New open-source software to bring together spatially explicit information
Conservation planning is all about being spatially explicit. Species, ecosystems, people, threats and management activities are the basic components in any conservation plan and they are all distributed across the landscape in varying degrees. A good conservation plan contains information about the distribution of these components with a framework to help managers decide how to apply their limited resources for the best result (ie, which management actions where for the best conservation outcomes).
There’s a lot of spatially explicit information out there on these various components but, unfortunately, that information often never comes together. That’s because it’s held by different people in different places for different purposes in different ways. Often, people have the knowledge about the locations of species or ecosystems, for example, but they don’t know where to deliver it. Or the information may not be in the form of ‘useable’ spatial data (it might be scrawls in the margin of a birdwatchers notebook). Or the person doing a citizen science survey may have no access or knowledge of GIS software. Or maybe spatially explicit data does exist but it’s in a format created differently from another user and the two data sets can’t easily be merged.
“There’s a lot of spatially explicit information out there but, unfortunately, that information often never comes together. That’s because it’s held by different people in different places for different purposes in different ways. That’s why we created Mapotron.”
In our research we have been collecting information on monitoring activities from a range of conservation researchers. We collected this info using online surveys. Part of what we needed to know was the locations of places where they did their monitoring activities, and the data needed to be spatially explicit. Even though we were dealing with experts, we experienced all of the issues we describe above; that is the information we were bringing together had so many differences it was proving very challenging to bring together.
Points, lines and polygons
Different monitoring activities may be best represented using different types of spatially explicit data. For instance, the location of monitoring programs that involve visits to specific sites could be represented using point longitude-latitude coordinates. On the other hand, this format would be inappropriate for studies that use large transect-based methods, where it would be better to use a series of lines to indicate location of the monitoring activities. However, neither of these data types would be appropriate for indicating the location for monitoring activities that took place over a spatial area, and in such cases closed shapes (polygons) might be more appropriate.
So, what we needed was a platform that anyone could use to generate point, line, and polygon data. We also needed people to be able to associate extra information with the spatial data they generate, such as what animal was monitored at each place and how intensive the monitoring was at each place. Most importantly, this platform needed to be easy to use so that survey respondents unfamiliar with geographic information systems (GIS) would be able to use this platform with minimal or no training.
The ideal platform would also integrate seamlessly into the survey, and streamline some of the data processing for us. We wanted the survey respondents to be able to draw points, lines, and polygons on maps that appear inside the same web-page as the other survey questions. We didn’t want to complicate the process by having respondents install extra programs or open up another web-page and manually send the data to us by email. Finally, we also needed the platform to store and pre-process the survey data to streamline the data collection process, such as associating the respondents name with the data they generate and exporting it in common GIS data formats for analysis.
That was our wish list. However, when we tried to find open-source software that met these criteria there was nothing available. So, we created our own!
Introducing the Mapotron
What we created is a software package called Mapotron. It’s an interactive platform that allows people to pass on their spatial information directly to the person that wants to use it, while avoiding extensive editing, or technical difficulties. While we created it initially for our survey, it quickly became apparent that this is a resource that many people will find useful for a variety of purposes.
Why it is special? Well, for starters, it’s open source. This means that everyone can use it for free for non-commercial uses, everyone can see the source code, and everyone can modify it for their own purposes, or contribute new features to improve the software for all users.
And, because Mapotron is hosted online, neither survey makers nor respondents need to download any software to use it. It is fully accessible through web-browsers (though we’d recommend you run it using Google Chrome).
Mapotron is easy to use. Individuals familiar with Google Earth or Google Maps should feel comfortable using it, and it also comes with extensive help documentation.
And Mapotron is fast. It is powered by the NECTAR cloud system.
Who might find it useful?
Mapotron could be a useful tool for anyone collecting information that includes locations from many people. For example, citizen science projects usually requires people to note where they have seen a particular species? Mapotron enables this information to be collected without complicated descriptions of the locations.
Other potential uses include:
- Science or management bodies who want to back up existing data with local observations
- Collating information from indigenous communities
- Any project that seeks to engage with the community.
The strength of Mapotron is that it simplifies the communication of spatial knowledge to such an extent that anyone can do it. You don´t have to bring in expertise to draw that information on a map and afterwards digitize it. People can directly draw in the web browser.
Mapotron is now a working app but we believe it holds enormous potential for use in a range of projects and databases. It can be integrated into any existing websites of data repositories or websites of agencies who have an interest in collating observational information. NRM bodies or scientists may benefit from this tool for any engagement with stakeholders or impacted communities.
There is even work underway to include the Mapotron into the way we use and apply Marxan.
We hope we’ve whetted your appetite. If you have any interest in bringing together spatial information (past, present or future), why not check Mapotron out for yourself. You can find it at http://marxan.net/shinyapps.html
(direct link: http://marxan.net/rshiny/GIS/mapotron206/)