How NGOs Are Using Data Maps to Communicate Problems

05/23/2011 12:47 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

As the CTO of a geospatial software company, I get pretty excited when I think about all the ways that data analytics can help drive better decisions. With the explosion of open data initiatives, there's huge potential for analysis and mapping tools to turn this data into useful information, which in turn can help solve complex problems. There's no question that organizations can enhance their performance by being able to easily access, analyze, visualize and collaborate around data, and I've found this to be especially true for NGOs. With their international reach, abundance of data, and lack of access to data scientists, NGOs can benefit greatly from being able to employ easy to use data analysis and mapping technologies.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) ClimaScope project is great example of this, as the WWF is utilizing analytics and data mapping in this initiative to help communicate problems to stakeholders. The goal of the ClimaScope project seems simple: provide access to climate change information so that policy makers, defense planners and project planners can make smarter conservation plans. Why isn't this simple? Well, as many of us know, data becomes information when it helps answer useful questions. The WWF realized that it needed to do more than just provide stakeholders with a massive amount of data on climate change; they needed to provide a way for non-technical users to easily analyze and visualize the data in order for it to become useful.

This is where the power of geo-mapping comes in. Analytics have the ability to turn hundreds of gigabytes of data into powerful, comprehensible information. For data that's tied to a specific location, location analysis turns data into beautifully illustrative maps. The WWF utilized location analysis to create ClimaScope- One Click Climate, a web-based tool that can be used to identify the impact and risk of projected global climate change. Scheduled for public release next month, ClimaScope displays data from 18 global climate change models, allowing anyone to easily access data and run models on how a particular area will be altered by climate change.

Figure 1: ClimaScope- One Click Climate interactive map shows how annual monthly precipitation is projected to change at a World Bank project site near Kenya. 

It's pretty exciting to think of the implications of this project, especially for developing countries. For example, think of a policy maker in Kenya who has never had access to trained data scientists or hardware that could provide this type of climate-change analysis. Now, with ClimaScope, the policy maker can easily run data analysis and see projected climate change impacts on a map. By being able to visually comprehend the impact of drought, flooding, sea level, coastal erosion, extinction, and crop yields by viewing the data on a map, the policy maker is much more likely to develop an effective conservation plan.

UNEP/GRID-Arendal's OCEANIDS project takes a similar approach to promote the sustainable use of oceans. OCEANIDS is a web-based service that allows people to upload, share, analyze and map scientific marine data. Of course, providing a catalogue of marine data can have huge implications in itself, since open data can go a long way in advancing scientific discovery. UNEP/GRID-Arendal takes their project a step even further by providing easy to use analytics and visualization capabilities. Consider how non-technical policy makers, journalists, researchers and program managers could benefit from being able to visualize the impact that human activities are having on deep-sea ecosystems or non-renewable marine resources. The interactive maps provide users with a way to see trends and gain insight on what changes need to be made. By utilizing easy-to-use, web-based geospatial software, the project opens up a world of knowledge that previously could only be delivered by trained data scientists with substantial hardware resources.

Figure 2: Interactive map from the OCEANIDS project shows how fishing catch volume impacts the number of threatened fish species by location around the world.

NGOs are providing data analysis and visualization capabilities to people all over the world, empowering stakeholders with valuable information needed to support decisions about things like resource management, governmental policies and aid distribution. With their international reach, NGOs that provide access to analysis tools have the ability to drastically advance the scope and impact of their organizational efforts.