Getting Googly in Egoli: our Modderfontein memories

Posted on November 24th, 2011 in General,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Every now and again, MAPA puts on workshops where we teach conservation practitioners how to use Google’s  mapping tools to visualise and communicate complex datasets and conservation issues to the public, collaborators, funders and each other.

Why do we do this?  At MAPA our mission is to visualise African conservation and, rather than trying to do that ourselves, we feel that we can achieve this better by supporting African conservation practitioners with tools that they can use to tell their own stories.   They are, after all, the ones best qualified to tell them.

One way we support them in this, is by offering a tool that allows anyone active in conservation anywhere on the continent to add their projects to a public, (now) searchable map of African conservation [Earth, Maps].  We further support conservationists in communicating the issues and stories they care about by offering training to equip them with the skills they need to create their own visualisations. That’s what we do with the Google Geo Tool trainings – these tools are all free and easy to use, and underpin and complement our own tool. Moreover, these events are a great opportunity to recruit more collaborators for our own map.

So it was for one of these workshops that we found ourselves at the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s out-of-the-box new training facilities in Modderfontein, Johannesburg last week.  We were meeting up with more than 60 conservationists representing academia, government, the nonprofit community and even the private sector, from as far afield as Kampala and Bulawayo (during the workshops we collaborated on a Fusion Table of workshops participants – each participant added/edited their information and added their home bases to create the map you see below).

What we really wanted to do in this round of workshops was to marry participants’ needs with what Google Earth, Google Maps, Fusion Tables and the Open Data Kit could offer. So after spending some time on the basics, we focused the remaining “structured’ workshop time on visualising GPS, GIS and tabular data sets using these tools, and sharing these maps with collaborators, or the world via email, social networking channels, websites and presentations.  This got us ready to tackle the third, more relaxed project day, but not before stretching our legs with a much needed ODK mobile data collection session.  This exercise saw us wandering around the Pinelands business park complex to record patches of alien Pine and Jacaranda trees, before meeting back at the training centre to look at these data points in Google Earth and Fusion Tables (below).

In keeping with our goal to make these workshops applicable to participants’ own work, we spent the third workshop day consolidating the preceding two days’ work by diving into some real world data.  On this day, participants got a chance to brainstorm ideas for and work on their own projects.  A first for our workshops, the project work day completely validated the workshops for us. It was wonderful to see how different tools were or could be applied in real life, and from MAPA’s point of view it was wonderful to learn about the great projects conservationists are involved in across Southern Africa.

Despite our bandwidth battles, the Jozi traffic, and the complete irrelevance of Google Earth’s “terrain” feature on the East Rand, we had a great time in Gauteng.  Partnering with the Endangered Wildlife Trust was an incredible privilege for us, and a complete pleasure to boot. Their dedication and commitment behind the scenes ensured that the event ran smoothly, and we can’t say thank you enough for that.

Similarly, we are exceedingly grateful to our participants for helping to make this such a great event. We started these workshops hoping to equip conservationists with skills, but landed up learning so much ourselves. We left the City of Gold humbled, but feeling more equipped, both in spirit and understanding, to show the world what African conservationists are doing and where they are doing it.

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Mapping it forward: Training others in your organisation to use Google Geo tools

Posted on October 20th, 2011 in General,Google Geo Tool Blog Series,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

After our Google Geo tool workshop in Arusha earlier this year, there was one question nearly all participants asked us in their feedback: could we come and train others at their institutions?  That was, in fact, the question that prompted us to write this blog series – we love trainings and meeting new people doing great work in conservation, but of course it’s not possible to go to every conservation organisation to run them.

The good news is that there is a wealth of training resources that can help you put together a training for your colleagues and collaborators. So, whether  you are trying to improve skills in your organisation, have a mapping or visualisation project that you need to collaborate on or are that person your department  tired of doing things that you know your colleagues should be doing themselves, this post is for you!

Getting up to speed yourself

It goes without saying that you need to be familiar with the materials you intend to train others on.  If you’re reading this post, you may already be familiar with one or more of the Google mapping tools, but may be unsure whether you’ve covered all the bases necessary for your training. Luckily, whether you are a seasoned GIS pro /tech wiz or someone whose technical capabilities extent to operating a kettle, this knowledge is both easy to find and practice.

In-person trainings

Arguably the best way to get up to speed with Google Geo tools is to be trained by others – this is, after all, why you’re thinking of training others in your organisation and not pointing them to online tutorials.

Attending training before attempting to train others will give you a feel for the kind of workshop you’ll be looking to run, the pace of exercises you’re likely to do, and the kind of questions people are likely to ask.  You’ll also be able to access to trainers whose experiences may help guide you in planning your training.

If you’re really fortunate, you may find yourself able to attend a workshop (like this one held in Vancouver, Canada recently) organised and ran by Google Earth Outreach. These trainings  are highly-practical and cover the widest range of topics you’re likely to come across – and you’ll have true experts on hand to answer your questions. To make sure that you don’t miss announcements on upcoming trainings, subscribe to the Google Earth Outreach announcement group, or follow them on Twitter.

Other organisations that are not affiliated with Google (like us) also run Google Geo trainings, more geared towards specific groups, goals or projects.  These trainings may cover a selection of topics, including Google EarthGoogle MapsFusion TablesOpen Data KitGoogle Map Maker,  SketchUp and Google Geo APIs, and may even include trainings on other Google Apps – there should be something out there for you.

MAPA’s workshops in South Africa cover Google Earth, Google Maps, Fusion Tables and ODK, occasionally Google Map Maker, as well as the use of our conservation map. We’ve hosted trainings in the Western Cape, and Tanzania, and are about to run another training in Johannesburg in November. Applications for that are now closed, but if you have a need to attend one of these for the purposes of training others, contact us, and we will try and make a space for you or at least add you to the waiting list.

Our first mini-workshop at the University of Cape Town in 2010

Other organisations in other part of the world do similar trainings to us. A great example is the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, who have just hosted a training for the their organisation and collaborators. In their training they covered Google Earth, Google Maps, and Google Maps API. A great example of training others within a group collaborating towards a common goal is the Citizen Mapper site. For slightly different approaches to training within a single organization (for those of you looking to train within  a more educational setting), have a look at the KCK Saturday Academy site (integrating Google Geo tool trainings in a high-school leadership training programme) and the Desktop Mapping site at Eastern Washington’s University online GIS certificate programme.

Online tutorials and user guides

If it’s not possible for you to attend in-person training, there is still a wealth of helpful materials to help you acquire the necessary knowledge.  Most of what you’re likely to need for getting yourself up to speed on various mapping tools you’ll find on the Google Earth Outreach tutorial page, the Fusion Table tutorial page, and theGoogle Earth user-guide.  You may also wish to have a look at the Google MapMakerpedia site (MapMakerpedia is a new crowsdsourced guide for Google Map Maker that features lessons, articles, and tutorials), the SketchUp self-paced tutorials or if you’re looking to be more technical, the KML tutorial for developers and Maps API tutorial.

Rather than blindly starting at one end and working your way through the tutorials, it may help you to use Google Earth Outreach’s trainers’ materials (more on that below) to work through these resources within a structure that you can then use to train others.

Training Others

Within your organisation or institution, you may have quite specific training requirements. Perhaps you’re only interested in teaching your colleagues about Google Earth, or you may want to collaborate on a Fusion Table or Google Map. Whatever the case may be, chances are that the best place to start will be at Google Earth Outreach’s trainer’s corner.

The trainer’s corner is a collection of training resources  specifically aimed at organisations’ and institutions interested in training people in the public benefit sector in using Google Mapping tools.

In the trainer’s corner, you’ll find suggested agendas for different length and types of workshops, a list of training videos and links to them, links to Google Geo-related resources and articles,  and the option to request training materials.  Upon requesting this material, Outreach will send you a training pack, comprising  Power Point slides for use with your training, technique tours in Google Earth, a workbook that you can share with your participants, and your guide through this material and an incredibly useful preparation tool: the trainer’s script.


A screenshot from the trainer's script.

Even if you’ve never run a training of any kind before, the trainer’s script is a pretty fail-proof way of planning your training. It will help you think about the resources and preparation time you need for your trainings,  set the pace of your workshop, and will give you a really good idea of what to cover and how to deliver it.  Even if you have to go off script and adapt topics for your specific organisation or project, working through the training script upfront will install a framework to hang these off that are almost guaranteed to achieve success.

By requesting training material and delivering a workshop you will also have the option of joining the trainer’s forum, a group where trainers get to share their experiences and resources and ask their questions.  If you join the forum you will also receive announcements about Google product launches and updates, Google Earth Outreach training materials and learn about best practices and tips for training in Google mapping tools.

A really nice compliment to the trainer’s corner (depending on the topics that you’re interested in covering) is the Fusion Table trainer siteMap Makerpedia tutorials, the Map your world community siteSketchUp’s Trainer page, and the Google Earth for Educators page. Like the trainers corner, these websites offer curriculums, presentations, tutorials and instructions for hosting a training and/or Map Maker Party.

It may also be really helpful to have a look at the workshop sites of organisations and groups (like the ones we mentioned earlier in the post) to get a feel for the kind of material that would suit your organisation and purpose. Have a look, for example, as Google Earth Outreach’s IGG and Vancouver training sites, our Western Cape and Arusha workshop sites, the Golden Gate National Parks conservancy training site, the Citizen Mapper site and the Desktop Mapping page we mentioned earlier.

We hope that this blog post will help you think of how to go about teaching your colleagues and collaborators in making the most of Google’s free and easy mapping tools. If you would like to talk to us about trainings, feel free to contact us at – we’d love to help as far as we can, hear about your next training and would love to learn from you too!


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Announcing a Google Geo workshop in Johannesburg

Posted on September 26th, 2011 in General,Workshops by Alta

After our workshops in the Western Cape and Arusha earlier this year, many conservation organisations and individuals asked us to bring our Google Geo tool workshops to more areas.  So today we’re very excited to announce that we will be running two sets of workshops to Johannesburg in November, this time in collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

To ensure that we can accommodate as many conservation scientists, managers, communicators and other practitioners, we will run two sets of workshops, one from the 14th to the 16th and the second from the 17th to the 19thof November. Not a GIS expert or tech wiz? No problem! All you need is a laptop, willingness to learn and a need to visualise your work.

The three day workshops will run from the EWT head offices in Modderfontein, Johannesburg and will focus on using Google’s mapping technology and it’s applications in conservation. We will also introduce you to MAPA’s searchable map of African conservation and show you how to use it for your benefit. The workshop will be  very practical and interactive and, on the third day, participants will have the opportunity to design and work on their own maps and visualisations.

Interested? Then head over to our workshop site to get your application in and find out more about the topics that we’ll be covering in the trainings. Hurry – applications close on the 14th of October!



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Animal tracks and collar data in Google Earth

Posted on September 19th, 2011 in General,Google Geo Tool Blog Series,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

In many conservation research and management projects, practitioners follow animals to see how they use the landscape. This sort of  information is usually collected by researchers following their study species with a GPS unit/field data kit or by GPS collars and tags attached to individual animals.

In this blog post, the next in a series on Google Geo tools to complement our workshops, we skim the surface on how to visualise these sorts of data with Google Earth (mostly). We cover both data that comes in a GPS file format (e.g. .gpx files) and data that, as is typically the case with collars and tags, are in tabular format (e.g. .csv or .xls files).

What’s so great about animal movement data in Google Earth?

We follow animals to understand how they interact with and move through their environment. The data collected for this inherently comprise both spatial and temporal information – information that can be used to faithfully reconstruct a particular animals’ movement behavior in Google Earth – a virtual representation of that animal’s environment. The result? Very powerful visualisations that can help researchers, managers and other stakeholders better understand movement of individuals and populations and hence allow them to make more informed conservation decisions.

Google Earth and spatiotemporal data

When you open a file in Google Earth which contains features that have time associated with them (as time-stamps or time spans), it will automatically recognise this time element and bring up the time-slider (shown below).

You can read more about the time-slider, one of the tools you can use in Google Earth to animate data, in this Google Earth user-guide article. In short – the time-slider picks up the earliest and latest date/time associated with your data and then runs through segments of that time line, as defined by the two grey arms on the slider. Google Earth will show the selection of features that has time-spans/stamps that fall within the time-segment that the slider is highlighting at any given time.

Tracks in Google Earth

When you’re following a study species in the field, you’re probably not only collecting waypoints, but also tracks (read this article for more on how to record tracks on your GPS unit and mobile smartphones for use in Google Earth).  A track comprises both time-stamped points (so you can animate segments of it at a time) and a line element (so you can fly along it).  Although they are made up of points, tracks only have one placemark associated with the entire line. You can customise your track with an icon or even a 3D model, and Google Earth will move that icon/model through the landscape in the same way your followed animal did.

To import a track (and other GPS data) from your GPS unit into Google Earth is more or less as simple as opening the file through the File>>Open or File>> Import option and you also have the option of importing a file directly from your unit and in real-time. This  Google Earth user guide article has more information on how to do that.  Once you’ve imported your track you can go ahead and view it by using the time-slider and create a tour from it, just as in this blog post example.

A great feature to help you understand how your study animal moved across the landscape is the ability to show  the elevation profile of your track (right click on the track and select “elevation profile”). This will not only profile the landscape, but will also allow you to view other information (like speed, as in the baboon track example shown below) at any point across that journey.

For more on GPS waypoints and tracks, and what you can do with them, view this Google Earth Outreach tutorial and this Google Latlong blog post.

What about tabular data?

Data from a GPS are really easy to import into Google Earth, but often times, especially with collars and GPS tags, the data comes in a tabular format, not as a GPS file.  These data are a little trickier to get into Google Earth, especially if you want to animate your points. They’re also more difficult to turn into tracks, although you can do this in GIS packages (see this post for a great example), using conversion packages like GPS Visualizer (though this doesn’t produce great results in our experience) or by changing the KML code directly. Once your data have been imported into Google Earth, you can view and visualise it in the same way as for the GPS files.

We’ll focus the rest of the post on importing and animating points in a tabular format:

Importing and animating your tabular data

There are a number of tools you could use to get your tabular GPS data in Google Earth – different ones are better depending on how much data you have and what it is you would like to visualise (you can always mix and match!).  By no means an exhaustive list, here are a few options:

Option 1: Google Earth Pro

In Google Earth Pro you can import .txt and .csv files simply (file>>import or file>>open), as long as your GPS points are in a format supported by Google Earth. Importing your data in this way won’t animate, though, as time values are included as descriptions, not time-stamps.  You can import any number of points, but more than 5000 will result in a slower performance.  Google Earth Pro is not free, but if you can apply for a free grant as a nonprofit or educational institution, or try a free 7-day trial.

Option 2: Fusion Tables

You can import almost any kind of common format tabular data into Fusion Tables, and there is no restriction on the number of points in your table.

Once in Fusion Tables, you can filter your data on categories and style, visualise and map accordingly, so this is a great option if your follow data also include variables like foraging preferences or social behavior.  You can also merge your table with other datasets, create attractive looking information windows for points and export your data sets to Google Earth.

The one thing you won’t be able to do though, is animate your waypoints with the time-slider in Google Earth (your time values will be included in your information bubbles, but not as a time stamp).

To get started with Fusion Tables, see the three relevant tutorials on the Google Earth Outreach tutorial page, or the Fusion Table help centre.

Option 3: Spreadsheet mapper

Whilst Spreadsheet mapper doesn’t have as many options for data management, manipulation and visualisation as Fusion Tables, and only allows for import of 400 data points at a time, it does, like Fusion Tables allow users to create attractive information bubbles for points. Unlike Fusion Tables, it also allows you to specify time stamps against points, which means that you can animate your data in Google Earth.

We used spreadsheet mapper to create an animation of shark dorsal IDs that were recorded through a summer off Gansbaai, South Africa.  For this project, the researcher both wanted to get an idea of overall movement of known sharks through time, as well as be able to view specific information about individual sharks in the pop-up windows. You can read the case study for this project here.

Option 4: GPS Babel and GPS Visualizer

GPS Babel and GPS Visualizer are free online tools that allow you to convert various formats of GPS, text and KML files into each other.  Both allow several different options for customising waypoints and are also great for combining multiple tracks into a single one (something you can also do in the KML code). They’re not the best options if you’re looking to make attractive information bubbles, though. With both these tools, converting a tabular dataset into a GPS or KML file is mostly as simple as uploading a file and pressing a button, but it is worth reading through this help article to get an idea of what is possible and to ensure that your data are in the right format.

Other Options:

There are GIS packages and many other online applications that can help you get your GPS track into Google Earth – here is a list of more tools if you’re interested in exploring further and/or the above don’t meet your needs. Most GPS management software applications (like MapSource) also offer the option for manipulating GPS data and exporting it to Google Earth, although it’s sometimes better to use the saved GPS files from these applications and add it to Google Earth yourself. The trick is to find what works best for you!

In addition to GPS units, many of you use field data kits like CyberTracker or Open Data Kit for Android. For FDKs like CyberTracker you can visualise your resultant data in the same way you would other GPS files and tabular data, as described in this post. ODK offers some great options for visualising field data and is well integrated with Fusion tables. You can get started with ODK in this Google Earth Outreach tutorial.

A real-life example of tabular tracking data:

The data below is a sample of data collected by Alison Kock of the Save our Seas foundation. Alison and her colleagues manually tracked a great white shark over an afternoon and a morning in December 2009. Alison is interested in (amongst other things) how sharks move in False Bay in different seasons. In winter, sharks typically spend more time closer to the middle of the bay at Seal Island, hunting seals, whilst in summer, many spend more time inshore. What do they get up to there? Well, sometimes, as this track shows, not all that much….

This dataset was in a tabular format, so before we could see it in Google Earth, we had to turn it into a GPS file first. We were really only interested in visualising the movement of the shark through time, so we used GPS Babel to convert our .csv file into a .gpx file and opened this in Google Earth. We also subsequently went into the KML code to turn the points into a track (the track is not included in the animation below, but you can download it here).

When we opened our .gpx file in Google Earth, it recognised the time stamps in our file and brought up the time-slider, which we used animate our points and track. Although this made sense to us, replaying the track in this way didn’t tell that much of a story without the context of  time, scale and place.  So we created a Google Earth tour to guide the narrative of our simple data story. We then made a video of that tour (shown below), so we could share it on this website and for Alison to use in presentations. We also uploaded the Google Earth tour we made (download it here for best viewing) to her project bubble on the MAPA Google Earth layer.


Remember that you can associate any KML or KMZ files with your project on the MAPA layer and/or embed YouTube videos in your project bubble. Simply log into your account, open your project, and upload your file. You can add YouTube videos by clicking on the Video tab, pasting the video embed code and associating that with your project.

We hope this post gives you some ideas for your GPS data – let us know what you come up with and don’t forget to upload it to your project bubble!


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Mining & Making Maps: MAPA winter newsletter

Spring has set in in the southern hemisphere and here at MAPA we’re suitably excited about some budding new developments.  Here is our latest newsletter:

A searchable map of conservation actions and areas in Africa

In our ongoing quest to make conservation more visible and accessible, we set ourselves the task this year to, amongst other things, make it easier to find information about protected areas and conservation projects in Africa. We also wanted to find more ways that conservation scientists and practitioners could use the MAPA project database and conservation map for their own benefit.

So it was with great excitement that we released the first version of a searchable, browser-based map to compliment our existing Google Earth layer to a small group of test users last month.  After fixing some bugs and making a few changes, we are even more excited to make a this map publically available as of today. Go to to start exploring!

We’ll tell you more about the map and how you can use it for your organisation or project in a separate blog post, but, in the meantime, don’t be shy to share your thoughts and suggestions.  We take these very seriously and consider each and every one!

Adding projects just got a little easier

The map of African conservation is only ever going to be as useful as the contribution from the conservation community is strong. We’ve tried to make it intuitive and easy to add a project, but we also know that a little guidance can go a long way. If you want to add your project, but you’re unsure about how to go about it, have a look at this video, and look out for more help material and tips coming your way in the coming month.

If you’ve added a few projects, and would like to have your efforts highlighted further, let us know.  We could add your organization’s efforts to featured conservation series – have a look at some of the programmes and projects highlighted so far.

Making many meaningful maps

It’s so much easier to communicate conservation challenges and efforts when one has a visual representation of the environmental context within with these take place.   Here at MAPA we’re very fond of Google’s Geo tools not only because it provides just such a visual platform, but also because it comes with really easy-to-use tools that can be used to add other layers and perspectives to that platform to guide understanding about pressing issues and activities.   Our map is one such annotation, but there are also many other ways that these tools could be utilised to make conservation more visible.

For this reason we decided to compliment what we do with the MAPA database and map with hands-on Google Geo tools workshops for conservation practitioners.   Not only do these workshops offer us an opportunity to connect and collaborate with the scientists, managers and environmentalists that look after Africa’s priceless natural heritage, but they allow us a way to help visualise conservation far beyond what we can do with our map alone. And they also happen to be quite fun.

After a fortnight of slightly experimental and (we think) successful workshops in Cape Town and Stellenbosch earlier this year, we found ourselves travelling to Arusha, Tanzania in June to run more of these trainings as a side-event to the ATBC/SCB Africa conference.   Read more about our time in Tanzania and, if you reside in the northern regions of South Africa, look out for an announcement later this month …

Google Geo tools series

In the short time that we’ve been running Google Geo tools workshops, we’ve picked up on particular topics that a lot of participants have an interest in or difficulty with, and as part of an effort to follow up with these participants, we’ve started a new (more or less) fortnightly series on our blog.

We superficially touched on using short, simple Google Earth tours in the first blog post in this series and two weeks ago wrote about using Google Earth without an internet connection in publications and presentations.  Look out for a blog post on GPS collar track data next week and more on teaching Google Earth to others in your organisation and using Fusion tables to share data sets later this quarter.  Are there any pressing topics you would like to read about? Suggest one, and we might just write about it.

More memories of our mapping missions

We’re no longer driving around Africa’s protected areas, but we do still have plenty of memories to share.  We add new albums to our Facebook page from time to time and we’ve been adding slideshows to various protected areas on our Google Earth/browser-based map, which we’ve started to highlight on our blog.

Richard Hugo getting some high-tech directions in Angola

To celebrate the end of our mapping expeditions we’ve put together a bumper slideshow of some of our volunteering adventures from across the continent.   We leave you with these memories until next quarter!


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Google Earth Unplugged

Posted on August 17th, 2011 in General,Google Geo Tool Blog Series,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Using Google Earth offline in presentations and publications

Three weeks ago, we promised you a series of blog posts to follow-up some of the most common questions and topics of interest we received feedback on after our workshops. Whilst we’re usually trying to encourage people to use online tools to visualise their information, we appreciate that you might not always have the luxury of an internet connection or even Google Earth when presenting to your audience. So, in today’s post we cover a few tips, tricks and tutorials for using Google Earth when you’re disconnected.


The simplest way to share an image from Google Earth (or Maps) is to use screenshots and paste that into your publication or presentation. The picture below, for example, is a screenshot of a SANBI PowerPoint presentation, in which the presenter was communicating a specific area of concern to managers and researchers. For great example of how to use Google Earth and Maps images in a publication, have a look at these (open-access) Plos One publications by  Holland et al. (2010) (fig. 2) or  Aanensen et al.(2009).

Whereas, in most cases, using Google Earth Imagery in this manner is perfectly acceptable, we strongly suggest that you use the Google Earth Permissions tool for guidance on the proper use and citation of Google Earth & Maps imagery.

Using Google Earth Offline

Using a screenshot of a Google Earth Image certainly tells a story, but sometimes you’ll lose impact and context by working statically. The good news is that you can actually present in Google Earth without an internet connection, provided that you’ve stored the imagery you need in you cache at some point before your presentation.

“Caching” happens automatically when you’re connected –  when you fly into places in Google Earth, the imagery that you see is stored in your machine’s cache so that it will load faster. You can adjust the size of your cache, and thus the amount of imagery that you can show, by going into Tools>>Options>>Cache on the top toolbar in Google Earth.

For tips & tricks on presenting in Google Earth offline, and more information on what your cache is and how to you it, check out this tutorial on the Google Earth blog, or this Google Earth Help forum thread.

If you plan on showing custom icons, popping balloons or showing image overlays on Google Earth whilst you’re offline, remember that images referenced off the internet won’t show. Instead you’ll have to create your material in Google Earth with images from or saved to your computer, and then save this as a kmz file (if you’re going to present off someone else’s computer). To learn more about how to create self-contained kmz-files, and the pros and cons of doing that, see this Google Earth Outreach tutorial.

Whereas good practices of presenting in Google Earth is not really within the scope of this post, we’d thought we’d include a good example of how you might go about it. The video below shows highlights of  Google Earth Outreach‘s Rebecca Moore and two other nonprofits present to an audience using Google Earth (view the full video here).

No internet, no Google Earth

In some cases you may simply not have the option of using Google Earth or the internet, or you may not be too sure of how available and reliable these resources will be to you or your audience. In these situations, you may want to create an offline movie, which you can then present to your audience as a standalone, or as part of a PowerPoint Presentation. Whilst there are probably many roads to Rome, here is one way your could go about it:

Step 1: Create your material in Google Earth – use snapshot view to bookmark your imagery and make sure you set your placemarkers so you can easily navigate your way around your presentation.

Step 2: Create a Google Earth tour of the material you plan to present. Play it a few times to cache the imagery properly.

Step 3: If you have Google Earth Pro (download a free trial, or apply for a free licence if you’re a nonprofit or an educational institution), you can use the movie maker option to create an offline movie (see this tutorial in the Google Earth user guide to learn how)


You can use screen-capture software like CamStudio (free), Camtasia (30 day free trial) or SnagIt (30 day free trial) to record your screen whilst playing your tour. Although there is great help material available to help you get started (CamStudioCamtasia and SnagIt), these software packages are all pretty intuitive.  Just make sure you check out the Google Earth Permissions page before you record your movie – there are some cases where the use of screen-capture videos won’t be appropriate.

Step 4: Edit you movie if you like.  Camtasia, for example has really nice editing features, but you could also use something like Windows Movie Maker or iMovie to do this.  Remember that QuickTime videos won’t play in PowerPoint (click here for compatible formats), but you can always play your video as a standalone during your presentation, or convert it into a compatible format.

Step 5: Insert your video into your PowerPoint presentation (if you choose not to do a standalone presentation).

Once you’ve created your movie, you could always upload it to YouTube (like we did in the example below), and then send the link to interested parties, or submit it as supplementary material to your paper when publishing.  Remember that you can also upload your Google Earth material, or if you prefer, your YouTube video, to your MAPA Project bubble.  But that’s getting away from offline use of material…

Google Earth (truly) unplugged

A final option to consider is Google Earth Enterprise Portable.  This solution allows  you to customize your Google Earth globe with your organisation’s spatial data, and carry it around with you when you’re not connected to the internet.  It’s not, however, a free solution, and at the moment there is no grant program for it.  Still, if you work in an area where you need a lot of freedom from the internet, but could use Google Earth’s functionality in your work, this may be the best option for you.

We’d love to hear about how you use Google Earth offline, whether you found this post useful, or of some points we didn’t cover in this post. We’ll pick up on this series in two weeks time when we write about GPS collar data and GPS tracks.

Update: Due to our quarterly newsletter being published in the week of the next slot in the series, the “GPS tracks and collar data” post will be published week of 12 September.


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Thoughts on our Tanzanian trainings

Posted on July 24th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

Conservation Science is not a simple discipline.  Conservation Projects usually involve a great diversity of stakeholders and require multi-disciplinary collaboration if they have any chance of effectively addressing conservation targets.  A key factor in such a complex environment is the ability to communicate ideas, issues, data and solutions between these stakeholders and collaborators.  It’s lucky, then, that visualising this information needn’t be a complicated affair at all – provided you have the right tools!

Equipping conservation biologists with some of these tools was the biggest reason we were out in Arusha, Tanzania, a little over a month ago, attending the joint meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Africa section and the Association of Tropical Biology.

Our aim was to introduce these scientists and conservation practitioners to the MAPA Project, and, whilst we were at it, teach them how to use the Google Geo tools that have served us so well to highlight important issues and datasets in their own projects.

During the conference, we hosted several lunch-time demonstration sessions.  In these, we introduced participants to the different Google Geo tools on offer,  the basics of making maps with Google Earth, talked about visualising GPS, GIS and tabular data in Google Earth and Fusion Tables, and introduced them to Google Map Maker. In the afternoons, we answered questions and brain-stormed specific problems and applications with some of the participants.

Participants from the Jane Goodall Institute work through an exercise in the two-day practical workshop.

The real fun started after the conference though, as we hosted about twenty (mostly Tanzanian) conservation practitioners for two days of hands-on training at the Mount Meru hotel. We used most of the first day to get familiar with Google Earth, before delving into topics such as Google Map Maker, Narrated toursGIS &GPS data,  Fusion Tables and  Open Data Kit on a busy second day.  All too soon it was time to say goodbye.

We went to Arusha to teach conservation biologists about visualising information on a map (ours, or their own, or both), but, in truth, we were probably the ones who came away with the learning experience!

We’d like to keep learning and teaching, and in the spirit of making African conservation more visible and accessible, will be writing up a few posts with real-world examples of how you can use Google mapping technology in your day-to-day work – and how you can add this into your MAPA Project bubble, of course (where appropriate).

We’re planning to run a post every fortnight, and have a few planned based on some of the feedback we received from this and previous workshops.  However, we’d like to make sure that we write about the topics that you’re interested in – so we’ll need you to tell us what you would like to hear about! You can let us know by submitting your topic using this short form. We’ll choose a selection of suggestions for the series.

In the meantime, here are the posts that we already have on the cards (one has already been posted):

  1. Tanzanian tracks & tours. In this blog post we looked very briefly at how you can use narrated Google Earth tours to guide the way your audience engage with your story. Read it here.
  2. Google Earth unplugged:  using material you’ve created in Google Earth offline and in presentations.
  3. GPS collar data and GPS tracks: mapping and animating tabular collar data and GPS tracks in Google Earth.
  4. Using Fusion Tables to host your data online and how to share this with colleagues and collaborators.
  5. Mapping it forward: Teaching your colleagues and students how to use Google mapping tools.

If you’re a bit nervous of diving into mapping and visualising your information using the Google Geo tools, we suggest that you start out by reading these two blog posts (part 1, part 2) by Google Earth Outreach.  We’ll keep you updated about training opportunities on this blog, and on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, but if you’re keen to get started, there is great material to guide you step by step along the way on the Google Earth Outreach tutorial page. There is no need to wait for us!

As for Arusha – we were absolutely overwhelmed by the friendly reception we received – thank you to everyone who made us feel so welcome. We’re also hugely indebted, as always, to Google – a big, big thank you to Google Earth Outreach for making this outing possible by co-sponsoring the workshops and to Jacqueline Rajuai from the Google Kenya office who hopped across the border to help run the sessions.  Asante Sana!

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Tanzanian tracks & tours

We’ve been neglecting our blog terribly in the last three weeks and we apologise for that. Things have been quite busy here at the MAPA Project – in a good way! One of the reasons we’ve been so quiet is that we’ve recently been attending, and given trainings at the ATBC/SCB Africa conference in Arusha.  We’ll tell you more about that soon, but this week we wanted to share three small tours we created with conference delegates whilst in Tanzania.  These tours aren’t flashy at all – and purposefully so!

Being in the business of visualising conservation, we’re very fond of Google Earth tours, but they can take a really time to put together! This needn’t always be the case, though, and you don’t have to create a 15-minute-all-singing-all-dancing-master-piece to use this tool in your day-to-day work to visualise important information and concepts to your colleagues, students, peers or a public audience.

To illustrate this point, and share a small piece of Tanzania’s splendour with you, here are three short, simple, and pretty unpolished tours. We’ll upload these to our Google Earth layer, so you will also be able to download them from the “click here to see more buttons” for these particular protected area bubbles.

Taking it from the top – literally – we fly to Kilimanjaro first. Towering approximately 5100m above the surrounding landscape at Moshi, there are certainly many ecological stories you could tell about Kilimanjoro. In this case, however, we only have one small piece of information that we’re interested in conveying: Kili’s shrinking snow-caps.

Kilimanjaro is a great place (regrettably!) to use the time-slider in Google Earth. So, during our in-conference demonstrations, we showed participants how they could drag the time-slider back to see what the snow-caps used to look like in 1976, snapshot-view this perspective, then create another snapshot view to a current-day image, add a picture in a pop-up bubble, import a gps track, draw a polygon around the old snow-caps – and finally, add a bit of voice narration. It’s not a tour that will make it into the showcase, but it tells a story! And it probably took about 10 minutes to put together.

Download the tour here

Next, we stay in northern Tanzania and head for Ngorongoro crater for a slightly more touristy rendezvous.  In this case, we simply tried to virtually represent the experience of travelling down the Ngorongoro crater, encountering spectacular wildlife and a scary numbers of cameras clicking away at these animals! To make this three-minute virtual safari, I just imported my GPS tracks from the day’s drive, syncronised them with some of the photographs I took on my visit (I used gpicsync, but there are many other packages you could use), animated the track in Google Earth and popped the photographs at certain points I had snapshot viewed before hand. It took all of 15 minutes to make.

Download the tour here

You can, of course, get more flashy with tours, as we showed in a very small way with the little one-minute tour we created for Katavi National Park. In this tour, we delved into the KML code, and changed the visibility of our screen-overlays and the co-ordinates of our polygons, to create the effects you see in the tour.  Again, even though this tour contains a few more advanced elements, it’s still very simple and tells a very short and contained story.

For a very gentle introduction to more advanced touring – have a look at the tutorial we put together…it contains links to many other more advanced and comprehensive tutorials on touring as well – if you really want to get serious about creating tours.

Download the tour here

Once you’ve recorded and saved your tour, you can create an offline movie file using Google Earth Pro or screen-capture software like Camtasia and include this movie in your PowerPoint presentation…you won’t even need Google Earth or an internet connection to show your visualisation to your audience (you could, of course, also embed your tour in a website if you wanted to).

Also – don’t forget to  upload it to your MAPA project bubble. If you click on the “KML” tab when you enter information for your project, you’ll see an option for uploading your KML/KMZ file. Your tour will appear as a “footprint” and anyone who clicks on your bubble will be able to play your tour in Google Earth.

There are spectacular Google Earth tours available that showcase issues and areas in Africa – have a look, for example, at the Save the Elephants tour, or some of the Cop15 and Cop16 tours. If you would like to create one of these, you’ll have to put in the time, and may even have to look at hiring a developer. But you don’t have to be a developer, or have lots of time on your hands, to utilise Google Earth tours to visualise a problem, concept or dataset. Get started with this tutorial, and let us know what you come up with! Remember to add your KML/KMZ  file to your MAPA Project record!


Visualizing African conservation from Arusha

Posted on May 16th, 2011 in General,Workshops by Alta

Nestled between the peaks of Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro, many people consider Arusha to be the safari capital of the world – one of the places to visit if you want to see the African wild.  So it’s perhaps appropriate, then, that no less than 600 people tasked with making sure there is something of that wild left to see will be descending on Arusha to take part in the African section of the Society of Conservation Biology & the Association of Tropical Biology’s joint meeting in early June.

Arusha National Park (source: Wikimedia commons)

Going on a safari is one way of learning about this valuable wilderness,  but not everyone can afford and is able to do that.  Besides, when it comes to conserving Africa’s natural heritage, the threats and issues are usually much more complex and comprehensive than what can be seen from the back of a safari truck.  One of the reasons MAPA will be travelling to the meeting will be to give the men and women who do understand this complexity the tools to communicate these issues and threats to the general public, and each other.

Off the back of the enthusiasm that we had for our South African Google Geo-workshops, we will be taking another round of overview sessions and workshops to this gathering of conservation practitioners and tropical biologists.  During the conference, we will run a daily hour-long overview session of the different Google Geo tools,  focusing on a different tool every day. We will also host a hands-on two-day workshop after the conference, during which we will introduce participants to using Google Earth & Maps, Fusion Tables and Open data kit (mobile data collection) to aid decision making, publicize work, and create maps for their organisations and projects. The workshops are kindly being co-sponsored by Google Earth Outreach and will be offered free of charge to conference delegates and (for the two-day workshop only) other conservation practitioners active in the area.

MAPA itself is, of course, in the business of making conservation more visible, so we will also be talking about some of the ways conservation practitioners can use our map and tools in conjunction with the tools we’ll be talking about in the workshops to visualize their work.

Are you going to ATBC & SCB Africa in Arusha? Visit our workshop site to find out more and register for one of the sessions! We can’t wait to meet you!

All the world’s a stage: reflections on our Western Cape workshops

Posted on May 5th, 2011 in General,Get Involved!,Workshops by Alta

Here at MAPA, we’re all about making conservation visible and accessible, which is why we’re building a map to highlight protected areas and conservation projects in Africa.  We’ve designed this map as a tool for conservation practitioners to highlight their work and build a picture of conservation in Africa.  However, it’s no good having the tools to build a map and having nobody to build it with – and we’re adamant that the map of African conservation should be built by its custodians.  That’s why we set ourselves the task, this year, to go and gather these builders from around the African continent, find out how we could best develop tools to help them, and enlist their help in putting African conservation on the map.

If you’ve been following us, you will know that when we say that we’re building a map, what we actually mean is that we’re annotating a map. The actual map is already there. It’s called Google Earth. We use Google Earth as a platform to visualize and organize information about Africa’s conservation areas and actions, which is the particular story that we’re interested in highlighting, but there are obviously many other stories that could play out on this stage.  Although millions of people use Google Earth and Maps, the usefulness and ease of these platforms for communicating issues and information that you and I work on and with, are still not that widely  appreciated.

MAPA has been fortunate in that we’ve received much assistance from Google.  We were technically assisted by Google Earth Outreach prior to and after our (first) launch in late 2009, and were also granted a number of Google Earth Pro licences.  However, we also received a  help of a different kind when, at the launch of Google Earth Outreach in Africa, MAPA  and  other African non-profits were shown how conservation practitioners and researchers could get the most out of Google Earth & Maps to communicate their work to others.

Being in the business of helping scientists and conservationists visualize their work using Google Earth, we recently put this training into practice and ran a series of workshops in the Western Cape of South Africa.  The aim was to demonstrate to the local conseration community what is possible with Google Earth, Maps and some other Google tools. We also wanted to start finding enthusiasts who could form the nucleus of an online pan-African conservation community.

So that’s how, at the end of March, we found ourselves hosting just over 100 conservation practitioners from 42 institutions at the Universities of Stellenbosch & Cape Town.  While most participants came from the Western Cape, we had attendees fly and drive in from as far afield as KwaZulu Natal, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga.  We also had two rather special visitors from even further away: Jacqueline Rajuai and Evans Arabu from the Google Nairobi office joined us in the Cape Town trainings, leading the Google Maps sessions, helping out on the floor, offering advice and fielding questions.

Participants could choose to attend one of the seven one-day introductory workshops, and, if they felt like more, register for one of the three “advanced workshops” days. Here they could learn more about Google Fusion TablesOpen Data Kit/Mobile data collection, and, for those master story tellers, advanced narrated Google Earth tours.  In the introductory workshops we covered an overview of Google’s Geo Tools, the basics of annotating Google Earthadding GPS and GIS content to Google Earth, creating narrated tours and building a customized map with My Maps.  In between we sneaked in 30 minutes to talk about the MAPA Project and building a map of African conservation.

In the advanced touring session, we got a little more technical, learning how to tweak KML code (ever so slightly) to create better narrated tours. In the afternoon session, we imported and mapped data in Fusion Tables and collected data on campus on our Android(s) with ODK collect, then met back in the training room to view the data in Fusion tables.  For this session we did an “audit” of the University’s buildings for baboon attractants– not such an unreasonable activity at UCT, where the dispersing young baboon Bart took up residence for a few weeks, a year or two ago.

We hope that we will, in the coming weeks, be able to show you some of the work created by the workshop participants for their own projects using the skills they gained at the workshops . If you attended the workshops, we encourage you to add your material to your project bubble as a “footprint” (kml/kmz files that can be uploaded against your project). These Footprints will display on your bubble like in the example below. When a user clicks on your footprint it will lay down your layer/tour/polygon etc. on Google Earth.

For us, the Earth & Maps workshops were very enjoyable and productive. We’re currently collaborating with many of the institutions that attended the workshops, and we hope that, with their help, as well as yours, we’ll be able to get a major chunk of the Western Cape’s conservation actions on the map by mid-June. We’ve already added about 200 projects to the map, and we hope for many more in the coming months.

We’d like to extend a special thank you to everyone at Google for their support, especially to the Googlers who travelled down to Cape Town to help us run the workshops. We’re also very grateful to the EGS department at UCT and the Conservation Ecology & Entomology department at the University of Stellenbosch for allowing us to host the event using their facilities, and to Snowball Effect who helped us out with a temporary internet connection in Stellenbosch.

If you didn’t attend the workshop, but would like to learn more about how to create content in Google Earth, you can get started on the Google Earth Outreach tutorial page. There are many really great and easy tutorials that will show you how to present your information on Google Earth and Maps.  And don’t forget to add your conservation project to the MAPA database!

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