TrailWatch app for Hong Kong hikers doubles as conservation tool
App helps hikers plan and monitor their walks, while keeping an eye on the trails
In the autumn of 2012, a group of keen hikers got to thinking how they could use their smartphones not only to capture images of the stunning scenery but to report on environmental problems sighted along the trail.
As it happened all were staffers at the Wyng Foundation, a family charity that supports, among other initiatives, environmental programmes such as those run by Civic Exchange and the Clean Air Network. The IT professionals in the group decided to take on the challenge of developing a smartphone app with that function.
The result is TrailWatch, a relatively easy-to-use app that not only helps hikers plan their walks and collate photos taken along the way, but also enables them to immediately post images of construction damage that they may spot.
Routes can be selected from photos shown on the app, but the programme can also propose possible trails based on location or distance. Once this is chosen, the app will keep track of a hiker's progress: speed, distance travelled, elevation reached and calories expended.
"It started off as an app to supplement our hobby, but then we thought conservation groups could use it as well," says Tsang Kwok-fung, communications director for the foundation.
"Many people are debating the value of country parks," he says, noting the increasing pressure on Hong Kong's country parks amid calls from development secretary Paul Chan Mo-po and tycoons such as Shui On Group chairman Vincent Lo Hong-sui to carve out parcels of land to build housing estates.
So as much as they are eager to see people get fit as they explore nature trails with the app, Tsang and his team hope that users will become more aware of what a precious resource Hong Kong has in its country parks and help to protect them.
In particular, they can make a difference by keeping an eye out for encroachment on parkland and other illegal activities. Hikers can record, for example, instances of illegal construction, tree felling, suspicious activity, flooding, landslides, vandalism and waste dumping, and upload photos and details through the app's incident report feature.
In recent months, they have forwarded two cases of serious damage to the authorities. "We want to encourage people to report these kinds of incidents as data collection that can be used for research later," Tsang says.
It's crucial that photos of the environment are taken with a smartphone because the images carry GPS information, and cannot be manipulated. "The goal is not for the app to have beautiful pictures, but for recording purposes," he stresses.
For example, there are a lot of old village houses scattered across Sai Kung. The app makes it easier to be able to look back and compare their condition.
After releasing TrailWatch in September, the organisers reached out for input from green groups such as the Save Lantau Alliance and Lantau Buffalo Association.
"It's a good way to for us to track the water buffalo by getting reports from people where they see them," says alliance activist Peg Li Yee-man.
A surveyor who studied environmental management at university, Li has used TrailWatch since it was developed and likes how the app makes it easy to capture useful information.
"If we get more buffalo reports on TrailWatch, we will consider using data collected from the app to include in our reports," she says.
"The app is very useful for conservation, it's good for when you're out hiking. You don't need to have a camera, just use your phone. It's easy for us to take pictures of buffalos."
Tsang estimates there are more than 20 NGOs dedicated to conservation in Hong Kong, and several are already using TrailWatch to record, including Friends of Mui Wo Cattle, Lantau Buffalo Association, Wild Boar Concern Group, Save the Incense Trees and the Save Lantau Alliance. TrailWatch, which is free from the iTunes store, has been downloaded 2,000 times, and more than 10 bloggers contribute regularly to their website in Chinese and English, discussing their concerns about country parks.
The developers have also made a video to show how to use it, featuring supporters such as photographer Simon Wan Chi-chung, HKTV actor Alan Luk Chun-kong and commentator Stephen Vines, who share their delight on nature trails and their concern about protecting Hong Kong's country parks.
Like Facebook, settings on the app can be changed so that only friends are able to see your routes and pictures, which may explain why many hiking trails and pictures are not publicly displayed on the TrailWatch website.
"While reporting incidents should be made public, hiking routes can be kept private," Tsang says.
Another welcome feature is the app still works in areas where there is no Wi-fi or cellphone coverage - its map will remain accessible through the global positioning system.
GPS covers the whole territory and so even if there is no mobile phone signal, a hiker will be able to gauge where he is along the trail. "The route will be saved in the phone, and as long as the user presses the 'start' button when commencing the hike, they can constantly refer to the map," says Harriet Cheng Wai-yam, a program manager who helped develop TrailWatch.
The team had tried out a number of similar apps to make sure they would develop an interface that was easy to use, Cheng adds. "Many of them are for advanced users, but none are Hong Kong-centric."
TrailWatch is based on an open-source map which, Tsang concedes, isn't as detailed as those produced by the government. Still, there is a side benefit. Because it is open-source, TrailWatch can also be accessed from abroad and they have had colleagues using it in urban centres in Japan, Switzerland and England.
A recently added feature to TrailWatch is group tracking: people hiking together can share a route map, and once they click the "start" button at the trail head, they will be able to monitor each other's location through GPS.
"It's great when you have some hikers who walk slower or faster than others," Tsang says.
The feature came in useful when Tsang got lost after taking a turn when he should have kept walking straight ahead: "I checked my app and was able to see my friends were elsewhere so I was able to call them to catch up with them."
It has been something of a learning curve for TrailWatch's founders, who conceived their app with the idea of recruiting hikers to help keep an eye on conditions in country parks.
"We didn't know how to run it because no one else had done it before in Hong Kong. We had to reach out to NGOs to collaborate," Cheng says.
That's how they discovered an initial idea to employ one person to investigate and act on incident reports would simply be impractical; instead information is forwarded to the relevant NGOs for follow-up as the TrailWatch team are not experts on specific environmental issues.
For now, they will be content if the app can encourage more people to explore the parks.
"We want them to first enjoy the countryside and appreciate it," Cheng says. And when they do, they will be more vigilant about any blemish on Hong Kong's natural treasures.
For more information, go to trailwatch.hk