Grant helps tech team turn tide for marine conservation effort

A TRIO of specialists dedicated to wildlife conservation have pooled their collective talents to help protect the largest fish in the oceans and the North East Business Support Fund was ready to help provide the support they needed.

Critter was created by friends, Simon Canaway, a designer; digital developer Tom Jardine-McNamara and marine biologist Richard Rees, in 2020 after discovering researchers monitoring whale sharks were collecting data with pencil and paper.

Support from business support and enterprise agency NBSL, via the North East Business Support Fund, allowed Critter to iron out platform issues to ensure data collected via both Android and Apple devices could be collated and shared on one universal system.

Combining their expertise, the team developed “Track”, a system for collecting and managing wildlife encounter data. Using a cloud-hosted portal and mobile app, Track empowers “citizen science”, enabling researchers to collect and analyse information contributed by tourists and divers.  

Following a successful pilot project with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, Critter encountered challenges combining data from Android and Apple devices, with a specific system required for each. Thanks to the North East Business Support Fund – which is part financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the Northern Powerhouse – Critter secured a grant of £1,575 to hire Middlesbrough-based StackUp Digital to retool the app and develop one codebase used across all mobile device platforms.

“Grant support from NBSL and the North East Business Support Fund was easy to access, arrived rapidly and was vital for hiring the experts at StackUp to overcome the issues we faced with data from the two devices, it helped us move Track forward quickly and get it to the point where we could launch it to the widest audience possible.

Simon Canaway

A benefit of the system is that it turns potential shark hazards into opportunities for education. Many sharks bear scars from boat and propellor strikes, but with dive tour operators now actively adopting the use of Track, recreation divers are now helping monitor the animals’ health, size, movements and habits.

“This is a real passion project for us,” said Simon. “We were lucky enough to visit the Maldives to spend time on research boats monitoring the sharks.

“These teams do not receive much funding, with many relying on donations and “voluntourism”, with individuals paying to be part of the research team for a period of time. As a result, we were struck by how analogue data collection was.

“Researchers use pencils and paper, then laboriously record information on Excel spreadsheets. We knew there was a more efficient way, so set about creating Track.”

Whale sharks can be identified via a unique spot pattern, like human fingerprints, with no two the same. Researchers also recognise individuals by their scars, often caused by collisions with tourist boat propellors. 

Track recognises these patterns and not only records data collated via “citizen science” interactions, it also allows that diver to access specific information about the growth, movements and habits of individual sharks they spot. 

“There has been a great deal of interest, which is fantastic. We presented Track at a conference of whale shark biologists and people were blown away by its potential. The apps have been made freely available to the public via the App and Google Play Stores, quickly gaining interest across marine conservation groups and citizen scientists alike,” said Simon.

Critter is working with the St Helena National Trust and BLUE Marine Foundation on its St Helena Whale Shark app and developing projects in Mexico, Madagascar and the Maldives.

Simon said: “The potential for Track is enormous. We’re focused on marine megafauna, but there is no reason why this can’t be scaled up further. It would be fantastic to do a project in the UK and even locally, to help and encourage conservation efforts closer to home.”

John King, NBSL North East Business Support Manager, said: “Critter is as innovative as it is important. The team used its collective talent to create something that improves people’s knowledge of one of the oceans’ most mysterious creatures, and may also help protect it. “NBSL was proud to support this exciting project and we’re delighted that an app partly-developed here in the North East is currently submerged in oceans across the world, helping us better understand and appreciate the miracles of the natural world.”

NBSL logo

The North East Business Support Fund has been helping North East SME’s to grow and develop for over a decade. The fund is the longest established business support programme in the region, delivered by the fabulous team of expert business support people – NBSL.