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Protecting our planet

Javier de la Torre of Madrid-based company Vizzuality explains why vizualization is the fundamental driver for conservation.
A giant panda lying down and looking very relaxed.

The Giant Panda is well known endangered species, with only a few thousand left in the wild today. Javier de la Torre believes the Protected Planet website will better protect habits for endangered species such as these. Image courtesy of Juha Soininen.

We are now entering the ‘sixth extinction’, the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s history and humans are the cause. “Knowing there are millions of species to be discovered that are getting extinct because of humans is a very unpleasant feeling,” said Javier de la Torre,co-founder of Vizzuality, a Madrid-based, open-source company that creates interactive visualizations of scientific data, from republishing WW1 Navy weather records for climate science modelling to enabling ‘citizen scientists’ to hunt for new planets.  

De la Torre said that he is hoping to influence policy making decisions towards biodiversity conservation, in particular through the Protected Planet project that Vizzuality produced working with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC). “Its goal is to provide the best information possible information about protected areas worldwide and allow users to collaborate and help improve the information,” said de la Torre.

On the Protected Planet website, users can view protected areas on a Google Maps layout and then change the boundaries themselves. “Think of it as a geospatial Wikipedia with proof reading,” said de la Torre.

Drawing the line

The project uses both ‘official data’ and ‘community data’ - official data is government managed, while community data is created by anyone. Of the 150,000 or so protected areas worldwide, many official records are inaccurate, de la Torre said.  For example, some maps overstate conservation areas making them look bigger, when they are not actually protected. “People close to those areas normally know much better about them than officials, and they are the ones that are editing the information,” he said.

“Of course, someone can vandalize the data creating wrong protected areas, but what we are seeing is that the community as a whole are creating the best world database on protected areas that has never been ‘officially’ created,” said de la Torre.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre moderates these edits and feedbacks directly to national governments who accept or reject these changes to their own official records. Therefore the public can influence government data directly. His hope is it will be a worldwide database of protected areas, balanced with public and government data, for conservation, tourism and taxonomy research to utilize.

Screenshot of the homepage of the Protected Planet website.

Homepage of Protected Planet website. It brings the public, conservation organizations and governments closer together. It enables anyone to edit the boundaries of a conservation area anywhere in the world. These edits are then checked with official records to ensure accuracy. Image courtesy of Sergio Alvarez Leiva.

Protected Planet’s audiences are numerous: governments use it to figure out where to conserve species and habitats; scientists use the raw data to analyze trends in global conservation; businesses re-evaluate their operations; and “the general public and ‘armchair conservationists’ explore the most beautiful places on Earth,” said de la Torre.

Vizzuality has built more than a dozen projects like Protected Planet. To power them all, they use virtual clouds provided by Amazon’s Web Services. They run heavy analysis – for example, figuring out what species are living in what protected areas required analysis of millions of data points – on cloud servers for a fraction of the time and cost that would be incurred from using traditional server clusters, de la Torre happily reported.

The path from data to action

De la Torre started Vizzuality with Sergio Alvarez after thinking there was not enough scientific action on conservation. “When you are studying declines of a particular species, you want to do more than publish another scientific paper,” he said. De la Torre and his team work now with institutions on carbon sequestration, mountain biodiversity, deforestation, and ecosystems in visualizing the immense data series involved. “Visualization is fundamental to move from data to information, from information to insight, and from insight to action,” he said.

Protected Planet’s founders believe their ‘crowdsourcing’ strategy inspires more public contribution. “There are a lot of people that want to help scientists and conservationists,” he said.

“Contributing to make the world a better place can be more rewarding than playing the latest mobile game, don’t you think so?”

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