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Telling a Good Story with Maps

WWF's Nasser Olwero explains why people need to use maps more

nasser profile

Nasser Olwero directs WWF’s Information Science team, overseeing a wide range of GIS, spatial modeling, database management and programming projects. Before joining WWF in 2006, he worked at Mpala Research Center in central Kenya, where he launched and managed a new GIS program for conservation research. He was a Russell E. Train Education for Nature grantee in 2003.

Some of the earliest maps I created, when I was in graduate school for conservation GIS (Geographic Information Systems), were hand drawn. That’s not because technical drawing was a core requirement for the program: it’s because I was studying GIS in western Kenya, where technology resources were few and far between.

Fortunately, my undergraduate degree was in engineering, and I’d excelled in technical drawing. But I still labored for hours over those drawings—and in the process, I grew quite attached to them. Each new map became a portrait of the natural world, a fascinating articulation of the rich systems and structures and life forms defining any one physical place.

Those maps also became portraits of humanity. Part of my research focused on collecting data—numbers about species distribution, rainfall, forest cover. But another big part of it was collecting stories, the stories of people whose lives were bound to those natural phenomena.

One of my first jobs after graduate school was starting a GIS center at Mpala, an environmental research center in central Kenya. Using geospatial technology, we were able to chart the population dynamics of zebras and several other important species in that ecoregion.

When local people saw the resulting maps, they were thrilled. We had taken a complex set of data and translated it into a simple, compelling story that helped them see the value of those species—which are an important part of the ecosystem and draw tourism to the area—in a much more tangible way. They became eager to do more to protect that wildlife.

“I want to help WWF build a culture where maps become one of our most common, innovative, easily created and easily shared communications assets—where they’re a default way of thinking about the work we do. ”

Nasser Olwero
Director, Information Science

I’ve now been doing GIS modeling and analysis for 16 years, eight of which I’ve spent at WWF. And during that time I’ve seen more and more conservation projects like the one at Mpala, as environmentalists recognize and leverage the storytelling power of maps.

One of my favorite examples is the Natural Capital Project, or NatCap, an initiative started in 2006 by WWF, The Nature Conservancy, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. It aims to help all sorts of decision makers and stakeholders put a quantifiable value on the natural resources around them—and understand the impact their own actions have on those resources. I joined the team to lead GIS programming for InVEST, a suite of software tools for modeling different environmental data sets and situations, with a lot of emphasis on geography.

With the help of the visual stories told by those maps, we’ve been able to show many different policymakers and practitioners things like which parts of their forests store the most carbon, which landscapes are critical for the flow of fresh water, and which places are optimal for preserving biodiversity. We’re even developing a tool for mapping future scenarios that can factor in the wishes of the stakeholders themselves. So if a community tells us they want their land to have 40% more forest cover in 20 years, we can help them visualize and compare various ways to make that happen.

I’m excited about the energy pouring into the initiative, and about the numerous other new mapping projects I’m seeing at WWF and throughout the broader conservation world.

I’m also far from satisfied. The technology behind GIS has advanced at an astonishing pace over the past decade—it’s easier and cheaper to make maps than ever before—but our perception of its possible uses for conservation hasn’t kept up with those changes.

A lot of people still see GIS as something intimidating, reserved only for tech-heavy science research. But we rely on geospatial technology all the time in our personal lives: to find directions, plan trips, organize photo albums, even track our exercise.

The maps we use for those personal tasks could strengthen more of our conservation efforts. Not just the scientific facets, but also communications and marketing, how we talk to our members, even how we use our building’s space.

I want to help WWF build a culture where maps become one of our most common, innovative, easily created and easily shared communications assets—where they’re a default way of thinking about the work we do. Whether they’re hand drawn or highly pixelated, maps are pictures. So I always wonder when I see someone struggling to inspire people, convince skeptics or tell a story: Why not just use a map?

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