Our latest newsletter: Zooming in on Zim

Posted on March 2nd, 2012 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Newsletters,Workshops by Alta

If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that for the last little while, we here at MAPA have had Gonarezhou on our minds. And Mana pools, Kariba dam, Victoria Falls, Matobo Hills….in fact, we’ve been getting downright zesty about Zim. We’re pleased to let you know that this affliction is only going to get worse! Don’t worry; we are still thinking about other conservation projects and places too! Here is our latest newsletter:

The Great Zimbabwe registry

Last week we officially announced the Zimbabwe drive, due to start on the 19th of March.  What is this drive exactly? Simply put, MAPA will be collaborating with Zimbabwean conservationists to build a registry and map of Zimbabwean conservation projects. We’ll also be highlighting issues of concern, organisations who work in Zimbabwe and hope to bring you many great Zimbabwean maps. Visit the drive’s website to find out more, or subscribe to the mailing list if you’d like to get weekly updates via email.

Google Geo: Zimbo style

Last year we put on a number of very popular Google Geo Tool workshops with conservationists from all over Africa. We love doing these workshops, both because we get to equip conservationists with practical skills to communicate their work, and because they allow us to get to know the people behind the work – which can lead down all sorts of exciting roads.

At our last workshop, for example, we were pleasantly surprised to meet the ladies from the Dambari Wildlife Trust, who travelled all the way down from Bulawayo to attend the training in Johannesburg. We started talking; one thing lead to another, and three months later, the Zimbabwe drive was born!

Nicky and Verity

Verity Bowman (far left) and Nicola Pegg (left) from the Dambari Wildlife Trust hard at work at the EWT workshop

It comes as no great surprise then, that our focus on Zimbabwe will include not only a Google Geo workshop or two, but a six-week long initiative where we will help you create your own Google EarthGoogle Maps and Fusion Tables mapping projects.

We’re kicking off the Google Geo part of the drive by starting small:  On the 19th and 20th of March we’ll be running a very personalised workshop in Cape Town, at the University of the Western Cape’s swanky new facilities. The workshop is for anyone in conservation or natural science who works in Zimbabwe, or with Zimbabwean data.

Although we will still teach you to use Google Earth, Maps, Fusion Tables and how to get the most out of MAPA’s conservation map (just like at our regular workshops), this workshop will be highly focused on participants’ own data. In fact, we’d like to be so focused on your work that we’re restricting the workshop to just 10 participants. There are a few spots left, so if you’re interested in attending, let us know soonest by emailing mapaworkshops[at]gmail[dot]com. We’ll follow up on a case-by-case basis.

For those of you who are worried about making it down to Cape Town from Zim – don’t worry, there is (at least) one workshop in Zimbabwe on the cards at the end of the drive, in early May. We’ll tell you more about that, as well as how you can get the most out of the Google Geo Tool initiative, in the next fortnight.

Africa Geographic and Tracs4Africa partner up with us for the Zimbabwe drive

The MAPA Project tells the world about African conservation projects and where they happen and so it seems only right that we should be teaming up with the continent’s premier conservation story-teller and master navigator.

As part of the Zimbabwe drive, Africa Geographic has kindly agreed to hand out a free 6-month digital subscription to their magazine (either Africa Geographic magazine or Africa Birds & Birding) to every organisation that adds a project. On top of that, Tracks4Africa will make sure you get a copy of their GPS maps for Zimbabwe and Zambia, and will also give away a handheld GPS to one randomly-selected participant.

You can learn more about these, and other great incentives over at the Zimbabwe drive website.  A big thank you to Africa Geographic and Tracks4Africa for your generosity!

Registering Rhino Projects

This year, MAPA will be going about populating our conservation map in a number of ways. We’ll be focusing more on countries (Zimbabwe being the current focus, obviously), but also on topics and taxa that span the continent.

As far as conservation topics go, they don’t come much hotter than the current Rhino poaching crisis, and we will be doing our bit by turning our attention to creating a near-complete registry of African Rhino projects, in the very near future.

As an appetiser, we recently put out a “first call” to Rhino conservationists and researchers. There’s much more in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

Remember that you can add your project at any time, whatever your conservation topic or country of residence! If you’re confused about how to get started, here’s a little help.

We’re not only mapping projects!

You may have noticed that we never refer to ourselves by our “full” original name anymore. Whereas we were once mapping Africa’s Protected Areas, we’ve now slightly outgrown our name. However, we do still represent protected areas and other critical habitats on our maps, and we still need your help to get it right!  To learn more about how we threw our name away and how we went about putting protected areas on the map, read our two part blog series here:[part 1][part 2].

Action-packed Autumn

We’ve got some exciting developments lined up for the next three months: We’ll be bringing you revamped project-input screens, new training materials, more Google Geo Tool workshop news, plenty of Zimbabwean conservation maps and hopefully, a more complete African conservation map!  For updates and news, follow us on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

We’ll see you at the end of May.  Until then, a big, big thank you to all our friends, supporters and collaborators. This project wouldn’t exist without you!


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The Zimbabwe Conservation Registry drive gains momentum

Posted on February 24th, 2012 in Featured Conservation,General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools,Workshops by Alta

What if there was an easy way you could easily find out what work other conservationists in your field were involved in? What they were doing to address the same problems you have? Who were funding them? Who they were collaborating with? What if your project could be visible to others in your field? A public that could contribute? Grant-making bodies that could fund your work?

For the past two years, we here at MAPA have been building just such a tool with our online project registry and map. It’s been showing great potential and we’ve had wonderful encouragement from conservationists from all over Africa, but we also know that it will ultimately only really be useful if enough African conservationists are represented on it. But Africa is a big place! And so we’re tackling this enormous task one country at a time!

A few weeks ago, we told you about our Zimbabwe Conservation Registry drive, an initiative that will see the MAPA Project working with conservationists in Zimbabwe to achieve just such a registry and map for this country of Miombo woodlands, mighty waterways and majestic wildlife.

Thanks to encouragement from the many Zimbabwean conservationists we’ve been in contact with since then, and a generous partnership with Africa Geographic and Tracks4Africa, we can now officially announce that this drive will take place between the 19th of March and the 30th of April 2012. We can scarcely wait!

So what will the Zimbabwe registry drive entail?

The main thing we’ll ask participating individuals and organisations to do is to add an online “project profile” for each of their projects.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that anyone can do this do this already. However we’ve been working on more user-friendly input screens to make adding projects even easier and will be making these available just before the start of the drive, together with updated help materials and increased support.

During the drive, we’ll also be supporting conservationists with more ways to make Zimbabwean conservation more visible. Generally, we’ll be updating protected areas and critical habitats on our conservation map. Specifically, we’ll be offering workshops to teach conservationists how to use the MAPA tool for their own organisations, as well as how to use tools like Google Earth, Google Maps and Fusion Tables to highlight and communicate their own data, and the issues they care about. We’ll be going one step further and even help them create these visualisations.

But we don’t want to give too much away! More news on these initiatives soon!

Gifts from Africa Geographic and Tracks4Africa

To make it a little more appealing to go to the trouble of adding a project, our partners at Tracks4Africa and Africa Geographic are offering a few nice incentives to every organisation which loads a project:

  • Every organisation which loads one or more projects will be able to download the latest Garmin compatible GPS map for Zimbabwe & Zambia for free, from Tracks4Africa. It’s a routable map, with 38,000km of roads and over 5,000 points of interest.
  • MAPA, T4A and Africa Geographic will also be doing their best to publicise this effort and give your projects some exposure.

Interested? Follow along!

We’ll be talking a lot more  about the Zimbabwe drive in the coming weeks. If you’re interested in following along, or participating, here are some ways that you can keep abreast of developments:

  • We’ll be sending out a more-or-less weekly email with updates, news and information to our Zimbabwean mailing list. Sign up here, if you’d like to join it! You’ll receive more or less one email a week until the end of April.
  • We’ll be using our social media platforms to make new announcements too and undertake to use these platforms to highlight your efforts by re-tweeting, re-posting and re-sharing – so follow us on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

A big thank you to all the Zimbabwean conservationists who have already weighted in to make this initiative possible.  A special thank you to our friends at the Dambari Wildlife trust, and our partners at Africa Geographic and Tracks4Africa. We certainly couldn’t do any of this without you!


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Help create a registry of Rhino Projects

Posted on February 17th, 2012 in General,Get Involved!,Google Geo Tools by Alta

The MAPA Project exists in large part to help conservationists make the work they do, the wildlife they protect, and the problems that they care about, more visible.

As far as problems are concerned, few would argue that rhino poaching occupies a very central place on the conservation agenda at the moment.

With seemingly insatiable demand for rhino horn in Asia, rhino deaths at the hands of poachers rose sharply in 2011, and soared in 2012. But see for yourself: we created an interactive Fusion Table map of SANParks’ tally, which they released earlier this week. Click on the polygons to explore the situation in each of South Africa’s nine provinces, and in the Kruger National Park.

Rhino poaching is a difficult problem, but there can be no denying that a lot of organisations are doing wonderful work, tackling it from many different angles.  Some run awareness campaigns in Asia, others lobby governments, and others yet help kit out and support anti-poaching rangers.

While it’s great that so many organisations are throwing their weight behind the issue, the general public is often lost when it comes to knowing exactly where to direct their money, and attention. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way that they could find out exactly who was doing what, and where they were doing it?

We think that we can create exactly such a resource…with your help.

How? The MAPA Project upload website allows anyone in conservation to register and add information about their project online (see this video for help).

All you have to do is to add your project here, and whatever you add will appear both on our Google Earth conservation layer and searchable Google map. Not only will anyone looking for information on rhinos be able to find you on the map, but you can also create a custom map of the information that you care about by downloading your search results to Google Earth.

But our map is not the only way we help conservationists make their work visible.

Did you know that (without having to be a programmer) you can create a similar map  from your own data, using a free tool called Fusion Tables? (Here’s a tutorial if you would like to try).

Over the last couple of years, we’ve increasingly used free Geo tools like Google Earth, Google Maps and Fusion Tables to create and help create data stories for our own project, and for other conservationists that we work with….and we’d like you to get the most out of these tools too!

If you have a story, animation or  mapping project that you would like to include in the MAPA Google Earth layer, a report  or your website,  it can probably be done quite quickly using these online tools.   If you prefer to explore and learn on your own, head over to the Google Earth Outreach site to get started. Otherwise, tell us what you want to do and we’ll help, or at least point you in the right direction.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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MAPA newsletter: Towards a more complete conservation map

As the southern hemisphere spring makes way for the South Easters, sweltering heat and thunderstorm skies of African summers, we look back on the last three months to find a more complete picture of African conservation slowly emerging on our map as it sprouts more and more points of conservation interest. Here is our latest newsletter.

Important Bird Areas are on the map!

Given limited resources,  conservation triage requires that we favour some areas over others in order to make sure we conserve the most important places on the planet, and as much biodiversity as possible.  However, determining where these critical areas are can be tricky and costly, and so, in the absence of perfect ecological knowledge,  biologists have to look to taxa that can be relied on to reflect  the overall biodiversity and ecological value of a particular area.

As a generally well-studied, often well-travelled, ubiquitous taxa found in nearly every habitat on earth, birds are considered to be particularly good at being such indicators.  Areas that are important to the conservation of birds are thus likely to be important to other biodiversity too, which is one of the reasons we are particularly pleased that all 1218 African Important Bird Areas can now be found on our conservation map.  Read more here.

MAPA in Africa Geographic

Africa Geographic has surely set the gold standard for relating African conservation stories to the public and this would be reason enough for us to be happy about being featured in this magazine.  However, our spread in their November edition is also significant in that it speaks to one way we hope our map will be useful to conservation, namely to connect environmental journalists with conservation and wildlife stories that need the public’s attention.

Africa Geographic has kindly made the article available to us, so you can read more about our (short) history and hopes for the future by viewing the PDF here.

Working for Water projects infest South Africa

In the 17 years that the Working for Water programme has been running, this massive effort has received international praise for its innovative approach to the eradication of invasive alien plants. The programme has provided more than 20,000 people from marginalised communities with jobs, and runs 321 projects countrywide, spanning more than 150,000 land clearing units (NBALs) totaling more than a million hectares.


All 321 of these projects, as well as the 150,000+ NBALs have now been added to MAPA’s conservation map.  Each clearing unit contains information on targeted species, money spent and jobs created for that specific area, information only available in GIS files housed at the Working for Water offices until now. Currently the clearing units are only downloadable by province, via the “footprint” tab on the Google Earth layer, but we look forward to bringing you smaller, more manageable NBALs for individual projects, as well as more Working for Water news, very soon.

Google Geo Tool workshop in Johannesburg

In an attempt to take our map to Africa’s conservation community, teach them how to get the most out of it, and equip them with more tools to visualise their efforts spatially, MAPA has put on a number of Google Geo Tool workshops this year.  Most recently, we found ourselves in Modderfontein, Johannesburg where, together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, we hosted more than sixty conservationists from as far afield as Kampala and Bulawayo at two back-to-back three day workshops.  Read more about our jolly to Jozi in this blog post.

Sticking with the Endangered Wildlife Trust…

From it’s humble beginnings as a tiny nonprofit  ran from conservation legend Clive Walker’s garage in 1973, the EWT has grown into one of the most well-respected conservation organisations on the continent.  Today, the red and white cheetah pawprint is synonymous with on-the-ground-conservation action addressing some of Africa’s most pressing conservation issues.  There are more than 70 of these projects across Africa, and, as of last month, you can find them all on the searchable conservation map, or on our Google Earth layer.  We hope you enjoy exploring!

Special focus on Zimbabwe

To say that Zimbabwe has had a tough time politically is a little bit like saying that Nandos ads tend to elicit reaction. However, despite the challenges it faces, Zimbabwe’s conservation community is alive and well, and doing great work. In the coming few months, with the help of our friends at the Dambari Wildlife Trust and other Zimbabwean conservation organisations, one of our main focuses will be to get a comprehensive inventory of Zimbabwe’s conservation efforts up on the map. If you can help us with this task, please get in contact!

On that note, we sign off for this quarter. For more news and updates, follow us on Twitter, Facebook or on our brand new Google+ page!


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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 mapaworkshops@gmail.com – 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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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 maps.mapaproject.org 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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