less reliant on people on the ground - and we quickly moved to the idea of drones and satellite data.
Keeping track of progress
Because the price of drone technology has reduced considerably over recent years, a trial was started in the research villages to record their progress. JustDiggit partnered with a data science company called Lynxx, which built it a machine-learning (ML) model to recognize objects on the images that were produced. A number of students were also brought in from the University of Amsterdam to help manually delineate the trees before entering the data into the model to train its algorithm.
Doing so made it possible not only to count the number of trees within a 100 hectare area, but also to measure their crown size in order to evaluate their age and height as well as how much carbon they were storing. De Haas says:
For most of the research villages, we have annual data from 2018 to now, so we can see how much the trees have grown and by how many they've increased or decreased, which enables us to plot which farmer or village is performing well on a year-by-year basis. It's an awesome, and much easier, way to track change.
Because drones are unable to fly far, however, it was difficult to cover the activities of all 300 or so active villages. Therefore, JustDiggit used Planet Labs' SkySat satellite service to obtain images covering 2,500 hectares at a range of 50cm.
This data, which has been fed into the ML model, will subsequently be overlaid with the more detailed drone imagery, making it possible to distinguish individual trees. A third stage will be to take data from the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative satellite to provide images of the whole Dodoma region. De Haas explains the rationale:
We'll be able to keep much better track of what's happening with our current programmes, and a couple of times a year we can assess the impact so we know where to give extra attention to certain villages or more training to the trainers. We'll also be able to track progress in places where we don't have any trainers at all.
Another initiative is to create a mobile ‘re-greening' platform - something that is currently in its alpha phase. The ultimate goal is to teach the 10% of people across rural Africa who own a smartphone in a fun, interactive and tailored way how to look after their land, trees and wider ecosystems. The idea is that they become "re-greening ambassadors" in the process and thereby spread the programme more quickly across the whole continent.
It just goes to show that technology doesn't have to be wildly expensive to make a difference - all you need really is a clear business case, a vision and a few helpful partners.