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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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