On Jane Goodall and sharing reasons for hope

Posted on February 11th, 2014 in Featured Conservation,General,Google Geo Tools,Media by Alta

Here at the MAPA Project, we do our best, in our small way, to help conservation organisations and individuals make their work more visible and accessible. One – perhaps the main – reason we do this is because, in the words of Jane Goodall, “Only when people know will they care. Only when they care will they act. Only when they act can the world change”.

Indeed, when it comes to helping people know, and urging them to care and act,  few people have done as much as the incomparable Dr. Goodall.  A few months shy of her 80th birthday, she is still travelling around the world, telling her stories, and, like she can be seen doing here at the University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor’s lecture just last week, spreading messages of hope.

In the lecture, Dr. Goodall expresses the hope that we can find a way of working with our minds and our our hearts in unison, a sentiment I found particularly sincere and fitting, having listened to a presentation  delivered by the Jane Goodall Institute’s vice president of conservation efforts, Lilian Pintea, at Google Earth Outreach’s Geo for Good user-summit in November last year. You might remember that we covered some of the highlights from this conference, including JGI’s  “Goodall, Gombe, and Google” tour, earlier this year.

A screenshot from the JGI “Goodall, Gombe and Google Tour”. Remember that you can create a story like this with your work – Software Advice has a very helpful write-up on how public benefit organisations can use this tool to craft their stories).

As much as Lillian’s talk, on that occasion, was about how JGI is leveraging technology to help them look after Chimpanzees in Africa, it was also a humble and heartfelt story of community, collaborative innovation  and throwing every tool at their disposal at understanding and improving life for chimpanzees and the complex social and ecological systems within which they live. A story of an organisation indeed working with their minds and hearts in unison.

Upon reflection it struck me that, in her UCT address, Jane doesn’t speak of “visions of hope” but “reasons for hope”.  Perhaps she can do this because this is something that she has, both in her personal capacity and through the work of the Jane Goodall Institute and the Root & Shoots programme, come to embody herself.

But don’t take my word for it – listen to her full speech in the video above, or go on a journey to Gombe to learn, through the story of one chimpanzee family, about some of the work JGI is doing with chimpanzees in Africa.

We know that Jane Goodall, the Jane Goodall Institute and Roots & Shoots aren’t the only “reasons for hope” in African conservation. We know that many of you have similar “heart and mind” stories . We would love to hear, and help tell, them.


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11 Geo for Goodnesses to help you on your mapping way

Posted on January 9th, 2014 in General,Google Geo Tool Blog Series,Google Geo Tools by Alta

In November last year we were fortunate enough to travel to Mountain View, California to attend the Geo for Good 2013 summit. Being all about helping organisations and individuals make their work more visible and accessible using mapping tools, we thought we’d share some of what we learned at the summit with you.

Instead of doing this is the traditional “blog” format, though, we felt it would be more appropriate to take you on a journey around the world (admittedly spending much of the time in “our world”, Africa) with this tour.

Enjoy, and happy 2014!


Geo for Good 2013. Photo: Google Earth Outreach.



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Go on a tour of Mkhambathi Nature Reserve in Google Earth

Posted on June 24th, 2013 in Featured Conservation,General,Google Geo Tools,Media,New Content by Alta

Protected areas are the cornerstone of global conservation efforts. They maintain functioning natural ecosystems, are set to act as refuges for biodiversity and maintain ecological processes that provide valuable ecosystem and cultural services to society.

Yet the idea of setting land aside for safeguarding and public enjoyment didn’t come about because of some cost-benefit or sustainability analysis or ecosystem service valuation. Rather, for hundreds of years, people who have advocated and worked to set aside special areas, be they indigenous communities in Ghana, or early advocates of the more modern concept of national parks, were driven to do so by a much simpler motivation: a love of nature.

To paraphrase the Senegalese naturalist Baba Moual: ultimately, we protect what we love.

However, whereas there is no shortage of places in Africa to love, we can only love what we know, or at least, know about. And in a world where our lives are increasingly disconnected and removed from nature, “to know” might require someone to tell us about our special places, what makes them so, and why they’re worth protecting.

One person who realizes the importance of this is photographer and writer Scott Ramsay.

In June 2011 Scott set off on his first “Year in the Wild”. In just over a year, he travelled to 31 of South Africa’s national parks and nature reserves. He interviewed rangers, community leaders, ecologists, activists, researchers and school kids, and translated what he had learned and discovered through photographs, blog posts, and magazine articles. His aim: to promote the appreciation of these wild places and to inspire people to go and visit them for themselves.

For best viewing, you can also play the tour in Google Earth. Download the KMZ file (17MB) for Google Earth by clicking on this link: http://goo.gl/AozLj

Being in the business of making conservation more visible and accessible ourselves, albeit through maps rather than photographs, we recently teamed up with Scott to create a virtual tour of the Wild Coast’s Mkhambathi Nature Reserve.  In combining the contextual power of Google Earth with Scott’s captivating photographs, we hoped that we could better share not only images, maps and information, but a little piece of what Scott calls “Mkhamathi’s special soul”.

In the video above you can see the result of that collaboration and, in three-and-a-half minutes, virtually travel to this little Wild Coast wonder. We hope that, through Scott’s photographs and the beautiful landscapes revealed in Google Earth, you will be sufficiently seduced by the cascading waterfalls, beach-trotting antelope, soaring vultures, rolling hills of grasslands, swamp forest patches and wild, pristine beaches  to go in search of ways you can experience Mkhambathi for yourself.

You might just find yourself falling in love with it.

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Shark spotting in Cape Town: mapping a social and conservation success story

Posted on May 8th, 2013 in Featured Conservation,General by Alta

Conservation is as much about people as it is about the environment. This is nowhere more true than in Cape Town, a city in the centre of biodiversity hotspot, where we are lucky enough to wake up to pristine beaches and panoramic views of our mountainous world wonder.

In fact, we have our own national park and marine protected area, right in the middle of our greater city. However, unlike with other national parks, where there are fences and camps and rules to stay in your car, we live in ours. We hike, run, walk and rock-climb our mountain, and we sail, kayak, swim and surf in our bays. As a consequence, sometimes, like when a spate of shark attacks occurred off the False Bay coast in 2004, we have to find new ways to live with some of the other species that call this very special place home.

The Shark Spotters programme is a now-celebrated example of what happens when a community rises to that challenge. If you had recently visited some of our False Bay beaches, you will know that there is a flag system in place to help water users know how safe it is to be in the ocean. Shark spotters, men and women from local communities that are employed full-time by the programme, are positioned with polarised sunglasses and binoculars at strategic elevated points along the coastline. When a shark is spotted, they radio this information to the beaches, where a white flag with a black shark is raised, and a siren sounded to warn bathers to get out of the water. The sightings are also live-tweeted, and immediately reported on their website.

The Shark Spotter flag warning system as explained on Muizenberg beach. Photo copyright Shark Spotters.

Shark spotting started on an ad-hoc basis in Muizenberg after the mentioned attacks of 2004, when avid surfer Greg Bertish asked car guards working in the area to keep a different kind of watch from the mountain, and warn him through the use of their cell phones of any sharks visible in the area. The programme eventually formalised, after Greg, together with (now) long-time shark spotter Rasta and Dave and Fiona Chudleigh sourced funds from the local surf community and local business, receiving enough sponsorship to install the first flagpole, signal system, siren alarm, and set up the first mountain watch.

The system was subsequently adopted by the Fish Hoek lifesaving club, followed soon after by the City of Cape Town and WWF’s involvement. Today, the project is supported by the City and the Save Our Seas Foundation as primary sponsors, and shark spotters are on duty 365 days a year at five of the sharkiest False Bay beaches, and at three more locations during peak seasons.

More than 1,300 sharks have been recorded since the programme started, most of these in summer, when there is both an increase of shark movement inshore, and water users in the Bay. To illustrate the extent of the programme and the work they do, we worked with the Shark Spotters Programme to create this map using Google Maps Engine lite,  an easy-to-use new tool for creating beautiful maps quickly. The map features the locations of Shark Spotters along the False Bay coastline, as well as all reported white shark sightings this past summer. Incidentally, you can learn how to make this map by taking this tutorial authored by Google Earth Outreach using the Shark Spotter data.



Innovation isn’t stopping anytime soon for this local success story. Whilst the spotters are still steadfastly spotting sharks from our mountain sentinels, the programme also continues to work with communities, businesses and government to raise funds for the programme, research shark behaviour off the False Bay and South African coast, educate and raise public  awareness, and find new ways to keep Cape Town bathers and the spectacular fish that swim of our shores, safe.


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Tools for visualizing conservation on private land

Posted on November 26th, 2012 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Few people will argue that protected areas – parks, nature reserves and other natural areas – are essential for biodiversity conservation. They assist in reducing deforestation, habitat and species loss, and support the livelihoods of over a billion people, while, according to IUCN’s latest report on the state of protected areas, containing 15% of the world’s carbon stock.  The same report shows how organisations and governments are working hard to secure more of it: in the last 20 years global coverage of areas has increased from 8.8% to 12.7% for terrestrial areas, and from 0.9% to 4% for marine areas.

However important formal protected areas are, it’s also undeniable that securing land for conservation via formal proclamation is not going to be enough for us to achieve our biodiversity goals. In South Africa’s Western Cape, for example, most of the province’s biodiversity lies within private ownership, and it is unrealistic that this land might be purchased by the state for conversion to Protected Areas.

For this reason, many national and provincial authorities have taken to “mainstreaming” biodiversity conservation by involving private landowners through stewardship initiatives, biodiversity agreements and other incentive-based or voluntary programmes.

These areas, the conservation efforts on them, and their overall contribution to the biodiversity estate are, however, not always all that well known by the general public. Needless to say, we at MAPA are thrilled to be involved in an initiative to help change this by making private conservation land, and conservation efforts on them, more visible and accessible with the help of free online geo tools.

Together with Conservation at Work, the umbrella body for conservation on private land in the Western Cape, we have put together a few resources specifically geared towards individuals conservancy members, stewardship site managers and other individuals active in conservation on private conservation areas:

  • On the 7th and 8th of February 2013, we will be running one of our popular Google Geo workshops at the University of Cape Town. This (free) workshop will be specifically tailored for the private conservation sector, and will teach highly practical tools for mapping, visualizing and sharing information about conservation efforts on private land. No prior programming or GIS experience is required!  To find out more and apply, visit http://geoforprivateconservation.mapatraining.org. Applications close 15 December 2012!
  • In conjunction with this opportunity, we are also making available a mapping toolkit.


The “Tools for mapping conservation on private land” website comprises a collection of online mapping resources to help you map your conservation efforts and areas, visualize problems and successes on private land, and communicate these maps and visualizations to colleagues, stakeholders, or the world.

On the site, you can learn how to add your project to MAPA’s registry of African conservation, how to create a shareable map for your projects, how to add your private protected land to Google Maps using Google Map Maker, how to communicate and visualise conservation with free online tools like Google Earth, Google Maps and Fusion Tables, and about upcoming in-person training on Geo Tools.

Whether you run a private game reserve, are an active conservancy member, or run a research project on a stewardship site, we hope you will help these resources helpful! We will be adding more articles and links to the site in the near future – please let us know what you would like to see on this site, and help us help you make conservation on private land more visible and accessible.

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Find biodiversity GIS for all South Africa’s municipalities

Posted on September 6th, 2012 in Featured Conservation,General,New Content by Alta

Municipalities play a significant role in biodiversity conservation in South Africa. Not only are they tasked to provide a safe and healthy environment for their residents, they also have to manage land for development and look after threatened ecosystems and wildlife within their boundaries.

To inform these high-stake decisions, municipal authorities, as well as the interested parties they serve, need to have access to good information about biodiversity and sensitive areas in their municipal area.

Recognising how important availability to this information is, scientists from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), have put together municipal biodiversity summaries for every municipality in South Africa. The biodiversity summaries contain statistics for biodiversity features and terrestrial biodiversity summary maps, all downloadable as shapefiles, as well as a series of fact sheets about the projects.

These information pages have been available on BGIS (SANBI’s distribution catalogue for spatial biodiversity data) since 2010, and now, as of this week, this entire dataset can also be accessed on MAPA’s registry of African conservation.

Simply search for [your municipality BGIS] (e.g. [Ngqushwa BGIS])  to find the link to biodiversity information for your municipality, and click on “read more” to access the project page for that municipality.

Remember that, by clicking on the share button, you can also access a URL link to the results of any search, embed it in a webpage, or download it for viewing in Google Earth or as a PDF.

We are very excited about our developing relationship with SANBI, and hope that this will be the first of many collaborations in which MAPA can help to make relevant conservation information more visible and accessible.

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This world water week, join us on a bicycle ride through African Conservation

Posted on August 31st, 2012 in Featured Conservation,General by Alta

This week the world has water on its mind, as scientists and policy makers from all over the globe convene in Stockholm to discuss water and food security. Earlier this year, between February and July, a much smaller delegation made up of only two young South Africans (Alex Antrobus and Murray Beaumont) and their bicycles, pondered similar issues as they cycled more than 7000km through sub-Saharan Africa to raise money and awareness for clean drinking water.

Travelling through Africa overland can be challenging at the best of times, even in a motor vehicle that offer shelter from headwinds, thunderstorms and Africa’s scariest animal (the Tsetse fly, in case you had a mammalian carnivore in mind!). However, one perk of choosing muscle power over diesel, aside from its climate friendliness and fitness benefits, is that it offers the opportunity to go slower, and to see way more.

During their travels, Alex and Murray did see more. They saw more than just beautiful African landscapes, the odd curio stop, and interesting African people. They saw African environments, cultures and context. And now they would like to share their encounters with African conservation – parks, people, practitioners, with you.

Credit and Copyright: Amazi Awethu

For the next three months or so, Amanzi Awethu will use MAPA’s registry of African conservation to relive, and retell their journey through a conservation lense. They will be updating and uploading parks and projects they travelled through and came into contact with as they made their way through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, and will be sharing some of their stories with you while they do so.

If you missed their journey the first time around, you can follow this virtual sojourn on this blog, as well as on our Twitter, Google+ and Facebook pages. If you can’t wait that long, you can read all about their journey on the Amazi Awethu! blog, as well as on their Facebook page. We can’t wait to start this ride!

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Communicating Conservation with Google Geo Tools – Cape Flats style

Posted on July 6th, 2012 in General,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

As much as it is a pleasure to run trainings in other parts of our beautiful continent, it’s just as special being able to connect with conservationists here at home (which just happens to be a pretty important place for conservationists to be).

Two weeks ago, we had the privilege to do just that, as we showed 45 practitioners from non-profit and for-profit organisations, academia and the government how to use Google’s Geo Tools to communicate information and improve operations. Having run these workshops in the winelands and in the shadow of Devil’s Peak previously, we figured that it was the Cape Flats’ turn this time. Accordingly, we set up shop on the 5th floor of the University of the Western Cape’s state-of-the-art New Life Science building.

Full house on the first day of our training in the BCB departments’ 5th floor training room

One of the biggest reasons we love running Google Geo tool trainings is that we get to learn so much about what conservationists actually do on the ground, and how we can assist them with tools to communicate their efforts.  At this workshop we again saw the pressing need for practitioners to quickly and easily be able to visualise information to the public, stakeholders and colleagues, and we were delighted to see how quickly participants capitalised on the tools we were teaching them to do just that.

One example of this is PhD student Nicola Okes, who put together a crowd-sourcing application using Google Forms & Fusion Tables: anyone that has seen an otter, dead (red) or alive (yellow) on the Cape Peninsula can go to her website and contribute their finding, which will immediately display on a sightings map.



This workshop was also really special for a number of other reasons. For one, it was the most extensive one we had ever attempted. After “basic training” in Google Earth, Google Maps and Fusion Tables, participants could customise a training most suitable to their needs, choosing from sessions on Google Earth Tours, Open Data Kit, GIS & Google Earth, GPS in Google Earth, Google Maps API, Google Map Maker and Google Maps Engine.

March enthusiastically explains touring to a participant during one of the tea breaks

It was particularly exciting for us to be able to offer the latter two tools. Google Map Maker had only just become available in South Africa, so it was a real privilege to have Google’s Evans Arabu on hand to show participants how to put the places they care about on the map. Similarly, we loved that we were able to share the incredible geospatial capabilities of Google Maps Engine, a tool that is only just becoming available to nonprofits globally.

But perhaps the most outstanding thing for us about this workshop, from a personal point of view, was that it represented one further step in what we hope will be an ongoing and developing relationship with institutions  like SANBI and the University of the Western Cape. This training was a truly collaborative venture and we owe a really big debt of gratitude to the staff of the Biodiversity & Conservation Biology department at UWC. In particular, we’d like to thank Dr Richard Knight, Martin Cocks and Audrey King without whom we would definitely not have been able to pull this off.   We  hope that we can do this again sometime…


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MAPA Newsletter: New Developments and Northerly Drives

In the last three months we’ve been learning more about Zimbabwean conservation, released a brand new user-interface for finding and adding conservation projects , and have started to prepare for an exciting new workshop in Cape Town.  Here is our latest newsletter:

A brand new project user-interface and search page

One of our main jobs is to build a catalogue and map of Africa’s conservation projects. How well we achieve that almost entirely depends on how many conservationists use our website to add their work, which in turn largely depends on how easy it is for them to use it.

After quite a few iterations of just-not-quite-getting it right, we were excited to announce the release of a much cleaner and simpler new user-interface in March.  But don’t take our word for it – try it out yourself! Head over to mapa.maproject.org to search the database for protected areas, critical habitats, and of course, contributed conservation projects from across the continent. Then map your search in Google Earth!

Can’t find your project in the database? Add it! Simply register as a user, login, and fill in your projects’ details. As soon as you choose to make it live, others will be able to find it in the database, and see it on our Google Earth conservation map.

We hope that you’ll enjoy using this new system – as always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and criticisms!

Zimbabwe Drive

At the end of March, with the help of our friends at Africa Geographic & Tracks4Africa, we embarked on a two month mission to get Zimbabwean conservation on the map – a drive that saw us connect with over a  hundred of the country’s most prominent and dedicated conservationists. During that time, we got to learn a little more about the projects these men and women work at, which include  environmental advocacy in the Zambezi valley, the research,  conservation and welfare of large carnivores,  on-the ground logistical support for Zimbabwe’s parks authorities and sustainable development through agricultural research and public-private partnerships – to name but a few.


Many of these Zimbabwean initiatives have already been added to our conservation map, and a few more will be live soon. Look out for that, a report back on the drive, and an exciting partnership with the Green Zambezi Alliance, in the six weeks.

Our Zimbabwean education wasn’t all “distance learning”, though! At the beginning of May, we also had the opportunity to travel up to Harare to meet a small group of Zimbabwean conservationists in person for a three day workshop on how to use Google’s mapping tools in their work, and how to use MAPA’s conservation mapping tool for their own benefit. This blog post has more.

Google Map Maker & Google Map Engine at our Cape Town training

Fresh of our mapping workshop at Mapumula in May, we announced another Google Geo Workshop for June, this time in Cape Town,  at UWC’s brand new Life Science building.

What’s particularly exciting about this training is that it will introduce two tools that are only just becoming available to South Africans, and nonprofits.

Google Map Maker, the tool that allows you to add the points of interests you care about to Google Maps, was launched South Africa just over a week ago. We’re so excited that Evans Arabu from the Google Map Maker team will be joining us at this workshop to show environmentalists how to give parks, reserves, landscape features and those obscure study sites nobody has ever heard of, their rightful and correct place on the map!

Another relatively new Google Geo Tool that will feature at the workshop is Google Maps Engine, a revolutionary geospatial tool that allows organisations to manage their data in the cloud and easily make and share maps using Google Earth, Maps and Android phones. Globally, it’s already being successfully utilised by organisations like World Wildlife Fund, Eyes on the Forest and the Living Oceans Society to manage and publish critical environmental data,  and we look forward to giving our workshop participants a first glance at how this technology can be leveraged for their own organisations.
The Overberg district municipality’s wetlands & critical biodiversity areas, mapped using Google Maps Engine (data downloaded from BGIS: http://bgis.sanbi.org, copyright C.A.P.E)

That’s it for this quarter’s newsletter! We look forward to sharing more conservation stories, tools, and of course, maps, with you in the next three months!



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Making maps at Mapumula: notes from our Google Geo workshop in Zim

Posted on May 28th, 2012 in General,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Over the last couple of months we’ve been putting a lot focus on building a catalogue and map of Zimbabwean conservation efforts.  Whereas this drive is, in part, an attempt to organise and document information that may be useful to others, it’s aim is equally to communicate stories and efforts in a way that may promote understanding and inspire action.

One way MAPA works more broadly to achieve the latter goal is by running trainings to equip the people who are best placed to communicate these efforts and issues – conservationists themselves – with the tools to do so. It was for one such training, as well as to connect with the Zimbabwean conservationists we had been speaking to, that we found ourselves at Mapumula Lodge just outside Harare at the beginning of May.

Prior to arriving at our rustic training venue we were a little worried about internet connectivity and power cuts, but our hosts had worked hard to make sure that those fears were quickly dispelled. Between the smooth technical experience and the late-autumn sun, bushveld-air, home-cooked catering and twenty dedicated and enthusiastic participants this was easily one of our most enjoyable workshops to date!


After two intensive hands-on days of learning how to use Google Earth, Google Maps, Fusion Tables and the Open Data Kit, our participants had the opportunity on the third workshop day to apply their new skills to their own projects. Prior to the workshop, many of them had never used some of these tools, so we were extra impressed to see the projects that participants chose to work on. These included mapping schools and cattle dip-tanks with Fusion Tables, a Google Earth tour of points of interest on a private conservancy, and two applications using Google Forms & Fusion Tables to create a crowd-sourced map.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Zimbabwe – not only did we have the pleasure of meeting a group of extremely dedicated conservationists, we also had the privilege of travelling back to South Africa via the wild open spaces of the beautiful Gonarezhou National Park. We are so grateful to all the Zimbabweans who welcomed us into their conservation lives and helped to make this workshop specifically, and the (still ongoing) conservation drive more generally, a success.

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