GIS for Conservation: An Interview with Esri’s Charles Convis, Part 1

Q: How did you first become interested in conservation?

Charles Convis: It was just there all along.

I grew up in rural coastal California in the 1960’s and life just made more sense to me when I was out in the woods instead of in town. When I was 8 years old or so my dad taught me how to hunt and I started backpacking, and I went on to become an eagle scout. I started a Sierra Club chapter in high school and majored in Ecology at university. The real turning point was when I went on a research mission to Brazil to help set up several coevolution study sites and found that most of our candidate forests had been cleared for sugar cane. I decided I had to set aside my research career and devote my efforts to conserving natural areas or else ecologists of the future would have nothing left to study and kids of the future would have no more forests to hang out in and figure out life’s problems.

Q: How did you start using GIS, and what lead you to connect with Esri?

Convis: I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, thanks to help from my dad who himself was a former marine and a veteran of Iwo Jima.  That tells you something about our family. I had a draft lottery number certain to be called but the draft was in its last year and I was never called up for my alternative service, so I sort of made up my own.  I liked the Peace Corps idea but they didn’t really do conservation, so I laid out a 4-year program of volunteering for conservation groups around the world under the guidance of World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

I had taught myself computers using old IBM machines and punch cards at university, and computer skills turned out to be something every little conservation group wanted help with. I backpacked and hitchhiked with my spouse all over Africa and Southeast Asia, spending a few weeks with each group to help them do whatever computer project they wanted.  By the late 1980’s, what folks increasingly wanted was help mapping so I started writing  mapping programs and hearing about this GIS company called Esri who had helped UNEP Nairobi on an elephant project.

At the same time I was finding out that an itinerant volunteer backpacker could only be of limited use in helping conservation groups no matter how devoted you might be. At some point you needed to have an institution around you so you could help more people and take on bigger challenges. I wrote a funding proposal to set up a new kind of international computer support foundation, new because it would specialize in “appropriate” technology like what E. F. Schumacher wrote about in “Small is Beautiful”.  Rather than cutting edge tech it would deliver the kinds of tech tools that small groups in small countries could actually learn, use, maintain and repair from their own local resources.

Because it wasn’t about the cutting edge it wasn’t interesting to the foundations I sent it to. I also sent it to Jack Dangermond because I knew I’d need hardware and software folks willing to donate products to me.  Jack liked the idea and ended up being the only one to offer me a way to create that foundation, within the walls of Esri.   Esri had itself started as a non-profit organization so it seemed like a good place to try to make a go of it.  When I started at Esri in 1989 there wasn’t any GIS in conservation except at UNEP and in a few universities.  We’ve done tens of thousands of grants since then and handed out hundreds of millions worth of support so I think it’s been a useful program.

Coming soon: Part 2 of my interview with Charles…

Mapping Malaria Risk in Bangladesh using Bayesian Geostatistical Models

American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 2010 Oct;83(4):861-7

Reid H, Haque U, Clements AC, Tatem AJ, Vallely A, Ahmed SM, Islam A, and Haque R.

“Background malaria-control programs are increasingly dependent on accurate risk maps to effectively guide the allocation of interventions and resources. Advances in model-based geostatistics and geographical information systems (GIS) have enabled researchers to better understand factors affecting malaria transmission and thus, more accurately determine the limits of malaria transmission globally and nationally. Here, we construct Plasmodium falciparum risk maps for Bangladesh for 2007 at a scale enabling the malaria-control bodies to more accurately define the needs of the program. A comprehensive malaria-prevalence survey (N = 9,750 individuals; N = 354 communities) was carried out in 2007 across the regions of Bangladesh known to be endemic for malaria. Data were corrected to a standard age range of 2 to less than 10 years. Bayesian geostatistical logistic regression models with environmental covariates were used to predict P. falciparum prevalence for 2- to 10-year-old children (PfPR(2-10)) across the endemic areas of Bangladesh. The predictions were combined with gridded population data to estimate the number of individuals living in different endemicity classes. Across the endemic areas, the average PfPR(2-10) was 3.8%. Environmental variables selected for prediction were vegetation cover, minimum temperature, and elevation. Model validation statistics revealed that the final Bayesian geostatistical model had good predictive ability. Risk maps generated from the model showed a heterogeneous distribution of PfPR(2-10) ranging from 0.5% to 50%; 3.1 million people were estimated to be living in areas with a PfPR(2-10) greater than 1%. Contemporary GIS and model-based geostatistics can be used to interpolate malaria risk in Bangladesh. Importantly, malaria risk was found to be highly varied across the endemic regions, necessitating the targeting of resources to reduce the burden in these areas.”

Spatial-temporal Data Analysis with Spacetime Algebra: A Case Study with Satellite Altimetry Data

18th International Conference on Geoinformatics, 18-20 June 2010, Beijing, China

Luo, Wen; Yuan, Linwang; Wu, Minjie; and Yu, Zhaoyuan

“Modeling dynamics of complex geographical phenomena is of lots of difficulties in current GIS system. In this paper, Spacetime algebra, a powerful algebra system in expression and analysis of the unified spacetime, is introduced in modeling the dynamics of geographical objects. The basic structure of spacetime algebra and its design schemes are discussed. Case application with satellite altimetry data is also presented. Result suggests that temporal and spatial evolution characteristics of Equatorial Pacific sea level can be extracted by changing the rotation angle and boost ratio. The constructed spatial and temporal projection and statistical parameters suggest that our solution can compare well with ENSO event, which suggests that spacetime algebra can be seen as a powerful tool and a potential way of modeling dynamic changes in GIS.”