Immersive research with Sumatran communities living in peatlands to assess the need for an app to report fires

Think of peatlands as a colossal (but worryingly fragile) reservoir of carbon, locked away below the ground.

In Indonesia, large swathes of peatlands are going up in smoke, with oil palm and pulp plantations taking root where once stood a biodiverse ecosystem. This trend took dramatic proportions in 2015, when 2.6 million hectares of peatlands were heavily damaged by fires.

In the embers of this disaster, the Indonesian government pledged to monitor and protect peatlands. But these efforts have been difficult to track, because the condition and treatment of local peatlands is only known to those on the ground. Public statements are made about peatland restoration progress, but reports from the field often tell a different story. This allows environmental devastation to continue unchecked, and positive developments to go unnoticed.

Enter World Resources Institute’s Pantau Gambut (“Peat Monitor”), a platform that puts the spotlight on peatland restoration efforts in Indonesia.

To complement this effort, the organisation just needed eyes on the ground to crowdsource real-time updates about peatland developments.

Assuming a mobile app would be the best channel to facilitate this, World Resources Institute commissioned the development of a prototype. But they needed to know it would work before they invested hundreds of hours in development. As a long-term partner, they reached out to Catalyze for advice on how to design and implement a successful grassroots reporting system. We proposed field research with Pantau Gambut’s target users.

If its peatland communities you want to engage, that’s who we need to talk to.

We started by listing all of the actors who could potentially provide accurate, real-time peatland data. Then we narrowed the list down to those with the necessary motivation, skills, and resources to see and share status updates on Pantau Gambut. These carefully-selected target users included farmers, cattle herders, young people, and village leaders.

Research caps on, we set out for two peatland communities in South Sumatra (Bangsal and Belanti) to meet with the app’s target users. Our objectives were to get a feel for life in peatlands, talk to local residents about the idea of monitoring peatland restoration, and get their feedback on a prototype of Pantau Gambut’s mobile reporting app.

Over the course of 13 in-depth interviews, we discovered what target stakeholders care about, and began to form a vision of the peatland reporting system they could embrace with open hands.
Camera in hand, we sat down with local residents and followed a structured discussion format. From one interview to the next a consistent message took shape – test users struggled to understand parts of the app prototype, and in particular terminology. WRI’s prototype was designed for peatland residents to share photos of activities like “drainage blocking” and “land clearance”, but these terms were alien to users.

It was clear from the interviews that pride in their community is what would motivate the majority of villagers to share updates on peatland conditions with Pantau Gambut. That led us to recommend intervention points to maximize the likelihood that people would use the app, and strategies to build a systems and accountability for the collection and sharing of data.

Our research team also noted that communal activities were primarily men’s domain, so a separate outreach strategy would be necessary to encourage women – half of potential data “reporters” – to participate.

We translated these findings and many more into an audit of the current system and a set of actionable steps so that the World Resources Institute can build a reporting system that responds to local needs and priorities while also meeting those of the organization.