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BirdLasser mobile conservation app takes tweeting to the next level

There’s such a vast range of mobile apps on the market, all aiming to provide that one kick-ass, differentiating service. Over on Gearburn, we recapped a few apps that us journos rely on on a daily basis, but what if you’re not a journalist? What if you’re a budding conservationist or bird-lover? Well, there’s even an app for you.

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BirdLasser is the brainchild of South African duo William Harris and Henk Nel — two avid birdwatchers who wanted to bring the convenience technology offers into their favourite pastime.

The app is intended to make birdwatching more interactive, while improving conservation efforts through crowdsourcing.

BirdLasser is fun for birders and good for birds,” notes Nel.

For one, the name “BirdLasser” explains the app’s purpose perfectly:

To atlas, is to follow a specific birding protocol defined by the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) of UCT. The birder that goes out atlassing, collects data and sumits it to the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 (SABAP2). I decided to call these birders (civil scientist, social conservationists), atlassers, from there the name BirdLasser = a social conservationist contributing specifically to conservation of birds. And it sounds catchy too.

This isn’t the traditional story of boy-makes-app, instead, it highlights how technology, regardless of how it seemingly destroys the natural world, can also be used to help.

In the beginning

Nel explains the birth of the app:

I wanted an app (actually it’s much more than just an app, it’s a system) that’s free to the public; that gets people to seamlessly contribute to conservation causes whilst participating in their (competitive) hobby, and contribute to the development of the app/system; sharing their data with conservationists. A phenomenon we term ‘social conservation’.

Social conservation is a term coined by Nel and centres around the notion of having “conservation in the hands of the people”.

“People need to become civil scientists, the technology of BirdLasser and a smart device makes it possible,” explains Nel.

“Being a conservation-minded birder and techno-geek, I wanted to help conservation efforts (causes) and make technology work for me as a birder. This mobile app enables beginners and competitive twitchers to record bird sightings, share these with friends and community, and seamlessly contribute to conservation,” he concludes.

How does it work?

It’s a completely self-funded venture, and has been in the works since 2011. And while the app is free for all — from bird enthusiasts to the app collector — the ornithological information collected by the app is free to conservationists.

But how does it all come together?

Essentially, users download the app off or the Apple Store and install it on their smart device. The phone now becomes the latest way for novices and twitchers alike to turn a hobby into a crowdsourced conservation medium. When a user snaps an image of a bird, the location, date and other important information is recorded and passed on to conservation bodies.

Although there are other apps in the market that perform the same thing, BirdLasser is intuitive, smart and slick.

“I personally used a lot of bird identification and logging apps, and experienced frustration from operational shortcomings and deficient user-interfaces,” notes Nel.

Of course, like every startup with a great idea, it didn’t take flight without its set of initial problems.

Shedding the chick feathers

“While the UX models were fantastic and software architecture was excellent, pace of development was significantly slower than was healthy for the project,” recalls Harris.

It turns out that creating a conservation startup that leverages crowdsourced information is more intricate than what one might first believe.

“Birding and atlassing is actually very technical, generally pursued by A-type personalities and erudite guys,” explains Harris.

“This noble pursuit of leveraging technology to support conservation has seen wonderful support from a community of passionate conservationists, friends and loved ones. These conservationists have provided invaluable input as testers and product advisers  – extending even to event hosters. We’ve even been fortunate to have a top advertising agency, Workbench, come on board to help us as their CSI project,” he continues.

“It’s a wonderful story of humans and businesses mobilising for a common noble cause.”

What does the future hold?

And while BirdLasser isn’t a definitive source of income for these pioneering businessmen, other projects are on the horizon.

“Gmaven pays the bills – a very ambitious fusion of Big Data and Software as a Service (SaaS), and a disruptive tool that serves big business in SA,” explains Harris.

But BirdLasser has a bright and diverse future ahead.

Plans to scale the app to other devices, including Android, the web and Windows are in the works. Additionally, the team hopes to scale the app beyond South African borders.

And we may actually see social conservation spread to additional species of the animal kingdom soon.

“MammalLasser, LepiLasser, FrogLasser, etc. – and it will cover the globe, not just Southern Africa,” concludes Nel.

If you have an iPhone and would like to join the BirdLasser family, you can download the app here.

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