GPS-enabled bison collars and 'root-and-branch' digital evolution, with Alice Kershaw and Robbie Still of the Wildlife Trust
In this podcast Andrew chats with Alice Kershaw and Robbie Still. Alice is head of digital transformation at the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT) and Robbie leads digital projects for the Kent Wildlife Trust. Here, they reveal how they coordinate their digital activities across a wide and complex network of organisations, and how – although their work involves everything from spreadsheets to bison collars – their daily drive is to deliver real change and benefits for people and for nature.
Listen on your smart device or read the transcript below
‘Whether it is the kind of technology around Nofence cattle-grazing, whether it's drone usage, or use of geospatial data, whether it's really understanding the membership, or whether it's virtual reality – there's some unbelievably interesting stuff going on across the movement … it's like 46 different little startups in the same sector trying to respond to things.’Alice Kershaw Tweet
Andrew: Hello and thank you for joining me on another episode of The Clientside Podcast. I'm your host, Andrew Armitage, and I'm the founder of a digital agency specialising in building websites that support organisations on their digital transformation journeys. And today you're in for a real treat because I've not one, but two fantastic guests, which is a first on the podcast.
Andrew: Today, I'm joined by Alex Kershaw and Robbie Still from what many people would know as the Wildlife Trust. Alex is the head of digital transformation at the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts [RSWT], which spearheads a grassroots movement of 46 independent wildlife trusts across the country. And they look after some 2300 nature reserves with over 870,000 members supported by an extra 32,000 volunteers. Based in Leeds, she's a specialist in making change work for people, process transformation and procuring and delivering new digital approaches and tools to enable benefits for all users. Her work has included analysing and improving grants and investment programmes through service design at the National Lottery Heritage Fund and making the most of Peterborough's heritage and has been in her current role for around six months.
Andrew: Robbie still is an ecological data scientist turned digital transformation enthusiast, and he's leading digital projects for the Kent Wildlife Trust, which is one of those 46 federated members of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. He's an advocate of using open-source software and systems to innovate and improve efficiency within conservation organisations. In this episode, Alice and Robbie gave me some fantastic insight into how they coordinate their digital activities across what is naturally a widely distributed organisation, or more specifically, a group of organisations. We talk about what digital transformation means for conservation and – while there are a few wildlife puns that are out there! – root and branch approach to digital transformation is designed to put people at ease with what is recognised as an evolutionary journey, ultimately designed to allow people to give more time to the meaningful challenge of bringing nature back. So welcome to the podcast and it's a pleasure to be talking with you both today.
Alice: Thanks very much for having us.
Andrew: So just tell us a little bit about your role and then I think it would be great just to understand a little bit more about the organisation because a lot of people know of the Wildlife Trust, perhaps not many people are familiar with how it's structured, but that might just provide some context for people tuning in today. So let's start with you, Alice, shall we?
Alice: Hi. Yeah, I work for the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, which is a central part of the Wildlife Trusts federated movement. We are 47 independent charities that work across the UK and we have three big goals. One is to put nature into recovery and 30% of land managed for nature. Goal two is creating meaningful action and having one in four people taking action for nature. And goal three is nature-based solutions. So making sure that nature is part of the solution to all different kinds of things we're dealing with, from kind of flooding to the climate crisis. So my role is to make the most of digital as part of that. Underpinning those three goals is digital root and branch transformation, which is transformation number four. So that's all on our strategy that's online. But effectively, I work for the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, but I work with and collaborate with the wider movement.
Andrew: Okay, that sounds great, Alice. And I can't help picking you up on some of the puns in there – of course, the 'grassroots' and the 'root and branch' approach – but excellent. Sounds really good. So how about you, Robbie? You're in the Kent Wildlife Trust, aren't you?
Robbie: Yes. So I am one of the local trusts, one of the 46. Alice very much helps us out. We're all members, but we're all separate organisations, have our own kind of strategies, objectives, goals, all of that. So yeah, Kent is one of the bigger wildlife trusts as kind of one of the bigger counties. But I am digital transformation officer at the Trust coming in from sort of a conservation background but now branching into the operation. So I've kind of got all my hands on the livestock and making nice maps and things and now moving into digital transformation across the whole organisation, which will be a really nice challenge.
Andrew: So how does digital transformation work then for the Wildlife Trust? Because you've got this – is it head office, is that fair to say?
Alice: Oh, no, we're definitely not a head office.
Andrew: But you're a distributed organisation aren't you, when you combine all the individual localised federated members? So you're quite distributed, I imagine you've got quite a lot of volunteers in different organisations as well, so that potentially means that the level of digital awareness, let's say it can be quite varied in different pockets of the country. So is that a challenge for you? Is that something that you can embrace? How do you involve people when you’ve got such diversity with those skill sets?
Alice: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's probably fair to say we have 3000 members of staff. We have over half a million volunteers. We have 870,000 members across all of the wildlife trusts, so the reach is huge. If we were one organisation we would be one of the biggest environmental NGOs in the UK. So it's absolutely incredibly complex and to use another slightly environmental metaphor, it's effectively like a murmuration, like we kind of move together in terms of our ambition, but kind of we are all individual units within that. So there is a huge variety.
Alice: But for me that's brilliant because what we've actually got is all this different creativity and innovation and all the Wildlife Trusts are pioneering in some area of digital. So whether it is the kind of technology that Robbie just alluded to around kind of Nofence cattle grazing, whether it's drone usage, whether it is use of geospatial data, whether it's really understanding the membership, whether it's virtual reality. There's some unbelievably interesting stuff going on across that movement, and we have stuff that we know works for wildlife trusts, that we can then scale from areas of the movement. Once we can identify it into others and learn from each other and grow collectively.
Alice: So it's both a challenge and a major opportunity, in my opinion, because there's so much great thinking and delivery out there. But at the same time, how do we raise everyone up so that we're all kind of at the same level? So in terms of capability and ability to respond to digital technology that's out there, that's the big thing for me. But I think there's a lot that we really get out of the fact we're distributed and really local. So we're responding to local needs, but we can globally start to build on what we're all doing. It's like 46 different little start-ups, you know, in the same sector trying to respond to things.
Andrew: So I suppose you're sort of co-ordinating that overall strategy in your role that then cascades down to people like you, Robbie, who obviously are at a more localised level where you're perhaps in a position that you can cherry pick certain projects that you prioritise that obviously fit in and move towards that common goal that's defined in the strategy.
Robbie: Yeah, we're moving in the same direction, but we all have our own prioritisation, our own needs. Everyone's very different, primarily because of the sort of massive diversity of sizes of trusts. Some have 150–200 staff and some are really small, so it's difficult. So we've got 150 staff and three people in the digital transformation team. So trying to roll that out is a bit of a challenge, but we're kind of all moving forwards in the right direction and it is that using what we can from what Alice is doing, it's about looking at what RSWT are doing. You said cherry picking the kind of things they've done as a collective that are really useful for the individual trusts, but also using it as a forum to discuss amongst ourselves. That's the biggest thing I've got out of Alice's role in this, and bringing all the trust together is, we can have conversations because in this day and age we're all digital, we're all very connected.
Robbie: But it's very difficult to talk sometimes because everyone's always connected all the time. You don't reach out. So having these forums where you find out what the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust is doing around one thing, and 'oh, I want to do that', and we can either sort of basically contribute to each other. I'll pay them to do that project or they'll pay me to do another project. And it keeps the sort of momentum going. When someone's got funding, someone else might not, but then they can jointly benefit from the same thing. So that's a really nice environment. It's like an ecosystem – I'm going to go for another pun! – to be to be a part of.
Andrew: And I suppose actually in many cases it would be fair to say every federated member has their own digital transformation officer as such, or does that clearly ... I would expect that varies based on the locality and the size of the trust itself?
Alice: It definitely varies. There is quite a lot of capability distributed I would say, and it's not often called digital transformation. There are people with really great digital skills in things like land management, marketing, geospatial. Some of the forums that Robbie alluded to are very diverse with kind of the job titles of people in there. We've got people who are working on membership recruitment alongside people who are quite kind of serious, IT-infrastructure manager types. So it's interesting and also needed. I think the variety of digital opportunity that's out there means that I doubt that anyone with digital transformation anywhere near their job title has anything resembling the same job description.
Andrew: Okay. Yeah. But at the same time, you've probably got far more resource, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of skills, yeah? If you took an organisation of a similar size, then without that federated membership, their marketing team or their digital transformation team might be probably no more than 5 to 10 people, something like that. But you've got the benefit of having potentially 30, give or take, depending on obviously the roles within each of the localised federated members.
Alice: Yeah, absolutely. And the kind of more than the sum of our parts bit as well where, you know, if we can bring people together as Robbie's described in terms of, you know, the extra resource where there are different skills and how we do kind of peer learning and peer support can really help that too.
Andrew: So just give me a bit of a flavour around some of the digital projects. You know, I presume a lot of the normal stuff applies. So things like hardware, software and what have you, obviously there's around digital transformation, a lot of that is around people and culture, but what are some of the outcomes that you're looking to achieve by pursuing some of these digital projects? Is it for people fundamentally or is it for wildlife and nature?
Alice: Those things are very interdependent. I would say I mean, the big thing is the wildlife trusts are dealing with, you know, huge, huge problems. And so our solid use of digital is not hypothetical. This is not a kind of, 'oh, if we fail at this, it's fine'. You know, we're dealing with a sixth extinction level event at the moment. So it's really important that we get this right for people and for nature. Like that's the same thing. So it has to work and it has to work for everyone.
Alice: But that means effectively in our strategy, you've identified some kind of key things that we want to get out of digital transformation. So it's understanding the value of digital infrastructure. So some of the work is this – often slightly less exciting, you know – maximising our enterprise level systems. But, you know, we are charities, so we have charity products that we're not using to the full extent of them. So, you know, we get quite a lot of Microsoft licences. How do we make sure we're making the most of the ability to collaborate, project-manage? It's not hugely sexy or exciting always, but it can really help efficiency free up people's time to actually spend the time doing the work that they need to be doing. Like we are not getting value if people are just pushing stuff through Excel sheets and all the time spending these kinds of manual bits that could be automated, we want them, you know, out doing stuff, delivering real change and benefits for people and for nature.
Alice: So that's where it kind of comes from. But we also need to make sure that we're getting that kind of impact at scale that digital can give us. So looking at things like shared geospatial platforms and how do we manage our data, they're big projects that are key to digital transformation because we need to make sure that the insights that are coming in from digital technologies are showing us that that benefit is working. So are we making a difference? Is the way we manage our reserves helping make species more abundant? Are our members taking part in campaigns? You know, what is happening out there and how do we use that to inform the decisions we make is another key strand.
And then alongside that, making sure that we can we have skilled staff so that they have the skills – and our volunteers, which I kind of counted in there – but have the skills to be able to respond to new digital technologies and make the most of them and know that those things are out there and that they feel supported and confident enough in using them. It's all about effectively making it a bit invisible. Like, I don't want people thinking about digital all the time. I want them to be able to think about delivering the value for nature. I'm sure Robbie has thoughts on this too.
Robbie: I technically at the moment see myself more as a data scientist and digital transformation officer because where I am really trying to embed sort of that cultural change within the trust is through access to easy-to-understand statistics, facts, data that you can really know exactly what it means straightaway because we've got over a thousand volunteers, 150 members of staff, and they're all working incredibly, incredibly hard, as everyone is across the country. But we're working on kind of shoestring budgets with huge changes to try and prevent developments to work against farmers to engage with. And everyone's in and out of the field, limited time at their desks.
Robbie: And then we've got teams meetings around the clock to try and do these things, as this post-COVID world is operating. And so, say in a meeting, someone asked, 'how many farmers are you engaging with,' or 'how much land are you conserving at the moment?' 'Where's my nearest woodlands that I can go and visit and maybe volunteer with?' That information is not currently there at the click of a button. They'd have to go and find that out. And I'm all about linking that all up, but also linking the people and the wildlife, because my new role is coming from conservation into the more operational side of it.
Robbie: So I want the, say, customer relationship management system to talk to our reserves spatial layer so we know which members have been to that reserve. If we're then targeting this project we need at the reserve, we need funding for then fundraising can focus that on those immediate members who are in the local area or particularly visit that reserve. So really using that information to inform our decision making, which everyone wants to do and everyone tries to do that, they just don't have the expertise, time, money, skills, all of it together to do it. So I've kind of come in to basically try and be invisible and make that happen so they can click on the link rather than go through filing system and spreadsheets and all of that.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. Because I know that data is key to understanding, but it's also key to storytelling, isn't it? You know, people want to understand, you need to be able to get that communication across in terms of the fundraising grant applications, all those sorts of things. And of course, as well as measuring progress, you know, it's no good collecting this data without understanding it and being able to measure the progress. And I imagine, you know, certainly from my own experience, one of the big challenges is connecting the dots. It's joining all of these different things together. And, you know, when you talk of CRM systems and things like that, are you extending into things like Internet of Things type devices in certain environments that can feed information into these kinds of platforms. So you're getting, again, that really broad picture of what's going on?
Robbie: We have very recently branched into LoRaWAN. It's not technically Internet of Things, but we've got our own personal LoRaWAN network set up at one of our biggest reserves because we are introducing European bison back into the UK for the first time in 10,000 years. But this site is rural. It's about 10 minutes from Canterbury, so it should be very connected, but it's dense forest. No wifi, no mobile signal comes down. We've got barely any wifi at our ranger stations, almost no power.
Robbie: And so traditional GPS tracking devices for the bison's collars aren't going to work because we're never going to see that information again once they go into the deepest, darkest part of the forest. And so we've set up our own personal LoRa network using smartparks – who are a Netherlands based non-profit company who are really awesome; I would recommend people check them out – to set up our own network. So these collars are now linked into that network, so we get kind of LoRa pings once an hour with the tracking information, that go live to a database, which I'm very excited about.
Alice: Yeah, we have a ... not so much kind of ... well, there are some interesting Internet of things aspects out there, but there's a lot of tracking data, drone data, animal collars, kind of camera traps on sites, things like that, that are a potentially hugely rich source of data. And being able to combine that with some of our kind of spatial data and information on land management is going to be really interesting and a lot of trusts are doing that really well already, it's fair to say. But I think collectively we could really make some interesting use of it from things like, you know, could you use our kind of Raspberry Pi type devices to check, you know, how clean rivers are? That's a project that's running somewhere. You know, there's a few things like that where there's probably more we could do in that area to kind of develop it. But it's often very land-management, species-management based.
Andrew: Yeah. And that's all going to demand quite a bit of innovating and sort of creative thinking. Is that something that you tend to lead on, Alice, in your role at the RSWT? Is that something that is spearheaded from yourself or, again, does that fall as something that's very distributed? Because, again, I imagine that a lot of these individual trusts have got their own pace of innovation. And somehow you've got to share that. You've got to share the things that people are trying, the experimentation as well, and the results that they get so you can then decide how far across do we roll that across the organisation?
Alice: Oh definitely. I mean I would say nothing is kind of necessarily led by me. A lot of my role is kind of collaboration. Coordinating and facilitating to help others is a really kind of critical point because of the way we're so distributed. It just wouldn't work. It's not the kind of organisation where you would come in and say, 'right, we're going to do this now.' It's like we need to collectively work out what the best responses are.
Alice: So to use another ecosystem metaphor, it's kind of that almost like mycelium approach, which is like things will pop up in different places, but how do we share the nutrients around the network to make sure that we can kind of all benefit from that innovation? I mean, it's probably fair to say I've only been in post around six months, so I'm still getting to grips with the Wildlife Trust because it is quite a complex movement. However, I've been so deeply impressed by the level of innovation and innovative thinking that is going on across the movement. It is huge.
Alice: When I first was being interviewed for this role, I had a slide that was the ... you know ... the William Gibson quote that says something like, 'The future's already here. It's just not evenly distributed'. And I said, 'My hunch is that there is already a lot going on here'. And that is true. It's just surfacing it. So other trusts can learn from that and other environmental NGOs. I mean, our priority is obviously how we deliver our own strategy, but we do work in partnership with a lot of other environmental organisations, you know, the RSPB, the National Trust, people like that, they're all people that we work with, too. So we're interested to learn from them as well. You know, we're all trying to solve the same problems basically.
Andrew: It's interesting you talk initially about the idea of this root and branch transformation. I mean, you say clearly there was a lot going on, but a root and branch transformation suggests that you're almost stripping it right back and restarting. But that sounds like a huge undertaking.
Alice: It depends on your metaphor. I think it's something around growing and strengthening the kind of forest that we have. You know, it's important to make sure that we have the right kind of ecosystem for our organisations to develop and thrive in. So for me, the root and branch is quite an interesting metaphor. It's fair to say this is interestingly, given the amount that you've heard from me, Robbie, this is not a metaphor that I came up with. This was in place before I started. My feeling around it is that we have something that is already great. There is a legacy to the wildlife trusts. It's an organisation and group of organisations that have been working together for a long time.
Alice: But how do we then move forward and really kind of develop our own ecosystem? You know, we are dealing with climate crisis, so we have got to try doing things differently because, how can we carry on the same? Things have changed too rapidly. So we need to be able to make the most of everything, including digital. And I see root and branch is kind of both a foundational level of, you know, let's get our own house in order, let's make sure that we are secure and compliant and we have all the right kind of policies in place and all of that kind of stuff. And then we move through to the canopy level of, you know, well, we go up the route of kind of staff skills. We need people to be skilled, otherwise it's not going to have the solidity within it. We need people to be confident. We need to understand our users and the people who we're trying to work with.
Alice: That's the kind of trunk. And then we move into that kind of, what do we put out there? What's the kind of oxygen that we are putting out? Is that our data? Is that by use of our enterprise systems, is that a collaboration? And I suppose it's the kind of ecosystem we sit within which is, you know, the external context of is that – I realised I'm going really far with this metaphor! – is that the rains falling on our tree? What are the birds that nest in our root and branch?
Alice: So there's a kind of interesting thing here, which is like, it's changing the nutrients within that forest to make it stronger, more resilient and better managed to deliver the kind of systematic change that we need – not to labour the root and branch so much. But I think it's, there is a kind of interesting discussion around digital transformation. Is it transformation, is it evolution? And I think to me there's a certain degree within which the phrase digital transformation is not always very helpful because it can scare people because they think, 'but is it going to be automating my job? Is it going to be taking away something that I like doing?' Is it going to be ... you know, this is not an organisation that spends a lot of time in offices. I think Robbie articulated that really well. This is people who are out there doing things. So it's not always a very useful phrase to have. But I think for me it's around really enhancing what we do. Let's free people up with digital, let's make the most of it because that technology is out there.
Andrew: Yeah. Sorry, Robbie, you were going to say.
Robbie: I can't really talk much about root and branch. We're still fairly early days of our strategy, so I can't go too much into that. But I'll say that our kind of elevator pitch is we're going to take away the boring parts of your job and let you do your actual job, which is kind of that whole ... it's the culture of 'this is not scary, this is not you're going to have to learn how to code and do 16 different new softwares.' This is 'we're going to take away the manual data entry, having to kind of ask around to see who can do this without having that kind of CRM system in place. For example, we're going to take all of that away and make your job hopefully ten times easier so you can get on with saving the world'. Which is what we kind of all want to do in our trusts.
Andrew: Absolutely. Yeah. Actually, I really like the way that you've been able to describe that, Alice, in such a way that for a lot of people in your organisation, that's going to make a lot of sense because I think digital transformation is a scary phrase, I think, for a lot of people because they don't necessarily understand exactly what that means and what's the transformation that we're making. How is that going to look in six, 12, 18 months? And I think the transformation is more of an evolution because what happens after 18 months, well, something else has come along and you've got to transform again. So you don't want to be constantly reinventing yourself. I think it is. I think that evolution is really important, and I guess that's really where you try and identify projects that are going to have that long-term impact into the organisation, change people's habits, behaviours and so on. But ultimately, you know, you start and get the best value out of people. They're happiest in their roles. They're making that contribution, and for a purpose-led organisation like yours that's going to help in not just operational terms, but also things like recruitment and attracting volunteers.
Alice: Yeah, 100%.
Andrew: I wondered, you know, just shifting a little bit to thinking about some of your members. We've talked very much operationally and so on. How important is some of that out-facing communication? So things like your website, some of the functionality that you might provide to member accounts and things like that. So they're engaged in the processes, in the projects that you're doing. How do you get the outreach to volunteers? Are there any particular approaches that you take to that again, potentially with joining up different systems in the background?
Alice: Yeah, I mean, I suppose to kind of answer the first bit around our website, obviously it's critical. It's the front face. The Wildlife Trust as a federated structure does have something called the collective web. So if you go on a number of different wildlife trust sites, you will see they are fairly similar. In a lot of cases, not everyone is on it, but there is a kind of shared web platform that a lot of the wildlife trusts use. And the advantage of that is that if we find things that work better, we can push them out to those other trusts. So recently, just as a slight aside, we've been running Hotjar on the website to have a look at how users really are using it. And if you are a charity, you can get free Hotjar Premium.
Alice: So definitely do that because it gives you that access, you know, alongside our Google Analytics and other kind of analytics tools. Just to get an idea, we looked at, for example, the membership pages were the ones we took a look at because they'd been built based on the information that we need and the stuff that we think people want. But taking a more kind of service-design approach of 'what are people trying to do on these pages? What are they actually doing when they're looking at it?' So for example, you would see people would go on there and they would go almost all the way through and then they would click on volunteer and leave that process, decide, 'Oh, I'm not going to be a member, I'm going to be a volunteer'.
Alice: Well, great. You still want to be involved with us as a movement. But maybe we need to explain a bit more about what's the value of being a member. What do you get out of that? What's the real important thing? So we've been doing some recent work in the kind of membership area, and that means we can push out changes and share it with the movement where we know we can optimise that journey. It's really valuable. The other thing to say is that we've recently launched a programme called Team Wilder, which is also known as Next Door Nature, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Jubilee celebrations. Okay, it's a really cool project, but that is basically supporting groups to come together on a kind of many to many basis to help each other. So kind of taking our federated side of movement structure and expanding that out of ... we have loads of experience within the movement. How do we share that collectively with people so that if someone is running a campaign in, you know, somewhere in Alderney, they can get kind of feedback from someone in Lancashire who's already run a similar type of campaign and see how that works and learn from each other?
Alice: So that's a kind of really key thing as well. So it's not just us pushing broadcasts. The idea is that we have a much more kind of collaborative approach to how we work with our communities, whether they're members, with the volunteers. We have a lot of people who take part in campaigns with us, for example, who may not be either of those but are really valuable to what we do because we need people to be speaking up for nature. And so there's some really important aspects around both our members, but also who are obviously really close to us and really important. And we want to double our membership in the next about six years.
Alice: So it's going to be something that's really valuable to form part of our movement, expand that. But those people who are members are also valuable and our website has to act for a number of different audiences. I think that's a challenge and I think that's definitely, yeah, something that's got to act for lots of different users. It's always a really interesting thing. So there is some work that I'm looking at about how we kind of really refine those journeys across the website. So it's helpful to people coming in at lots of different points as to what might be there because there's so much on it, but it's how you make sure people are really finding that and not getting frustrated by it.
Robbie: It's a nice example of how the trusts are kind of independent because we are currently creating a different website separate from the collective web. It's nice. We've got RSWT doing a huge amount of work for us, all of which is incredibly useful for a huge number of trusts. But sometimes there are little intricacies or kind of very specific requirements that trusts have where we've decided, 'okay, we're going to go in a different direction there'.
Andrew: Yeah. And I'm hearing repeatedly that collaboration word, obviously that's so, so crucial. And how do you share that content? And so I imagine, you know, there can be a lot of content created at a local level. Are there channels that you have to feed that up to the overall level of activity? Or is there a centralised, coordinated content plan, as it were, that sits across all the individual wildlife trusts?
Alice: I would say, I mean, sharing and collaborating is really key. We have got an internal kind of intranet that's called Wild Net, which people can communicate on within. And there's often kind of calls for information. I think it's a big challenge actually, to like, there is a central kind of coordination team who lead on campaigning and some of the comms work at a UK level who sit within the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. So that's quite an important aspect of it. So they will produce kind of ... we have every year, for example, something called 30 Days Wild, which is the UK's kind of longest activity – I'm never quite sure how to phrase this! – it's 30 days where you take a wild-based activity every day and it's in June; that will be launching fairly soon.
Alice: But that ... so there's things like that which are kind of coordinated, but then they have to work on a local level so people can take things that are produced by the central team and tweak them and add their own information. So, for example, trusts that deal with more marine areas may want to really add more content that's around marine rather than, say, a landlocked trust where there may be things that are less relevant. So we may suggest activity like, you know, 'go and have a look at seashells' and you might go, 'well, we're nowhere near the sea, that's not so useful for us'. So trusts can always modify and update some of the stuff that gets sent out, and that's quite an important part of it, but it's not one size fits all because that's not really how it works.
Alice: So it's trying to find things that respond to that 'what makes us so special'. So it's the thing of like what makes that trust special? And some things it might not ... there might not be stuff that makes us so special. So we're recently doing some work around online safety and online safeguarding – the same regulations around that will apply to lots of trusts. So that's something where we can work together but come up with something that is probably going to be fairly similar across trusts. Whereas if you've got really different landscapes, for example, it's not going to work in the same way. So it's learning where it's worth, kind of really focusing that effort on creating bespoke and where it's not. And that's an interesting tension, but it's, yeah, always, always fascinating.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you've struck a really nice balance between giving individual wildlife trusts that degree of autonomy. But you're all networked in the same way and you've got that, you know, a lot of tools, by the sounds of it, that support that communication and collaboration across the organisations. And ultimately, as you said right at the outset, you're all trying to move forwards in the same direction and clearly lots of resources that are there to support that.
Alice: Yeah, we can always use more though!
Andrew: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. There's always an insatiable need for more stuff isn't there? And I think so long as it's done with the right reasons and the right purpose behind it, that's okay. And if it all comes back to making people's lives easier, making people's job roles more valuable, and giving them the time to be more impactful then all of those can be really well-supported initiatives. Well, it's been a really fascinating conversation, and there are clearly so many different initiatives going on, lots of different activities across the country with all the different individual organisations. So thank you for sharing some of that detail and just giving us a picture of how it works and how it all fits together.
Andrew: Now, in this series, we've been talking to our guests and we've been asking a series of questions just to round off and help our listeners get to know people a little better. So we'll go into our round of questions, just to wrap things up. I've got the privilege of asking both of you these actually, if you like. So first question is, what's the one app, website or piece of software – personal or professional – that you couldn't live without?
Alice: I did try to think of something cleverer than this for this one, but actually it's GPS, Yeah, I'm training to be a mountain leader, so that is absolute like sacrilege to have said that because really I should go 'map and compass are the basics', which obviously is very important and I would never go into the wilderness without that. However, I would say that the ability to track where I am at any one time, and the use I've seen of kind of spatial mapping at the Wildlife Trusts as well. That is the thing where every day I must use something that is relating to GPS – it is an absolute game changer. So it's not a very exciting answer. I did try and think of one, but I bet Robbie's got a better answer.
Robbie: Mine is definitely a software called R – Capital Letter R – which is a data science software and is essentially the reason I have this job, because I did a biology undergrad, biological sciences masters, very much wanting to go into research, academia or typical conservation out in the field surveys, all of that. But then I discovered that I actually really like coding and it's all through R, which they kind of teach at uni to do nice graphs and stats for your coursework, but has so many, so many other uses. It's completely open source. You can create apps; you can create your own website. It's kind of a full-on ecosystem that's completely evolved and it's being free, being accessible and being quite often taught by these kind of conservation biology courses. That's been the best way for me to get people engaged in this sort of digital transformation data warehousing type system through R. And so that's, yeah, that's been the game-changer for me and I cannot live without it.
Alice: To just point something out, that one of the things I've been working with Robbie on is building a network of people with these skills from across the movement. Because whilst it's really important, obviously digital transformation, it's about people, it's about process. The technology is obviously important, but we don't want to make it really scary for people. But actually there are because of the fact it is a conservation organisation, there is a surprisingly high number of people who know how to code in R and that's really valuable for the kind of things you want to do because the use cases expand far beyond what they will have learnt during their masters degrees. So that's been really fascinating. So I've been really interested to see like Robbie in that group, kind of how that's developed to build a kind of digital capability that was kind of latent but actually gives us a really real opportunity. So that's why Robbie is slightly smiling about me saying that because it's really been fascinating to see where we have those skills that we're not using.
Andrew: Hmm. Fascinating. I have not come across R, and I thought there was a bit missing off the end of the word when I first saw it. But no, I shall definitely look that up and we can link to that in the show notes as well. So next question. What's exciting you in digital at the moment? There's so many different use cases in your organisation for digital. So, what's really exciting you both?
Alice: In terms of my excitement, I think there is a lot of potential around geospatial data and how we're using geospatial data and combining it with others. It's really interesting. We've got some absolutely fascinating use cases across the movement like from Gloucestershire's Wilder Glos platform through to Surrey and some of the amazing work they've done with local communities and schools on mapping areas of activity and even things like, you know, where there are invasive species, there is some phenomenal stuff going on with mapping which I genuinely find really exciting as we have a little group which discusses that within RSWT and it's a very active teams chat. You know, there's so many things going on there, which is phenomenal. So yeah, that's definitely very interesting.
Alice: And also on a like possibly slightly ... I don't know if this is worse or better, but I'm really interested in some of the stuff going on in how kind of land management is working around the technology that's there. So things like the Nofence cattle collars is just fascinating. You know, it can save thousands removing the fences that you need, but it also is better for the cattle. It's really interesting to see how that's working, you know, so there's some really interesting stuff out there in slightly unusual places that I've not really come across before. The kind of land management level of innovation and technology is not something I was quite so aware of and it's really strong. So I'm personally really excited to know more about that and learn more about that.
Robbie: I'm kind of the exact opposite – my background was in GIS and geospatial data. That's kind of where I got into my first kind of job, where I got into the Trust, and now I'm moving more into the operational side of things. I am looking forward to looking at cloud-based systems and databases, APIs, everything moving away from static files, static documents, kind of spreadsheets, things like that, moving into live data, where you update it and then it's up to date. It's got more rigid rules. All of this sounds very boring for most people, but for me, coming in, having dealt with kind of data with 100 columns, each of which has got really long confusing name, you don't actually know what it is, and no set rules, which everyone's dealt with. Coming in and kind of being able to implement that change and make everything a lot easier to deal with is what gets me excited. And moving from network drives and sort of hard drives to the cloud just minimises all the running costs and all the faff that we have to deal with. And I like all of that.
Andrew: Yeah. And of course, from your point of view, there's two sides to data, isn't there? There's collecting it and then there's interpreting it, both of which are equally important. But there's no point putting all the effort into collecting it if you've then got the bottleneck of not being able to interpret it and use it. So you are probably both spending quite a bit of time out on site, involved in various different projects and so on. But how have your working patterns changed since the pandemic if they have? Obviously, I know Alice, you're in Leeds, Robbie, you're down in Kent. So how have those patterns changed?
Alice: I mean, it's interesting. So I came from a role in which I had to stop what I was doing during the pandemic. I moved to delivering emergency grants, so we basically closed what was a beta project and moved to emergency grants and delivered about 16 different emergency grants program during the pandemic. So my working patterns were atrocious – it's probably the only description of that [laughs]. So for me it's been quite important to try and get some of that thinking-space back, especially because I'm dealing with things at a kind of strategic level. So my working patterns are now probably more sensible than they used to be pre-pandemic. They're probably pretty similar but with my more recent roles, I've worked UK-wide and with dispersed teams, so I've not spent a lot of time in the office with a team all together in the same place. For about at least the last seven years it's been like that. So it hasn't changed as much as you might expect, but during the pandemic it definitely got pretty bad. And so boundaries are quite important, I think. So, yeah, they've got better is probably the short version of that.
Andrew: But you're pretty comfortable with that remote working, so how about you Robbie?
Robbie: Well, I kind of answer it based on a minor correction in that I don't actually live in Kent, I live in Brighton, so I am almost 95% remote work from home almost all the time. It's about an hour and 20 minutes to get to the office, which isn't horrendous but obviously isn't a daily commute you really want to do. So start of the pandemic, I was working in Oxford, commuting into central Oxford from High Wycombe, which again is a bit of a slog. So I was quite happy initially to have working from home, although I did not realise how much it cost to commute from High Wycombe to central Oxford. And so I saved up enough money to move down to Brighton, which was very nice, missed the sea. And so I've kind of stayed here, got the Kent job and got the promise of remote working, which has been sort of a dream so far. So I do not miss driving into the office. I like it when I'm there, but that's definitely been a big, big positive change in my life. Getting an extra 3 hours back a day. It's pretty, pretty life changing.
Andrew: Yeah. My next question was, if you had more time in the day, how would you spend that? So, yeah, how are you using that extra 3 hours? Robbie, have you got any particular hobbies? I mean, obviously you're both very passionate about nature and the environment, maybe getting out into nature and enjoying it more?
Robbie: Being in Brighton is very nice because it means you can just walk down, go to the sea, walk along the beach, walk on the cliffs, go to the marina. I like to take my time in the evenings, so if I kind of only have a couple of hours, I'm not going to go up for a walk and then cook a very quick meal and then go to bed. I need kind of having that extra hour and a half kind of after I've finished work. Not having to drive home means I can go out for a walk and then still sit down, relax and just recharge for like the next day.
Andrew: Very good. What's the most important personal attribute that you think you bring to your job? I mean, again, we talk very much about purpose and that passion for nature. But perhaps thinking more about some of the digital side, what do you think the most important personal attributes are to support you in your role?
Alice: I suppose for me it's curiosity, it's being interested. Why is someone doing it like that? What is the thing we could do about this, and being kind of open-minded to what the solution might actually be. I think it's something that's really important because I think there's a tendency sometimes within digital programs to think you can just come to the solution like, 'oh, what you need is this thing'. And if you haven't really understood what's going on, it's not going to stick. So for me, curiosity, but also transparency.
Alice: I have started writing week notes within the Wildlife Trust, which isn't something that's particularly happened before. And it's definitely, it makes me feel quite vulnerable because I'm the only person doing that. So I'm writing about what I'm doing and how I'm feeling every week, but it's been really positively received. But I'm trying to kind of model that approach of working in the open, showing where things aren't working and where there's, you know, things that I'm doing that won't work. There are definitely things that are not going to work, but I need to make sure that I have both that curiosity about why it didn't and the transparency to say that it didn't, otherwise other people will make the same mistakes.
Robbie: Yeah, for me, I've got 2 which I can't really decide between, the first of which is optimistic because it's incredibly easy to get bogged down in the detail of digital transformation stuff. As soon as you start looking into a massive file system or realise how monumental a task is, you can very easily get dissuaded, and I'm very optimistic and very kind of, 'yeah, we'll just do it'. I'm not a perfectionist. I am very much, 'let's get it done', which has really helped.
Robbie: The other one is very simple, and my manager said this to me the other day, and it's basically just being nice, being friendly and talkative and optimistic. The optimism kind of plays into it. And it is just making sure you win people over. It's not scary. You don't come in like, 'oh yeah, you've got to learn the software' and don't kind of sit in the corner and do codey bits and then suddenly expect people to use it. It's kind of, it's the sales. You've got to sell yourself and sell the things you're doing, which is really difficult. But in a lovely organisation like a Wildlife Trust is actually really enjoyable because you get to engage with everyone and hear what they're doing.
Andrew: Yeah, you want people to be inspired to follow you rather than to feel that these sorts of changes have been imposed on to them. Because nobody likes change. We all know that, don't we? Final question then. What advice would you give to someone who is at the early stage of their career in digital?
Alice: It was interesting this because I had two responses to this. One was, I think every job is going to become digital in some aspects. So I think it's probably quite broad. And the other one is follow your values. It isn't really a kind of technical thing, but I would say there are so many huge, knotty problems that would benefit so much from digital expertise. And you know, I just think, have a look at it. What is the difference that you can make? Because there are organisations like the Wildlife Trusts, like a lot of other environmental charities, human rights charities. The whole third sector is crying out for digital skilled people who are kind of values and passions driven. So if that floats your boat, great, be driven by that. There is so many problems out there at the moment that need this kind of skill. So yeah, I don't know if that's necessarily advice, but that was what came to my mind when I saw that question.
Andrew: Oh, definitely, definitely, that sounds good.
Robbie: Mine's an easy one, which is just learn R or Python or some sort of easy-to-get-into coding language because it's advice for the people who are kind of doing a biology, conservation, zoology or whatever degree and want to kind of get into digital stuff because that's been my pathway – coming into a digital world from a very non-digital background is just kind of, no one knows what they're doing really. You can always get better and everyone can always get better. Start at the very ground, kind of just make yourself something nice and fun and that you enjoy and then go from there and see where it takes you if you enjoy it.
Andrew: And of course that's lifelong learning that goes alongside that. And yeah, we're all learning, aren't we? There's always something new to learn. And I think it's important that we all realise that and people don't be put off by the fact that there's things that they won't know. And of course, that leads to well-publicised things like imposter syndrome. But the reality is we're all trying to figure it out. We're all trying to make the right decisions, hopefully, and move in the right direction. Well, look, thank you both. That has been a really, really fascinating conversation. I've loved learning a little bit more about the intricacies of your projects across the Wildlife Trust. So where might people go if they are interested to learn a little bit more about you, either personally or the activities of the Wildlife Trusts?
Alice: The first thing is obviously wildlifetrusts.org. If you want to go to our website, every wildlife trust pretty much has its own Twitter account. So there will be one there. You can go on our website and find the Wildlife Trust near you and that will tell you where your local wildlife trust is. Have a look at their Twitter. Get involved, go on Instagram. They're on many social media. Some of them are on TikTok. So that's definitely one to take a look at. If you want to see things about me that are to do with work, it's alicekershaw on Twitter. And if you want to see things that are about not work, I'm on Instagram as well, the same alicekershaw, but that is not going to teach you anything about digital. But it may tell you where you can get good cakes round Leeds.
Andrew: Absolutely. Who's not going to like that! And how about you, Robbie? Where can people get in touch with you if they want to follow up?
Robbie: Kentwildlifetrust.org.uk. It'll be on the RSWT website anyway, but we've got the same social media and everything. Lovely comms team working very hard on making some fun things. Bison are arriving in around a month, I think, so there'll be a big hoo-ha about that, which would be perfect time to join that. Personally, I am not great at social media. I remember LinkedIn exists about once every three weeks. Try and post something that I'm doing which is just robbiestill. My job title is Digital Transformation Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust and it will show up. But I wouldn't recommend following any Twitters or anything because they are very inactive.
Andrew: Well, thank you both again, really appreciate you giving the time to chat with me this afternoon. Really interesting conversation. Lots of things that people will be able to take away from that. Thank you very much.
Robbie: Thank you.
Alice: Thank you. Really appreciate it.
Andrew: Well, my thanks to both Alice and Robbie for being so candid and sharing their insight of what's happening behind the scenes at the Wildlife Trusts. We'll add some of the links that we've talked about into our show notes for the episode, which can be found over at adigital.agency/podcast, where you'll also find a full transcript of the conversation. We'll also add a link to the new strategy the Wildlife Trust have published today. We've recorded this episode in April, and this strategy is a plan to put nature in recovery by 2030. I do hope you've enjoyed listening to the episode and I'd love to hear any comments or feedback. So do get in touch with me. You can find me over on LinkedIn or Twitter, or if you're interested in more about what adigital does as an agency, please visit our website at adigital.agency.
Andrew: You can also drop me an email. Just send your email across to hello@theclientsideshow and it'd be great to hear from you. So please consider sharing the episode with your friends and colleagues. We'd love to spread the word about this series of The Clientside Podcast. We've had some fantastic guests on the show, and if you can leave a rating or review, then that would also be massively appreciated. So that just about wraps up today's episode. Please join me again in a couple of weeks' time when I'll be talking to Vince Chan. He is the group head of digital services at Digicel, and Digicel are a Caribbean-based mobile phone network and home entertainment provider operating in 33 markets across the world. So that promises to be another interesting conversation, which I'm really looking forward to. So I'll be back in a couple of weeks' time. I'll see you then.