Using GIS for Conservation Communication

By Madeleine Kaleta

As conservationists, we aim to bridge the gap between valuable scientific data and the interest of the people and businesses who depend on our natural resources. Engaging communication is critical to help spread environmental awareness. Using GIS (Geographic Information System) for conservation communication, is helping Texan by Nature share the impactful conservation stories of our partners. 

GIS allows users to create interactive maps for easy visualization of spatial relationships or trends. Using a suite of spatial analysis tools, complex data sets can be interpreted and presented in a more easily understood format. Combining these maps with information about conservation projects, creates a powerful “story map” to effectively communicate positive impact in an engaging manner. 

Texan by Nature has produced story maps for projects such as Bringing Baffin Back, Matagorda Bay Rookery Island Conservationand H-E-B Trees for Texans. 

Our data and project manager, Amy Snelgrove, is behind the GIS magic happening at Texan by Nature! Amy acquired degrees in Forestry with a GIS emphasis from Texas A&M University. She also previously led the geospatial and information technology resource team within the Natural Resource Institute at Texas A&M. Amy joined the Texan by Nature team in 2017, bringing 30 years of geospatial experience working on natural resource and endangered species research efforts. Amy facilitates our conservation projects with our partners and provides geospatial analysis and mapping support for Texas based conservation efforts! 

In your experience, what makes GIS unique as a tool for conveying conservation-related information?
Overall, GIS is a unique and valuable tool for conservationists to easily spread the word on complex conservation problems and efforts. Through its ability to combine and analyze a variety of data types spatially, GIS helps to break down complex data into a format that’s easy to understand, informing conservationist’s decision-making, and spreading information that’s accessible to everyone.  

Can you provide examples of how GIS has been particularly effective in communicating complex conservation data to various audiences?
One example of how GIS has been effective in communicating complex data to the general public is through our recent H-E-B Trees for Texans story map. This project aims to conserve Texas natural resources and reduce urban heat island effect while enhancing communities through tree planting projects.  

To determine which schools would benefit the most from a planting project, schools were selected based on proximity to an H-E-B grocery store, intensity of urban heat island effect, current tree canopy cover, and socioeconomic data. GIS allowed us to create a map combining all four of these considerations, resulting in a list of schools, backed by good data, that would most benefit from this project.  

While complex, this data is visually broken down in a way to effectively communicate this process to various audiences. 

What are some innovative ways GIS technology is being used to visualize conservation data?
There are many ways that GIS can visualize conservation data, some of these were shown in the Matagorda Bay Rookery Island Conservation story map we completed with Audubon Texas. This project featured maps of bird density on an island in Matagorda Bay, showing how bird density has increased over time using a slider tool to compare. GIS also is a great tool to make infographics. In this story map we utilized graphs as a visual tool to look at how a variety of species populations have changed over time during recovery efforts.  

In addition to examining changes over time, GIS can also look at changes across space. Using unique symbology to display information, for example, one map showed locations of both current and future rookery islands. Maps made in GIS were also used to show benefits of rookery islands during storm surges, as they act as barrier islands. One such map examined rookery impacts and the degree of storm surges at different hurricane intensities. With GIS the opportunities to visualize and communicate conservation data are endless. 

Can you share examples of how GIS was used to address a particular communication challenge in a conservation project?
I’ll use an example by one of Texan by Nature’s 2023 Conservation Wranglers. The American Bird Conservancy, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and Black Cat GIS partnered up to create the Stopping Plastics and Litter Along Shorelines (SPLASh) program. They created a Story Map showing the spatial impact of shore cleanups by using symbols to show where cleanup efforts have taken place with a focus on protected areas.

An interactive map was also created to educate the public on the shorebirds that rely on clean shores by providing information on habitat and fun facts about the birds this project aims to protect. This is a great example of how GIS can examine data and allow for easier communication of conservation information. This story map aided in communication by visually breaking down information to be more accessible for the public. 

What recommendations do you have for conservation organizations looking to enhance their communication efforts through GIS technology?
GIS can help any organization not only operate more efficiently but can be used to effectively communicate the impact their efforts have on people, prosperity, and the natural resources they work with.   

By utilizing GIS, organizations can tell stories with data through interactive maps, charts, and infographics that enhance communication efforts for conservation. Maps can also be applied to applications for citizen science data collection, trail mapping, and more. GIS allows for collaboration and partnership between different organizations through data sharing to create more comprehensive maps and analyses from the shared data. Interactive maps can be crucial for public awareness campaigns, crowdsourcing, citizen engagement, social media, and even feedback! Implementing GIS makes data more accessible for everyone.  

Our vision is for every business, every Texan to participate in conservation and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation for the world.

Utilizing GIS to communicate the impactful conservation stories of our partners is one of the ways we get more Texans involved in conservation. We believe that by leveraging GIS technology, conservation organizations can better communicate their initiatives, engage the public, and drive support for crucial conservation efforts.  Check out how you to join our Conservation Partner network.