Gathering campaign information online: Woods under Threat

Online interfaces and mapping tools have allowed supporters to feed in local knowledge of woods under threat and ancient trees, two of the Woodland Trust's campaigns.

Woods under Threat

Preventing the further loss of ancient woodland is one of the key aims of The Woodland Trust, the UK's leading woodland conservation organisation. Ancient woods, around for at least 400 years, are our richest habitat for wildlife and completely irreplaceable, but the UK has lost nearly 50 per cent of its remaining ancient woodland since the 1930s. Our woods are increasingly under pressure from development such as roads, housing and airports.

The Trust kept a record of woods under threat for several years as no other organisation and no one in government was doing this. We realised that there was simply no way to find out about all the cases up and down the country with one staff member taking on all the work themselves.

To address this we developed the Wood Under Threat sub-site of the main Woodland Trust website. The initial idea was to build up a resource of publicly available information to reveal for the first time the extent of the threat to this irreplaceable resource.

Mapping the problem

We developed bespoke mapping tools which highlight the areas under threat as the clearest way of getting the issue across visually. We also included the government's ancient woodland inventory, the record of known ancient woods are across the UK, the first time this resource had been made available digitally.

The development of the mapping tool fed into the development of the project, as it forced us to define exactly which information was important and which wasn't. However the amount of time it took to develop the mapping did mean that other areas of work were put on hold while the website was developed.

Supporters as researchers

Gathering Campainging Information Online image
The UK has lost nearly 50 per cent of its remaining ancient woodland since the 1930s.

Once the mapping and website was launched it was clear the next step was to get the public more involved as our eyes and ears. Thus far people had told us about threats via letters, phone calls, and occasionally emails, now they could report them online via the site.

The first five years of the Woods under Threat website have helped us build up our information base. When we started we were aware of around 100 cases - we now

know of well over 800. We are now moving into dealing with ancient trees under threat from development too, and the website provides us with almost unlimited scope for expansion.

Benefits

The site has allowed us to communicate quickly and easily where the woods under threat are, and what is threatening them, in one place. This has led to real policy change, helping to persuade the UK government to protect ancient woodland better through the planning system. (Of course this commitment doesn't necessarily lead to practical action to protect ancient woods on the ground.).

By providing a template to capture the threat, the website allowed us to prompt people for more of the information we actually needed. A threat can't appear on the map without a certain amount of information being supplied: previously it could end up on our books and staff would end up spending a great deal of time chasing around trying to find the information.

Better still, the website is a cost-effective and time-efficient way of gathering information that can be dealt with in a more managed way. The ability for people to submit their threats through the website has meant we can promote the project without worrying that our limited resources will be overwhelmed if lots of people respond.

Problems and learning points

The main disadvantage with the web-based approach is our primary audience is not particularly web-savvy. Many of our contacts are not online, or only use email on a very limited basis. This was especially the case when we first launched it five years ago. The map was developed in Flash, and prompts for download the plugin in the early days did confuse some people and may have led to them turning off.

Alongside the mapping we provide a guide for people wanting to fight their own cases of woods under threat from development. This involved presenting very technical information, which was quite dense text. As we all know dense, heavy text does not work particularly well on the web: it became clear that an offline approach was probably more appropriate for this information. The lesson was: use the correct medium for the information you're trying to communicate and don't try to force everything into one format.

Ancient Tree Hunt

This Ancient Tree Hunt site used the same mapping system to enable people to report local examples of ancient trees. We tested a new approach, where the database is updated live, and new submissions appear on the map immediately, displayed as 'awaiting verification'.

The advantage of this process is that users understand that their actions have an immediate effect. In the original mapping system the threat was submitted but users had to wait for a member of staff to get back to them before they knew the Woodland Trust was looking into the case.

Next steps for Woods under Threat

In September 2008 we hope to build on the success of www.woodsunderthreat.org.uk with a new website and resources to enable people to take on cases themselves, increasing our ability to defeat development threats to ancient woods.

Supporters will be able to upload photos of the threat, post comments on it, and download model press releases, planning responses and other resources. The content will be much more user-defined, and the focus will be on making connections between the individual cases and users being able to service the needs of a local campaign by specifying what they need.

Ed Pomfret is the Head of Campaigns at the Woodland Trust campaigns@woodlandtrust.org.uk

by Ed Pomfret, Woodland Trust published Sep 15, 2008,
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