Reforestation is a big task that demands collaborative action. By uniting their technology through a new API, The Thoughtworks Social Change Lab is helping Sylva Foundation and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) combine capabilities and drive progress towards the shared goal of protecting and expanding the UK’s woodland.
Despite being home to some of the most beautiful ancient woodland in the world, and a historic forestry culture, today, just 13% of the UK is covered by trees — a figure far below the global average of 31%.
Sylva Foundation is working to change that. The foundation leads woodland growth and restoration projects, using innovative tools like its myForest platform to educate private landowners — who collectively own around 73% of the UK’s total woodland — on the value of reforestation and help them to meet government regrowth targets.
Those goals are also shared by teams from LJMU, whose EcoservR tool uses spatial models to project the impact and ecosystem benefits of various woodland management options, including carbon sequestration, flood regulation and air pollution.
When we discovered what the team at LJMU had created with EcoservR, we saw an opportunity to make powerful and robust data available to myForest users for the first time. By combining our solutions, we could help reduce loss of biodiversity, halt climate change, and help society tackle huge environmental challenges.
With the two tools both aiming to support informed, data-driven reforestation and woodland growth, Sylva Foundation and LJMU applied to the Thoughtworks Social Change Lab to help them combine the detailed land planning capabilities of EcoservR with the reach of myForest.
The challenge: Uniting two reforestation tools and increasing their reach through a new API
“We knew that EcoservR was powerful, and we were very happy with what the team had been able to create. But ultimately, it’s still an internal-facing solution that’s used primarily by data scientists,” explained Colm Bowe, Senior Lecturer at LJMU.
“Partnering with Sylva Foundation and extending EcoservR through the myForest platform would help us bring our capabilities to a wider, external audience” Colm continued.
Using a collaborative inception process, the Thoughtworks team helped everyone involved to understand exactly what was needed, on both the product, and technical side, to bring these solutions together using a new API, and create something that drives both organizations towards their goals.
Seeing the full scope
“We planned three weeks of workshops to start,” explained Billy Dann, Thoughtworks Business Development Manager for Social Change. “Once everyone started to share their opinions, we quickly realised that many of the stakeholders had different views of exactly how EcoservR would add value for myForest users, and the full potential scope of the project came into view.”
To help, the inception process was adapted to help everyone share their views and get aligned on key criteria and success metrics including:
- How the final product should look and behave
- How different user personas would use it
- Everything the API would need to touch from a technical perspective
- How the joint solution would talk to various external tools and capabilities
- How EcoservR would ultimately add value for myForest users — and users of any other service that connects to it via the API in the future
And that was before many of the specific technical considerations were covered. “On the technical side, there were a lot of questions about how we should publish the API, and how we could make EcoservR scalable for web scenarios,” explained Jean d’Arc, Thoughtworks Tech Lead on the project.
“One of the big challenges we faced was that EcoservR is built in R, which isn’t very scalable,” he continued. “It’s slower, single-threaded and certainly not the kind of technology you’d use to publish an API, so devising ways to work around that was an interesting challenge for us.”
Challenging more than just technology
The inception process really challenged Sylva Foundation in great ways. It wasn’t just about the API and the app, it got the Foundation's teams to consider new ideas and ways of thinking, changing their approach to project management, and more generally, their approach to business.
Beyond the operational impact, the outcomes of the initial three-week partnership included:
A prototype that could be used to demonstrate the project’s potential to investors
The development of mob-programming and pair-programming skills between Sylva and LJMU that will be essential at the next stages of the project
The introduction of agile ways of working which have helped level up both teams’ approaches to technology management and delivery
A manual for carrying out user research before development, ensuring that future development work is clearly aligned to user needs
The team asked so many brilliant and difficult questions, and their attention to detail was incredible. Even if this project ended at this stage, we’ve gained so much from the inception process that the Thoughtworks team have guided us through.
Putting the clients in the driving seat
The last important output of this kind of inception exercise is the showcase presentation. It’s something that not-for-profit organizations can present to funders to help move the project forward, so they are encouraged to take ownership of the outputs, and the presentation of the details.
Since then, the Sylva Foundation team have been working on two bids for funding to take this project to the next stage and bring the vision of an innovative, connected reforestation support app to life.
Leaving a lasting, positive impact
Once funding is secured, the enhanced myForest platform, incorporating EcoservR, will be an invaluable tool for helping landowners and other stakeholders hit ambitious government reforestation goals — and plant intelligently to make the best use of their natural capital. Plus, the EcoservR API will be available to other innovators, opening the door for more great initiatives that will help the UK’s woodland.
Beyond its implications for reforestation and woodland preservation, the project has also had a lasting positive impact on the individuals involved.
“This has been one of the best projects I’ve worked on during my time at Thoughtworks,” said Jean, who has personally volunteered more of his time to the cause since the engagement ended. “It’s not just a worthwhile cause, it’s been a great chance to work with amazing, smart, passionate, committed people. It’s been inspirational.”
This was one of my first projects with Thoughtworks, and is one that will stay with me for a long time. The whole process has been great, it’s an amazing feeling to drive positive change for the UK and help such a worthy cause. It wasn’t easy, but it’s been very, very rewarding.
On behalf of Sylva Foundation, to organizations facing similar challenges, we encourage you to reach out to the Thoughtworks team. The process and the outcomes are rare, and what they offer is extremely powerful — in many ways. Due to the pandemic, we have never physically met, but the camaraderie, the commitment, and the dedication has been truly incredible.
To find out more about Sylva Foundation, and learn how you can support its mission to reforest the UK and preserve the country’s historic woodland culture, visit sylva.org.uk. If you’re a non-profit facing similar technical challenges, and you’d like to learn more about how Thoughtworks could help, visit www.thoughtworks.com/about-us/social-change.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.