James Greenhalgh CITP recently spoke to Grant Powell MBCS about bringing together a passion for scuba diving and background in software development to help protect our oceans.

When it comes to climate change, finding a way to improve the health and safety of our oceans is paramount. James Greenhalgh found a way to combine his interest in scuba and free diving with his extensive background in technology, working closely with dive tourism operators to help improve awareness and create strategies for protecting the environment around our coral reefs. Here, he explains how the development of a platform for championing ocean-focused sustainable tourism is making a difference when it comes to reducing environmental impact.

What is your background and how did you get into a career in tech?

I’ve always been really interested in technology, right from the word go. I found computing to be a powerful force for good even as a teenager. At university I chose an Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) hybrid degree where half of the modules studied were computer science related and half were business focused. The aim of the course was to create hybrid practitioners that can span the gap between organisational requirements and being able to work with software engineers to provide the solutions. This gave me a really good foundation and also the opportunity to work at Intel during my industrial placement as a software engineer and C# developer within the logistics division. We wrote software that added a lot of efficiency to how they handled their fulfilment processes. It was at Intel that I experienced first-hand how solving frictions for people through automation can make a real difference. After university I worked in sales and business development within the bespoke software space where I was involved in some large, innovative software projects.

How did you make the jump into marine conservation?

After a while the work I was doing started to grind me down because I was always involved at the beginning of a project but never got to see anything through to completion. Alongside my work I was following my passion as a very keen scuba diver and, since the pandemic, a free diver. I was also reading a lot about climate change and its effect on our oceans, and was seeing this first hand underwater with the decline of coral health. This made me reconsider my career path and goals. Some friends of mine who are fellow scuba divers were studying biology and zoology in Bristol and told me that the sector was crying out for tech talent. So, I completely changed career and joined The Reef-World Foundation. During the last three and a half years I’ve built a complete digital strategy for the charity, implemented a platform — the Green Fins hub — and then set about delivering it. I have also been working as a Green Fins assessor trainer, going off around the world to train teams (which are usually government departments) in participating countries. A career in IT doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be stuck behind a desk, and actually the more time you spend in the field with the people who are going to be using the system, the better your understanding of their requirements.

What are some of the main threats to our coral reefs?

You can really divide the threats to coral reefs into two categories. So, you’ve got the general bigger-picture threats which would be things like overfishing, plastic pollution, and ocean acidification from carbon dioxide being absorbed into the ocean. Then you’ve got the more local threats which have a direct impact on a specific place. Reef-World and the Hub are very focused on tourism and how it can be effectively managed to limit environmental impact. A diver might accidentally kick and break a piece of coral, for example. Or people will be going out to explore a reef by boat, which has an engine that needs oil for lubrication; that oil ends up in the sea. People eating onboard might not think twice about throwing something overboard which they view as being biodegradable, such as a fruit peel. But any food that goes overboard shouldn’t really be there because it affects the marine food chain by taking a fish or other marine life form away from the sort of food that they should be eating and the way they should be eating it, through which they usually effectively clean the reef. Some of these issues seem fairly small, but when they occur often enough — which tends to be the case at some of the more popular dive sights — it can actually add up to having a significant impact.

What are the steps that can be taken to protect the reefs?

While education is important, I’m a big advocate of behaviour centred design (BCD), which is quite well established now. Particularly in the third sector — the charity world — we’ve been a bit naïve in thinking that educating people alone will lead them to change what they do. Sometimes it’s about making the right choice, not the convenient choice. Human beings are very driven by convenience and feeling safe and those sorts of things, and unfortunately in a lot of cases the convenient choice — things like single use plastics — are very popular. You can say to somebody, ‘well, don’t use it’, but unless there is a really good alternative they’re not going to be able to change, or there certainly won’t be the motivation to do so. So I think our challenge as conservationists is to present the alternative in a way that is actually better and more appealing than the behaviour that we’re trying to discourage.

How do you go about encouraging tour operators to join Green Fins?

The charity has partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), so the Green Fins code of conduct has direct endorsement from them. We’ve worked tirelessly to promote Green Fins’ stance on working to protect the environment by raising greater awareness of what good practice looks like. We want tourists to actively choose to go with a Green Fins approved operator rather than not, so that they can be assured that the operator is not causing any environmental harm through their practices. Also, because scuba diving is quite well regulated, there are several big agencies that people tend to go with when they’re on holiday, and we work with all of them to make sure that our messaging gets into their training materials.

We also leverage their networks to create incentives to get people to sign up for membership. For example, this year we created an eco-label with one of the large agencies, so that operators can become an agency-affiliated eco-centre. Obviously this affiliation is very attractive, so an operator can now sign up with Green Fins, follow the code of conduct, and also become an approved eco-centre in the process.

With your technical hat on, how does the Green Fins platform work?

It’s a web application that we built to be mobile first, and part of the thinking behind that approach is that a lot of the people who use the system don’t necessarily have access to laptops. The application mirrors and digitises what was previously a very paper-based process, and it has let Reef-World scale its operations from having active members in just nine countries, to having active members in 60 countries and counting. The app replicates the environmental assessments that were, and still are, being conducted by government staff in those certified countries, which makes operator-driven self-assessment possible.

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The platform uses a survey which asks the types of questions that a real government assessor would be asking in those active countries, and then uses an algorithm based on those responses to come up with an environmental performance score (essentially a threat profile). Based on that it will suggest a recommended plan of action that an operator then has a year to implement. This process is repeated every year, and a new action plan issued, so that by addressing the actions and meeting all of the requirements we would typically see a reduction in the environmental threats that the organisation poses over time. The amount of data that the system generates and the insights it provides are really quite powerful.

As well as its use as an assessment tool, can the platform facilitate collaboration on environmental issues?

There was quite a significant coral bleaching event in the Caribbean over the summer, which hasn’t really been talked about a great deal. Coral bleaching is a precursor to the death of the coral which is caused when it becomes heat stressed. When this happens there is only a limited window during which if the temperature doesn’t reduce, the coral will die. And via the Green Fins hub there is now a forum thread which is dedicated to this, where all of the operators in the Caribbean are starting to collaborate with each other to spot where they’re seeing bleaching. And then we have trusted experts and people from bigger government departments who are now working with this network of dive centres to identify the hot spots. Through tech, it’s created collaboration that previously didn’t exist, all bringing people together to help the coral reefs and wider ocean environment.

How does Reef-World ensure that its own direct operations are environmentally friendly?

Reef-World’s infrastructure is all carbon neutral. It’s one of our criteria, when we’re looking to deploy a new piece of infrastructure, that we will always strive to ensure that the partner or the supplier that we’re choosing is carbon neutral. So for example, we use Google Cloud, we use Basecamp, so we are always trying to find suppliers that are thinking about the same challenges that we are. For us, being sustainable and operating in an ethical, environmentally focused way is right up there with adhering to GDPR principles and other fundamental best practice. We’re only a small charity with limited budget, but we do what we can to encourage the right outcomes by picking appropriate suppliers to ensure we have a supply chain in place that we can trust.

Do you work with the fishing industry to promote sustainable fishing?

While we try to focus on our specialist area, in the Green Fins code of conduct one of the things that the assessor (or hub, if going down the self-assessment route) will ask an operator is if they serve seafood, and whether that seafood is sustainable. That is really the extent of what we would do within our own remit, but we work with many partners whose speciality is fishing practices, quotas, techniques and that sort of thing. If we’re asked to solve a problem we can reach out to our network, working collaboratively to provide a solution. Fish can provide an important source of protein and the fishing industry is particularly important in some of the areas where we work, such as the coral triangle in the western pacific ocean. A lot of people there are very dependent on fishing and if you were to take that away it would create a huge problem for those communities. With the right techniques and with the right management fishing can be managed in such a way that it is incredibly sustainable.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

I want to say a big thank you to BCS for shining a spotlight on people and businesses who are trying to do this sort of environmentally focused work, using IT to drive innovation. This is really helping to raise awareness of work such as ours, while simultaneously letting people know about the exciting opportunities that exist in this space for those who really want to make a difference.

Discover more about James’ work with Reef-World and the Green Fins hub here.