© 2014 Google, INEGI

Mapping for Conservation

When was the last time you used a paper map? Remember on road trips, driving around in unfamiliar territory, having to unfold and re-fold those over-size Rand McNally or AAA documents? I certainly do, and I’m pretty thankful that Google and other organizations have taken all that information – and more! – and made it fit into the palm of my hand. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love maps, both paper and digital. Maps are a cornerstone feature of my daily work and personal life. I will always cling tightly to my paper USGS topographic maps while I’m in the backcountry, even though those too have their digital replacements. Point is, we’re in a new world now where information conveyable on a paper map can often times not compete with the rich, multi-layered data accessible via web maps and the internet.

forest, © Lindsay Kaun

New mapping technology has allowed scientists and conservation organizations to better track the loss and growth of forest habitat.

The same goes for the conveyance of geospatial conservation data, and this is a boon for our work here at Defenders, as well as for other conservation groups. In the early years of 20th century environmentalism, information and data were rare and access to them was difficult to secure. Thankfully, that world is gone. Today, we are overwhelmed with data and information. In some cases we know not only where a species is generally located, but the exact coordinates of their range, the paths of their migrations, and even the last place a collared individual was spotted. The ability to analyze that data and then communicate it via online maps allows us to educate, advocate and influence not just those people with whom we work directly, but anyone in the world who has an internet connection and curiosity about environmental conservation. Put simply, today there is a huge amount of valuable information about conservation issues, and with web-based maps it is becoming easier and easier to view, share and explore.

There are some phenomenal examples across the non-profit conservation world of interactive online maps and their ability to convene and convey some very interesting data. Earlier this year the World Resources Institute, along with a host of partners, published its Global Forest Watch website, which includes an interactive map showing annual changes in forest cover and composition at a fine resolution across the entire planet, along with the location of many of the destructive activities that are the source of much of the world’s deforestation. Having a map like this that is easy to access and explore allows anyone who’s interested to track issues such as forest change in near real-time. This information is no longer limited to those people in industry or government who may be making decisions without the best interest of the environment in mind.

One of the behemoth computing engines that has made much of this mapping revolution possible is Google. Google Earth Outreach in particular, has a mission to help environmental and public benefit organizations change the world for the better. While GIS and mapping programs have existed for a long time, Google has succeeded in putting both the data and the tools in the hands of everyday users, and at no cost. Most people are familiar with Google Maps, and Google Earth – both of which have revolutionized the way we see our world. Other tools that they have, such as Google Earth Engine Timelapse, allow you to visualize land cover change anywhere in the world from 1984 to the present. For example, you can watch from above as the city of Las Vegas grows in the southwestern desert (see below), or as the forests of southern Washington morph from continuous forest to a patch-work of clear cuts.

Our country’s oil and gas development boom over the past decade is particularly visible with this tool, as the polka-dots of well-pads pop up like a pox across many once-wild landscapes. Google Earth Engine’s Data Catalog and Workspace provides free and easy access to the entire library of publicly available satellite imagery and remote sensing data – if the Landsat 8 satellite passed over your backyard last week, you’d be able to easily find (and analyze!) that image here. Google Maps Engine is another easy tool and allows you to draw or upload data onto a map, style it, and share it.

We use these tools daily here at Defenders of Wildlife as we work to improve the conservation of species and their habitats, and they have helped us achieve things we never could have without them. Last year, Google Earth Engine allowed us to investigate the unreported oil and gas developments that were taking place in supposedly protected habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard and by exposing these illegal activities, our findings prompted officials to keep a closer eye on protected areas and even gave them a new tool to make sure everyone is playing by the rules. More recently, we partnered with some graduate students from the University of Maryland on a project that used a Google mapping platform to assemble all the diverse and important spatial data related to the recovery planning efforts for the endangered Utah prairie dog. Having all this data mapped together in one place can not only provide insights into how to better conserve the species, but it can help identify redundancies and lead to more efficient conservation efforts.

We are excited by the current direction that geospatial data availability and presentation is taking. Interactive maps and data not only benefit organizations on the front lines of conservation, but they also allow a deeper and more interactive involvement from the general public and the concerned citizens that support our work.

Anderson Shepard is a Conservation Science & Planning Analyst with Defenders of Wildlife