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…

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  1. Pingback: Charles Convis Interviewed — Conservation Technology Blog

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