Innovations in Conservation: Angler’s Atlas – Converting anglers into citizen scientists

For the first installation of my new “Innovations in Conservation” series, I interviewed Sean Simmons who is the founder of Angler’s Atlas: a digital citizen science platform that collects important fishing data across Canada’s lakes.

During the interview, we touched on many topics that are important for all conservation efforts. Such as:

  • Identifying a set of benefits that will motivate audience members to take action and remain engaged.
  • Using qualitative research approaches to regularly hear from your audience and learn what’s working and where gaps still exist.
  • Building trust with your audience – in this case, by keeping their secret fishing spots private and providing regular feedback loops.
  • The long haul process of digital development and the need to test, adapt and then test some more.

It was a fun and informative interview! You can watch the replay here and check out a transcript of the interview below, including several great quotes from Sean.

Watch the interview

Or read all about it

How Angler’s Atlas got its start

My background is in Limnology. I did a Master’s of Environmental Science at the University of Northern British Columbia. I studied a specific lake around Prince George, called Tabor Lake that underwent a massive fish kill in 1993. There were 100,000 white fish that floated to the surface dead, so that was a ready-made project for me to jump into.

When I was doing my research there, I realized the Government collected some really interesting data on that lake. In fact, I did a regional lake survey to compare Tabor Lake to all the other lakes in the region. And discovered incredible bathymetric data that’s available, fisheries stocking data, old fisheries assessments that took place were literally collecting dust. Liking fishing myself, I knew that  would be gold if you were into sport fishing and angling.

So, I set up a company after I graduated – Angler’s Atlas – and started publishing recreational fishing maps across Prince George. There were 15 maps I started with, and over time we’ve been adding more and more data to the platform. We now cover over a quarter million water bodies across Canada. We have detailed bathymetric maps on tends of thousands of water bodies.

The Evolution of Angler’s Atlas [5:15 mark]

When we put this out there, I gave everything away for free, so I wasn’t charging anybody for the data. The idea was that I’d be able to generate revenue through marketing. That is essentially how the platform has grown.

A couple of years ago, we started noticing that a lot of our members really like to share information. Certainly love sharing photos. People love to brag about that fish that they caught. Just over two years ago, we started aggressively collecting fish species data. Simple presence-absence information. And now we have data for thousands of lakes across the country where it’s our members sharing that information back with us. We’ve been able to cultivate that citizen science activity with our members.

In Canada, we have over a million fish-bearing lakes. What gets sampled each year is a small, small fraction which leaves a vast majority of these waters unmonitored.

I was thinking, is there a way we leverage our online community who is out there fishing and who are passionate about conservation – they’re some of the strongest conservationists I know – and engage them and give them ways they can share that information back?

That’s the foundation of our program called MyCatch, which is angler recorded fishing data, specifically with catch per unit effort associated with it so we have a standard measure across every water body. What we’ve been focused on this last year is: how do we start scaling this up?


How many users do you have of the app? [8:11]

At a high level there are 7,125 trips recorded – that’s an angler saying I was out for 4 hours, on this lake, I caught three fish, on this date. Those four key pieces of information.

We have a catch per unit effort [1.18 fish per hour] which is a standard measure we’re looking for in this project that we’ll be able to use to compare with other creel surveys. And times nothing was caught [2,084].

You can see the species that have been caught at a high level and you can see the top water body. You can get a break-down of the fishing trips reported over time, fish caught and catch rates. Here is where you can start drilling down to specific water bodies. Now, not everybody sees this.

One of the key deals of working with anglers is – they want to help, but if we’re going to be sharing their secret spots then that immediately shuts things down. So we can’t reveal their secret spots. But they’re happy to share with the biologists. So I will provide high level data for people to see, but the biologists we’re working with can actually drill down to that specific data where they can do the analysis and run their tests.

We have a much larger audience. We have about 75,000 on our email list. We’ve had about 300,000-400,000 over the summer on our website. This gives a sense of what the use is and we’re still working on how to improve that.


What have you done to pull in anglers to use the app, to send it out to the fishing world to get members and non-members to use the program? [12:40]

This is the major challenge. The technology is pretty easy to set up. It’s how do we find ways to not only get people’s attention but then convert them to signing up as a member and then retain them so they continue to use the platform. This is where we spend most of our energy right now.

Making sure you know what the reward is and how your end user responds to reward. Is it something that really motivates them? Is it something they’re kind of interested in or something they’re really interested in? And getting a better sense of that is really a core mission of ours.

One of the ways we do that is we build something, we put it out there, and then the most important thing is getting in front of our users then. Making sure we get out of the office, we go find the user and making sure we have an opportunity to talk to them with in-depth discussions. It’s very qualitative at this stage – it’s not the quantitative things I’m looking for.

It’s more: what are the things that make them get excited, where you can hear the excitement in their voice? Or a real pain point they illustrate? Or something that might really upset them and turn them away? Those are the things we really only learn through discussions with our end users.

We have a structured approach for how we do this. Each month we send out an email to the people who are our top contributors, because those are the types of people we want to be engaging more of. We send them out a certificate, a small reward if you’ve contributed so many trips. From there we ask them if they’re interested in talking more with us as we’re looking to make improvements to the app, or the user experience, and get a better sense of what their core motivations are and what we can do to address that.

We find that reaching out and getting in front of the user over and over again is really the way we start to home in on what are their core motivations and how we can help satisfy those core motivations. Recognizing that we certainly have our own objectives in mind, so we have to be able to pair and bring alignment to our objectives and the motivations of the users we’re trying to recruit onto the platform.

What are some of the things you’ve learned through your qualitative research and discussions with anglers and app users? What have been some of the biggest insights from your users on what’s awesome or what’s not working and needs to be added in next iterations? [16:25]

I view any sort of digital development – whether it’s a website, or an app, or anything like that – like a marathon. And building it is not the end of the marathon; it’s the qualifier. It gets you ready to start the race. The goal is to get something out there so you can start measuring it both qualitatively and quantitatively.

When we launched MyCatch in May, we knew it was very basic and had to catch some basic information for our purposes, from a science perspective. We had to provide a tool for the angler that we assumed would be like a logbook. Because we know that logbooks are common already. We assumed this would be a way for them to do it digitally, so they didn’t have to carry around paper. But we also recognized it was the beginning of a very long process.

We put it out there and right off the bat we could tell there was an issue with the ability to mark locations. We had it buried; it wasn’t immediately apparent to the user. They could easily tag a lake but they couldn’t easily add a marker to it. That was something obvious we learned right away.

Another thing we learned is that we had catch logs and trip logs isolated which made sense to us, but we realized as soon as it put it out to the users that it didn’t make any sense to them. So, we had to find a way to better integrate that.

Those are two things we found over the summer and have since updated the app and put out some new releases. Our editor is reaching out to our members this week to find out how the changes are being received.

One of the things we noticed that is really important to them that we had no idea about, was having a real-time tracking system like the way that Strava and Nike app allow you to take the app with you and just run it while you’re out there. From that you’d get a real-time tracking system of not only the exact locations of where you are when you’re fishing but also makes it easier to add that information in afterwards. So that’s something we’re looking at.

So here’s where the qualitative and quantitative start to match up. It’s not what one person says that matters, but it’s what you hear over and over and over again. You start to realize there’s a pattern here that we’re not addressing. From there, we’ll take those learnings and apply them to the app and future updates.

Reminds me of a term we use in qualitative research, “triangulation” – doing the right amount of research to validate if it’s a pattern or just one person. [20:50]

It’s a lesson. One of the questions I had was how do you know when you’ve talked to enough people? And it’s when you hear the same thing over and over again. That’s how you know your sample size is roughly large enough.

Fishers are notoriously secretive about their locations, how well they’re doing, their tricks to catching more fish. How have you overcome that barrier to adoption and assured those fishers that you’re not giving away their trade secrets? [21:50]

I see there being three distinct groups. There’s a small group on one side, maybe 10% (I’m ball parking) who are happy to share and have no qualms about it. There’s a small section that does that. Then there’s the majority section that will share with their buddies, their close friends that they trust, but nobody else. Then there’s that final section that won’t share with anybody, doesn’t matter, and they’ll hunt you down if you share their secret spot. They’re really quite aggressive about it.

You have to think about each of these groups differently. The ones who want to share, we need to make sure there’s an easy way for them to share information. But the vast majority of anglers don’t want to share with everybody – they’ll either share with somebody they trust or nobody at all. So making sure we’re able to satisfy that need because we won’t get buy-in if they think their information is going out there.

The way we’ve structured it is we provide high level stats – the global stats on what’s coming in.

Getting information back as a contributor is a very important part of that reward system for the users. It’s making sure they see they’re part of a larger thing and that their information is not just going off into the ether and being ignored. Making sure we reconnect with those users and provide them information about the project is really critical in getting their long-term commitment onto this.

But we don’t want to give away their secret spot as that would essentially kill the project and our source of data. We set it so our researchers can see the data but they have to treat it confidentially so they can’t release the specific location data. They can use the data to do the analysis, but anything that gets released has to be aggregated so you can reverse engineer and find a secret lake or latitude-longitude. So that’s the deal we make the anglers and we’re up front about that.

Do you have any concerns with the validity of the data you’re receiving? [24:30]

The quality of the data is our biggest challenge as we have to be able to demonstrate that there’s at least a correlation with existing metrics. One of the things we’re going to be doing is taking a look at the data we’re collecting and comparing it to existing creel surveys on the same water bodies. It’s a simple scatter plot where you do a regression analysis. We’re looking at other ways of doing the analysis and comparisons as well with research partners.

When anglers are on our website and looking at individual water bodies – each one in our system has the same layout – a homepage, a map with markers shown, and fish species. It lists all the fish species our members have confirmed. Members can down vote the species mentioned as well and this is where the power of the crowd comes in. I know this lake well and it’s history – rainbow trout are in there, kokanee are certainly in there, but white sturgeon – not a chance.

So when somebody confirms white sturgeon and puts that on the page when it’s not there, members can go and disagree. And can also agree that they’ve seen those species as well. We can see how they’re posting information on specific species, like pictures of that species on this lake.

How is this data useful and helpful, and being used for conservation purposes? [32:00]

We’ve been focused primarily on catch per unit effort so we can radically expand the data set that’s available for lakes across the country. As we’re going through this, talking with a number of researchers, we’ve realized there’s now a number of ways we can now connect our audience with specific research projects that are on the ground.

We have four projects on our site that we’re working with. One project in Northern BC is studying the spatial ecology of Arctic grayling in the Parsnip core area. A key part of this project is they’re tagging fish and they need anglers to report them back.

Can we leverage our existing audience here to learn about this project, and anyone that’s interested in fishing the Parsnip river is interested in grayling, will have a natural incentive and motivation to be part of this project because it’s now not so much a motherhood statement of ‘you’re doing good for conservation’, but this is now in your backyard at a water body you’re connected with. We’re still testing this out but we believe that’s a stronger motivation for anglers than just a high-level ‘I want to help for conservation’.

You can follow the project so you’re automatically tied into any communication that takes place; you can report a tag right from this page; and this data is directly available to the researcher. It also creates a sub-community of anglers who are really motivated. The researcher can post comments right on here and people can reply.

I saw there is a citizen science certificate. Can you tell us more about that? [35:30]

This is part of the motivation. I don’t pretend that we’re there and that we’ve solved the problem. But this is part of how we’re trying to engage and retain users. Any users that are actively providing trips – we want to recognize them and say thanks for their effort. And find ways of providing rewards that match what we can afford and demonstrate our appreciation and keep them connected with the project that doesn’t cost a lot.

We started this summer with the citizen science certificate for those who have completed 5 trips or more. We recognize people on this page. We don’t want to share too much information on this page as privacy is important, but we want to publicly recognize them.

As we talk with anglers more and more, we’ll get a sense: is this a strong motivation or a weak motivation? It’s always important to think about how significant is the motivation because it’s easy to say you’re interested in conservation, but it may not be a strong core motivator. Understanding how strong those motivations are is really important in understanding your audience, and how you’re going to recruit and retain them over time.

It’s a bit of a gamification as there’s a leaderboard of the top contributors. I’m not sure if that’s the appropriate incentive to provide here. We’ll test it out, we’ll see if we can get more motivation. We think a strategy of leveling up where the more you contribute, the more access to some data you can get or get entered to win a prize or that sort of thing.

What’s next for Angler’s Atlas and MyCatch? [40:00]

Focusing on some of those next iterations, the real-time catch, and looking at what the design needs to be for that so it’s effortless. We still have to go through the designs and testing on that; hopefully this Fall we can get that implemented on the app.

On the website, creating more of a tiered approach. We want to really focus on recruitment and retention and what we really need to do to wrap that up. We got decent numbers to start this summer, but our audience is a lot larger than the number of contributors we have so what do we need to do to convert more of them into citizen scientists.

[Expansion possibilities outside of Canada?]

There’s a number of US agencies and researchers who are interested in this sort of work. We have a platform that can support the US data very easily, I would just need to get it and incorporate it. If there are projects in the US that are a natural fit, then I’m all up for doing projects in the US as well.  But Canada is really where our base is so that’s the natural focus.