discussion / Software and Mobile Apps  / 21 June 2017

What lessons have you learnt along the way when developing apps or software for conservation?

We just published a fantastic, in-depth case study from @John+Cornell , in which he shares the story of the development of a mobile app, Naturewatch, that ultimately did not deliver what was intended. The reason I love this article is that he takes what must have been an incredibly frustrating experience and uses the telling of it to signpost the 10 key lessons he took away from the whole thing. In doing so, he offers others coming behind the chance to take a different path in their own work. 

As I was reading it, I found myself nodding along and identifying where my experiences diverted or mirrored John's. Uncomfortably, these diversions weren't necessarily always by design - some were by instinct, other luck, and many more by having the benefit of wise advice - so hearing his account made me wonder of the disasters I've unknowningly avoided. 

I recommend you go read the full article, but I thought it might also be valueable to draw out his ten lessons learnt and post them here as a way a neat way to start a conversation around this topic.

  • Lesson 1. Choose a contractor who can demonstrate that they can deliver the technical developments required for the project to succeed. Learning on the job is not an option!
  • Lesson 2. Beware of strangers offering gifts, or in this case if offered pro bono services, be very clear about how these might affect delivery of the product – particularly intellectual property.

  • Lesson 3. Build-in the ability to test your product properly without having to get on an aeroplane to do it!

  • Lesson 4. Build your app on multiple platforms and not just for one or risk excluding large numbers of potential users!

  • Lesson 5. Fully involve your Partners from the outset of a project if you want them to value, use and support the thing that you are building. If possible, use existing networks of users, or even better, build your desired functionality into an existing application so that you do not need to build constituency, but instead have a ready-made receptive audience!

  • Lesson 6. Agree intellectual property rights with your developer before you sign any contract!

  • Lesson 7. Have a legacy plan for any development to enable ongoing access to what you have put so much time and effort into!

  • Lesson 8. External developers might have agendas that ultimately conflict with your business needs so remember - caveat emptor!

  • Lesson 9. Have clear aims, goals and objectives in order to feedback in a quantifiable way to your funders on how much success or failure you had!

  • Lesson 10. Without the encouragement, backing and understanding of what you are trying to achieve within your own organisation, by your organisation, it might be difficult to succeed.

I would love to hear from you if you have had experience developing software or apps (particularly in a conservation context). Do you agree with John's takeaways? Would you add any additional advice?   


It's been fantastic to see a lot of support for @John+Cornell and appreciation for the honesty in his account over on Twitter. Some of the comments include: 


Failure should be discussed openly in our work, esp. when caused by things like scope creep, insufficient budgets, and short timelines. https://t.co/jsYPZPVA2U

— Shah Selbe (@shahselbe) June 23, 2017


An honest and thought provoking piece. A recommend read with some good take aways. https://t.co/OeOKfZdZKP

— Alasdair Davies (@Al2kA) June 22, 2017


Many lessons here... https://t.co/XhFnM22O8b

— iDigBio (@iDigBio) June 22, 2017

Save the Rhino

Really interesting read & I hope the lessons learned (& so generously shared) help another conservation project in future

— Save the Rhino (@savetherhino) June 22, 2017


Can I recommend www.ushahidi.com based in Kenya, they did a successful job of tracking realtime violent outbreaks in Kenya during the elections.

They also have an affiliate company delivery wifi to hard to reach places including rural conservation outposts and schools https://www.brck.com


Thanks for sharing this! Very very useful. Some other points we found very useful in the development of our Ranger Academy e-learning platform (almost ready for testing by the way!), were:

- Make sure your developers understand the target audience. There is only so much you can explain, and it is filtered by your own perceptions. We had our developers spend time with rangers in the field in Kenya, and this resulted in several excellent changes in their way of approaching the app.

- Try to find developers who are more than just that - find people who can take on the project from start to end and who also think about design, user interface, etc. Give them ownership of the product and steer from the sidelines if you're not an expert. (But as pointed out here, do make sure your intellectual property rights are sorted!)

I would highly recommend our developers as well, feel free to PM for more info.