Creating a worldwide community where twitchers can flock together – Birda’s John and Natalie White

Many South Africans take our abundant bird species for granted. Driving through Kruger looking for animals and ticking off the Big Five while our parents are more excited about the featured beauties in the trees is likely to be something familiar to most of us. As we get a bit older and travel elsewhere, we often start appreciating the avian treasures South Africa has been blessed with. In fact, South Africa boasts almost 900 of the world’s 10,906 bird species, as recorded by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. Armed with this knowledge and the realisation that there are millions of very keen birdwatchers across the world, one estimate puts the number at 45 million in the USA, John White, originally from Kwazulu-Natal, and his wife, Natalie, launched an app called Birda to bring the birdwatching or “twitchers” as they are commonly known together in a shared community. White told BizNews that he drew inspiration from apps like Strava, which caters to the cycling community, and Fishbrain, a platform that connects avid fishermen and his team are building an online space where bird enthusiasts from around the world can connect with one another, share their sightings, and explore the best birdwatching spots. – Linda van Tilburg

Extracts from the interview below:

Connecting people to the natural world with a social niche app

Birda is basically an app which at its core is about connecting people with the natural world. The idea is that we use bird watching to do that.  But, basically, spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier, and we know that if we spend time exploring and appreciating our wild places, then we’re more likely to want to fight to protect them. We’ve built an app that brings all those things together with a community with some fun stuff like challenges and badges and learning, too, so you can learn about various species that we have all over the world. In many respects, it’s similar to other social niche apps, so, the likes of Strava and Fishbrain have basically taken a niche and built features and functionality that are specific to that niche and then layered that on top of the social platform. So, it’s quite different from a regular app, but that’s not to say we don’t have a lot of those features and functionality built in.  We’ve got the likes of a field guide and a species logging and where to maintain your species list of all the offers that she’s seen and that sort of thing.

Read more: Seeking solace from Zimbabwe’s travails in nature – Cathy Buckle

Advantages of an app rather than a bird-watching group on a social platform 

Imagine you’re trying to keep a list of everything that you’ve seen. To try and do that on Twitter is just impossible. You can share what you’ve seen once off, but there’s no way that these big social platforms can basically build all sorts of features and functionality specific to our niche, which is birdwatching. So, that’s what we do. When you see something, and you post, say, a European robin, rather than it just being a simple post that has shown people, a record has been created, and we know that you’ve seen a European Robin on a specific day and then that enters your species list. There’s a whole lot of additional stuff that we do, that generic social media platforms don’t do. 

Read more: Man and nature together is sustainable

A freemium model with challenges to get people involved 

We’ve got a number of ways that we’re going to monetise the platform. The app itself, we are running by what’s called the freemium model, where the majority of the platform is free. There’ll be specific power user features and functionality that we will probably charge for in the future and then we also work with brands that want to get exposure to communities like birdwatchers and we do stuff like sponsored challenges and that sort of thing where a brand will want to get in front of our audience and a really good and effective way for them to do that is to run a challenge and to get people involved. It’s a very different advertising proposition than traditional advertising, where you are just showing somebody an ad and you hope that they see it and click on it. This is getting people engaged in something that the brand is representing, which we think is really powerful, and it’s been shown to work really effectively with the likes of Strava. 

Cooperation with BirdLife South Africa and a project to create bird names in all 11 official languages.

We met with BirdLife South Africa, which was the catalyst to finding our current investor. We met with them just to show them the product, explain what we are doing, and get some of their buy-in to what we’re trying to build. There’s quite a lot of taxonomic, scientific-type stuff for which we wanted their guidance. Off the back of that meeting, a separate person came to meet with BirdLife South Africa, and… he put us in touch with our current investor. So, that’s how it all started. BirdLife South Africa has been amazing. They have supported us the whole way. We are now doing some work with them to try and help them fundraise for a project. They’re creating bird names for all 11 official languages. So, rather than taking the English name for a species and doing a pure translation, they’re getting experts in every language to come up with either the traditional names or develop names for all 900 species you get in South Africa, which we think is an absolutely awesome project. If you want people to get involved with birdwatching, the first step is to have names in their mother tongues. So, it’s going to be amazing for birdwatching in South Africa going forward for the names to be in all eleven official languages.

Plans to launch globally with data available to scientists

We built the platform to work globally. So, we are currently focusing on Europe and the United States of America, and Southern Africa. Our species guide is complete or relatively complete in those areas, and we’ll be building out the other regions as we  get traction in different regions. It’s designed to work globally. 

We’re submitting all the data that people collect, all the sightings data to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). They are essentially a repository of all biological information. Any record that people record of a bird sighting gets sent off and can be used by conservation researchers…. and then researchers can say, I would like to see bird sightings of the European robins in the UK, and they can get a data set of those and download research off the back of it, which is really important.

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