Credit: Internet of Elephants

We use online maps all the time: where is the nearest coffee shop, how to get from the airport to the hotel, how bad is the traffic on our regular commute? Interactive maps are ubiquitous—most of us would struggle to make it through the week without zooming in and out and swiping at a map on our smartphone to figure out where we are going. While this technology has made a huge difference in terms of how we view and navigate our concrete jungles, we can also use it to change the way we explore the natural world.

We can harness our human interest and reliance on maps, and the fact that other animals may face similar navigational decisions in their own habitat, to learn more about species that we care about. What follows are examples of how we can marry online maps, animal movement data, and storytelling to create compelling visual experiences for the benefit of wildlife conservation.

CUSTOMIZE MAPS AND MAKE THEM INTERACTIVE

The detailed road maps and satellite imagery we are so used to now are accessible to all thanks to services like OpenStreetMap and Google Maps. But it’s tools like ArcGIS Online, WRLD and Mapbox that are making it easier than ever before to customize the look of a map, layer it with endless amounts of information and share it online. This is a remarkable development, because maps can put big, abstract data—environmental, demographic, etc.—into understandable and relatable, spatial context, as well as provide a beautiful backdrop to a good story. Interactive maps particularly lend themselves for enhancing stories about the natural world, but their potential has not yet been fully exploited.

USE MAPS TO SHOW THE MIND-BLOWING ATHLETIC ABILITY OF WILDLIFE

Instead of watching someone’s run around a city (136 million runs were uploaded to Strava last year, for example), think about the amazing journeys other animals do across countries or continents, as beautifully illustrated in Cheshire and Uberti’s Where the Animals Go: a solitary wolf’s trek across the Alps; a zebra’s 500 km round-trip from Namibia to Botswana; or a tern’s mind-blowing 70,900 kilometer flight from the Arctic to Antarctica and back.

Credit: James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

Indeed, animal migration and dispersal events can involve long distances that easily capture our imagination, but watching wild animals traverse shorter distances within and around our cities can be equally exciting (P-22, arguably the world’s most famous mountain lion, has his own film and almost 10,000 followers on Facebook). With the ever-growing number of animals being monitored for research and conservation purposes (see below), the sources for incredible feats and stories are endless.

USE MAPS TO ENGAGE NON-CONSERVATIONISTS

Wildlife conservationists and ecologists studying animals in the wild have long been using maps and geospatial data to visualize how the environment shapes population dynamics and movements across the landscape. But the output of their work has generally been viewed only by those attending scientific conferences, or locked up behind a pay wall in scientific journals. Moreover, as a recent article in Nature has pointed out, results from scientific research have been traditionally presented in non-interactive form that is not only unhelpful from a fellow researcher’s perspective, but arguably also unappealing to the non-specialist, i.e. the bulk of people who ultimately fund and should be encouraged to understand the research.

With the improvement in animal tracking technologies (at the time of writing, a dedicated animal tracking antenna was delivered to the International Space Station) and the rise of massive databases like Movebank and the Seabird Tracking Database (600 million and 11 million animal locations, respectively), animal movement data are becoming more accessible to researchers, but again not so much to non-researchers. However, online mapping tools and the ever-growing amount of open source geospatial data can make it easier to share study results in ways that are more informative and visually appealing to an audience beyond special interest groups. National Geographic recently published a beautiful and meaningful look at bird migrations across the America’s that is easily appreciated by anyone. And Movebank’s Animal Tracker app is an attempt to reach the wider, informed citizen scientist, but more can be done to capture the public’s attention and imagination.

PUTTING ANIMALS ON THE MAP, LITERALLY

Imagine looking at a map of the Okavango delta and not only being able to choose to see it in terrain or satellite view, but also seeing the lions, giraffes, elephants and wild dogs moving across the landscape, courtesy of the researchers studying and hoping to protect this amazing ecosystem. These living maps could have a huge effect on how people view and understand the natural world, and ultimately connect to wildlife. Indeed, the next time you reach for your phone to look for directions to the nearest cafe, you might even stop to think about where the other creatures that share your own ecosystem are, and where they are heading.C

Credit: Internet of Elephants

Last year, Internet of Elephants, a social enterprise based in Kenya, decided to put together animal movement data collected by conservation projects, beautiful looking maps and storytelling to demonstrate what the future of animal tracking data visualizations could look like. The result, a collaborative effort between conservationists and designers, was Stories of the Wild, three shorts that gave us a glimpse into the lives of elephants in Tanzania, and wildebeest and lions in Kenya.

While delivered as stories about individual animals, the map gives spatial context and enables the viewer to keep track of the bigger picture. Supported through a grant from the National Geographic Society, IoE will create future iterations with interactive maps and storytelling based on movement data, allowing viewers to dive deeper into the protagonists’ worlds and become more engaged in the process.

 

Humans have used maps for centuries to navigate their own world and explore unknown worlds. With the advances in technology, we can harness this age-old love affair to create even better connections between people, science and wildlife, all over the world.