11 Geo for Goodnesses to help you on your mapping way

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

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

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

Enjoy, and happy 2014!


Geo for Good 2013. Photo: Google Earth Outreach.



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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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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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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!