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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