MobilES - Using mobile-phone technology to capture ecosystem service information

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Natural Sciences


Despite being vital for human well-being, ecosystem services (ES) - nature's contributions to people - are increasingly threatened by human activities (e.g. overexploitation and degradation). The importance of ES is globally recognised. For example, 127 United Nation member states have signed up to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES; Cambodia (a rapidly developing nation with a high reliance on the agricultural sector but experiencing increasing urbanisation) is among these signatories and has further demonstrated its willingness and commitment to work towards sustainable development by several national-level policies (e.g. National Policy and Strategic Plan on Green Growth). However, the Royal Government of Cambodia has identified a need for more information on how to better manage availability, access, utilisation and stability of ES, arising from a historical bias within ES science (implicitly a social-ecological system linking nature and people) towards ecology at the expense of social science.

We use mobile phone surveys administered along the rural-urban spectrum to investigate how people access and use ES, from which ecosystems, how such benefits contribute to people's well-being, how barriers prevent or reduce these benefits, the sustainability of each of these processes, and by identifying pathways to resilience. We will incorporate social science theories into flows and use of ES to transform existing ES models, establishing a step-change in ES research that shifts the focus from natural ecosystems to human beneficiaries.

Finally, as well as providing insight into ES access, use and resilience across the rural-urban spectrum, we will validate our technological, smartphone-based approach. Utilising mobile technology to distribute surveys has many potential benefits, including: 1) enabling participants to respond to surveys at a time that suits them , therefore allowing the inclusion of vulnerable groups who can ill afford time away from work to participate; 2) capturing spatially and temporally distinct links between people and nature, which may be unique to the individual and shift over time; and 3) having the potential to be up-scaled, enabling for the inclusion of social science 'big data' in ES models. Thus, once properly validated, the smartphone-based method of data collection is inherently scalable and so might enable social science data to be collected over large regions and incorporated into models to address questions about the impacts of ecosystem change on the multidimensional well-being of regional and social-economic groups across scales.

In partnership with decision-makers, the advances suggested here could help to ensure ES research contributes to and informs ongoing policy processes (e.g. IPBES) and facilitates the development of ES indicators for monitoring of human well-being and building pathways to resilience in Cambodia and beyond.

Planned Impact

Our proposed work will have broader impacts in two key areas, namely:

i) International capacity development - This project increases access to mobile networks and mobile internet for the ~480 participants in our program. This mode of participant engagement, developed by project investigators, channels project resources historically allocated to the fuel and lodging costs of multiple survey waves, into the provision of goods that are currently valued (mobile airtime) and growing in importance (mobile data). As part of our 'microtasks for micropayments' methodology, £23,040 in airtime and data will be distributed to project participants, as well as mobile phones worth £24,000. Furthermore, by validating smartphone survey methods against traditional survey methods, we hope to increase the global capacity to undertake large-scale, high-frequency social surveys.

ii) Informing resource access & use policy - This project focuses on issues of critical relevance to current global policymaking: ecosystem services, sustainable development and pathways to resilience. These issues are at the forefront of Cambodian policy-making and the Royal Government of Cambodia's National Strategic Development Plan 2014-18 highlights a need for more information in this area. Thus, our work has the potential to help close the gap between the current state of the ES literature (which demonstrates an ecological bias), and the insights and tools relevant to beneficiaries and policymakers. Whilst our findings may be applicable to the 16 million people within Cambodia, as well as an unknown number of ES beneficiaries in other developing nations, we will specifically target policy makers within Phnom Penh, and surrounding areas (3-5 million people).
Description Coompleted a ~12-month smartphone-based survey in Cambodia, whereby respondents are able to answer questions relating to nature at their convenience. In return, they received compensation in the form of mobile data/credit. Preliminary analysis of our data indicates that access to nature has a significant effect on wellbeing. Data has been uploaded on to ReShare (embargoed for 12 months).
Exploitation Route Other people/organisations may be interested in using this 'micropayments for microdata' survey approach
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment

Description In early 2019, Mr Barbee accompanied me to India and Cambodia to understand the research I am conducting through MobilES and RUST. The results from this are still on-going, but already an article on the MobilES project was published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ( and subsequently republished on numerous other platforms across the globe, including: • • • • • • • • • • • In 2020, we are working closely with the Governmental of Cambodia to influence national policy, but our planned impact events had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description Between environmental concerns and compliance: How does media messaging affect motivation and choice between disposable versus reusable facemasks?
Amount £343,974 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/W003813/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2021 
End 05/2022
Description EnsemblES - Using ensemble techniques to capture the accuracy and sensitivity of ecosystem service models
Amount £47,862 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/T00391X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 08/2020
Description GCRF Capacity and Capability Award
Amount £15,648 (GBP)
Funding ID S44906 
Organisation Bangor University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 06/2019
Description Scaling up Off-Grid Sanitation
Amount £1,749,830 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/T007877/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2020 
End 09/2024
Description ScienceAlliance - Enhancing capacity to report science technology within Alliance Earth: Bangor University ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Knowledge Exchange Fellowship
Amount £17,800 (GBP)
Organisation Bangor University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 02/2019
Description The impact of Covid-19 restrictions on recreation and use of green space in Wales
Amount £10,877 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/V004077/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2020 
End 11/2021
Title Global ensembles of Ecosystem Service map outputs modelled at 1km resolution for water supply, recreation, carbon storage, fuelwood and forage production 
Description This data set contains Global maps of five ecosystem services using 6 different among-model ensemble approaches: the provisioning services of water supply, biomass for fuelwood and forage production, the regulating service Carbon Storage for CO2 retention and the cultural non-material service Recreation. For water, the data comes as one shapefile with polygons per watershed, each polygon containing seven ensemble estimates. The other services - recreation, carbon storage, biomass for fuelwood and forage production - come as seven tiff- maps at a 1-km2 resolution with associated world files for each tiff-map contains 43,200 x 18,600 pixels for one ensemble approach, with LZW compressed file sizes between 400MB and 950MB. For all maps, 600dpi jpg depictions are added to the supporting information with uniform colour scaling set for the median ensemble per service. Ensemble output maps were calculated with different approaches following the supporting documentation and associated publication. Uncertainty estimates for these services are included as variation among contributing model outputs and among the employed ensemble approaches. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2023 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None yet (associated publication is still in-review) 
Title Longitudinal Ecosystem Service Data from Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia, 2019-2020 
Description We are interested in people's use of nature to benefit themselves and their households (both directly and indirectly). We are conducting surveys through mobile phones to understand who uses nature's benefits, how and why they use it, when they use it and where they use it most. We hope to have participants from two locations in Cambodia: Phnom Penh as our urban case study and Preah Vihear as a rural case study. The participants will become our citizen scientists and collect the data via an app, or by receiving phone calls, though the information they provide will be kept strictly confidential (as outlined below). We hope that the data generated will enable us to create a map of the most important places in these regions to the local people, and understand what problems people face in maximising their benefits from nature. The project will take 12 months to complete, with participants receiving small data and talk-time for weekly participation as well as building up credit to ultimately own the phone once the survey is complete (details below). The project will include multiple short tasks each week. Each task will have a set number of points. These points build up and each week you will be given data and talk time corresponding to the number of tasks you have completed that week. It is important to remember that you will not be penalised for failing to complete a task. You can gain the credits later by participating as much as possible in all remaining tasks. Each task completed credit will also gain credit towards owning the phone at the end of the year, when the project is completed. The tasks focus on food, culture, water, wild goods, wellbeing, demographics, income, poverty and natural hazards 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact None yet. 
Description Alliance Earth Collaboration 
Organisation Alliance Earth
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The MobilES team have invested in collaborating with the science communication NGO Alliance Earth ( ESRC 2018 Impact Acceleration Award (ScienceAlliance - Enhancing capacity to report science technology within Alliance Earth; £17,800 delivered via Bangor University). This project funded an ESRC IAA Knowledge Exchange Fellowship to immerse Mr Barbee within my ongoing ESRC-funded projects. In early 2019, Mr Barbee accompanied me to India and Cambodia to understand the research I am conducting through MobilES and RUST.
Collaborator Contribution Alliance Earth is a not for profit scientific and environmental reporting initiative based in Colorado and working globally under an environmental education remit. Alliance Earth successfully supports environmental and science education, partnering internationally with organisations and media groups but focused mostly on the developing world. They work with Reuters, PBS, the Guardian, KCET Television, and regional news outlets like the Daily Maverick in Southern Africa, and also with higher education schools like The Stellenbosch Sustainability Institute in Cape Town and Oxford University the in UK. A sample of their award-winning film, writing and photography work is available through their website. See above for details of the knowledge exchange
Impact The results from this are still on-going, but already an article on the MobilES project was published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ( and subsequently republished on numerous other platforms across the globe, including: • • • • • • • • • • •
Start Year 2019
Description Engagement with Alliance Earth 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact ScienceAlliance activity originated from three pieces of research associated with Bangor University. In May 2018, Willcock participated in an expedition to Mozambique (, part-funded by Bangor University. On this expedition that Willcock met Jeffery Barbee (Alliance Earth - a not for profit scientific and environmental reporting initiative working globally under an environmental education remit; This impact activity builds on this, linking to two existing Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded projects: MobilES - Using mobile-phone technology to capture ecosystem service information (ES/R009279/1), and RUST - Rurality as a vehicle for Urban Sanitation Transformation (ES/R006865/1). Being ESRC funded, both projects are socio-economic research. The disciplinary areas of focus are: human geography, development studies, environmental planning, and social statistics, methods and computing. MobilES aims to understand who is using natural resources and where in Cambodia. RUST investigates how sanitation services vary across a rural-urban transect in India. Both projects use Open Data Kit (ODK), a cutting-edge method of social science data collection being validated against more traditional methods as part of MobilES.

ScienceAlliance was designed to facilitate a two-way knowledge exchange between Bangor University and Alliance Earth. These activities will focus on Dr Willcock (PI and Co-I of the underpinning research) and Mr Barbee (Director of Alliance Earth), and was broken down into two parts: 1) Knowledge exchange at Bangor University - Mr Barbee visitted Bangor University for two days (January 24th-25th, 2019). Dr Willcock introduced Mr Barbee to the cutting-edge underpinning research (e.g. how social science can benefit from mobile phone technology). Mr Barbee led a scientific communication workshop for Bangor University staff to enhance our impact with non-scientific audiences. This activity was very successful and generate lots of interest among Bangor University staff. Impact captured via post-workshop feedback forms (see Appendix 1). 2) Knowledge exchange in the field - Together, Dr Willcock and Mr Barbee visited the RUST and MobilES study sites in India (February 4th-8th) and Cambodia (February 11th-15th). This first-hand experience deepened Mr Barbee's understanding of the cutting-edge methods developed in these projects, enhancing the ability of Alliance Earth to carry out scientific and environmental reporting about these technological innovations. Additionally, Dr Willcock gained a deeper understanding of the processes involved in scientific journalism. Willcock learned how to better explain his work to a lay audience and how to capture images useful for the media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Workshop training for using smartphone survey methods 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We ran two 2-day workshops in India and Cambodia and invited participants from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as academic attendees. At the end of the workshop, participants were confident in developing their own survey and we will establish a social network for longer-term peer-to-peer (i.e. south-to-south, south-to-north and north-to-south [SDG 17.6]) survey development assistance. This work is associated with two ongoing ESRC funded projects (both using ODK) in India (RUST - Rurality as a vehicle for Urban Sanitation Transformation; ES/R006865/1) and Cambodia (MobilES - Using mobile-phone technology to capture ecosystem service information; ES/R009279/1). However, this funding enabled us to extend the capacity building activities outside of the direct project partners and open up the workshops to key researchers, NGOs and government stakeholders with an interest in ecosystem service research. We already had an established relationship with local partners (i.e. Dr Mishra and Dr Nou) as part of these ongoing projects. As a team, we have multiple years of experience using ODK for our own research agendas (e.g. in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, and Madagascar), but also have experience conducting similar workshops on ODK in the UK (including at Bangor University), Madagascar, Malawi and Uganda.

Our workshops in India and Cambodia helped us train over 33 DAC researchers in smartphone data collection techniques. The participants represented sanitation and health NGOS, social development councils, university lecturers as well as government officials. Of the participants, 6 were female and 17 male.
We collected workshop impact information as well as written feedback. We have also gained consent to continue with a follow up survey, to further assess the impact of the workshops in 6 months.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020