Saving the Planet One “Hotspot” At a Time

The Nature Conservancy’s sophisticated geospatial analyses pinpoint where to get the most for its preservation dollars

by Alan Joch, July 2008

The ability to quickly gather and analyze information is often the key competitive differentiator for companies that always seem to race a couple steps ahead of the competition. But in this information-driven age, the same level of agility is essential for organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which measure success not in market share but in staying ahead of climate change, poorly planned developments, and other threats to the environment.

TNC credits much of the success of its Conservation by Design effort to the adept use of geospatial information and analytics to identify hotspots where resources are needed to promote biodiversity efforts. The organization creates layers of digital maps using ESRI ArcGIS applications and multiple implementations of Oracle Database 10g to analyze information from third-party publishers or government agencies. Using spatial-savvy algorithms, the group pores over the digital maps and underlying data about plant and animal species, and climate, and nearby developed areas to make quick decisions about where to dedicate its expertise or acquire easements.

“We set priorities through a rigorous process so that when opportunities come up we have a way of evaluating whether or not they fit within our portfolio of conservation areas,” says Matthew Merrifield, TNC’s geographic information systems manager for California. “Our planning is based on scenario building—we look at future possibilities to assess the risk to biodiversity.”


GIS Takes Off

Although TNC has long been a proponent of geospatial applications, its reliance on the technology has taken off since the launch of the Conservation by Design initiative in the mid 1990s. The systematic approach pinpoints key conservation areas in the U.S. and 30 countries, what resources to conserve in each location, and how best to achieve the goals of individual projects. The overarching goal is to conserve “enough of everything” through ecosystems that sustain people, plants, and animals, while its near-term objective is to conserve a minimum of 10 percent of every major habitat type on Earth by 2015. The chances for success seem good given TNC’s track record—the organization estimates it has protected more than 117 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide since 1951.


Merrifield says geospatial applications are essential for analyzing the data TNC relies on. “We could study a pile of paper maps and augment them with field information, but with GIS we aggregate all the information into a digital database that let’s us ask informed queries,” he says.
Merrifield estimates that about 500 staff members, or nearly 20 percent of the organization, uses geospatial applications in their work. “We’re pretty spatially literate,” Merrifield says.

TNC isn’t alone in recognizing the value of spatial analysis. It’s becoming important for everything retailers for the right mix of demographics and traffic for new location to law enforcement and intelligence agencies looking to identify likely hideouts for criminals. “The big breakthroughs in GIS are in spatial analytics—the ability to decide where to locate a new store, or, from a scientific perspective, to model changes in landscapes, for example,” says Jack Dangermond, ESRI president.

Thus, the issues that businesses face correspond to those TNC grapples with. “Enterprises need to understand where to best deploy their limited resources and what kind of returns they are getting by region,” says Jim Steiner, Oracle senior director of server technology. “Spatial technology can help them analyze a service area or a sales territory to better understand how assets are deployed and if they’re being used most efficiently.”

As general-purpose applications like Google Earth and automobile navigation systems grow in popularity, spatial information is quickly becoming mainstream.


Solid Foundation

TNC stores its information in multiple Oracle-based “spatial data nodes” throughout the United States, including the California facility that Merrifield manages. Two new nodes are also slated to open soon in Costa Rica and China. The nodes aggregate local data to create regional storehouses, which distribute relevant information down to field offices. “The Oracle database technology allows us to replicate the data and keep it in a federated system so we're all looking at the same information,” he says. “Oracle came into the mix because once we decided to deploy this data in an enterprise fashion, it became clear that we needed a high-end database.” Merrifield estimates that the California node alone manages nearly one terabyte of spatial information, including about 500 gigabytes of imagery and biological data.


TNC also chose the Oracle Database because it natively supports Linux, the organization’s operating-system platform of choice. He adds that the Oracle Database supports the spatial-data specifications of the Open Geospatial Consortium, which promotes open standards for integrating multi-vendor GIS applications and technologies.


The Geo Web Future

Open standards like the OGC’s will become increasingly important as Web-based geospatial applications form the next wave of GIS evolution and the Web development community incorporates location data into general-purpose applications. “There's a pretty big ecosystem of open source activity out there” promoting the capture and viewing of geospatial information, Merrifield says.


For organizations like TNC, the potential of these new applications include some intriguing tools for gathering first-hand information. “What's going to really push us is the implementation of spatial applications on mobile devices,” Merrifield says. “The more people use location-aware phones, the more they can take pictures and geo tag them to add information about that picture. That opens up the whole idea of user-generated spatial content and ‘citizen science,’ where you could empower a whole army of people able to use their camera phones to take a picture of a rare plant and send it and the location to us via the Web.”

Although Merrifield concedes these applications are primarily conceptual at this point, programs like Google My Maps and open geospatial standards show the technology is within reach. Merging online content creation with powerful desktop tools for GIS will be the next steps forward. “I'm watching these applications evolve with an eye towards how we could use them,” he says. “They certainly can benefit conservation because many times our decisions aren't made using primary information. As the so-called Geo Web evolves we can start seeing more and more Web content that’s geospacial, and that's only going to help us understand which places are better for conservation.”

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