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A dispatch from Madagascar: Six things I learned from forest managers.

Earlier this year I was asked if I wanted to visit Madagascar as part of a visit by the Global Forest Watch team. It’s impossible to turn down the opportunity to visit the land of lemurs, so of course, I said yes!

Although the lure of lemurs and baobabs was strong, I was more excited about the opportunity to meet some of the people we build tools for. I spend most of my day thinking about, listening to, and discussing ideas with people just like them. But I rarely get to meet park managers, policymakers, or data analysts in person. So this was an amazing chance to meet some of the people who are actively changing the world.

In this blog I want to share some of the things I learned from these people: what excites them, what occupies their thoughts, and the competing needs of their communities they have to balance. I shared this trip with five Georgians, many Malagasies, four Americans, one French person and one Dutch person — and together they represented a diverse range of experiences, insights, and perspectives. I’m really grateful for the time we got to spend together and being able to learn so much about so many different cultures.

These people love nature.

One thing that became apparent very quickly was how much the people on the trip loved nature. The enthusiasm and excitement was intoxicating; every call, creak and crack drew a hushed silence and focused glances into the trees to see if we could find the source. This is the kind of insight you can never get when you talk to people over skype. When you see someone’s eyes light up, and you know that they have this deep passion for admiring and protecting the natural world, that’s a special moment.

Can you tell which photo I took on my phone, and which one was taken by a pro using a high quality camera? Credit to Natia Tskhovrebadze for the nice image on the right.

Knowing people’s passions and what excites them is essential if you want to make websites that excite and engage them. For one thing, this helps you understand their frame of mind when they’re coming to the site so you can think through the initial experiences they’re looking for, and the questions they want to answer quickly. But it also allows you to find the little moments where you can inject a bit of joy and happiness into the site, making a more appealing experience overall.

They are focused on ‘sustainable use’.

The term ‘Sustainable Use’ came up a number of times throughout the trip. I see it a lot in reports and blogs and policies, but you don’t really appreciate what it means until you see it in action.

We don’t protect forests just because forests are intrinsically valuable. They’re assets themselves that can generate huge revenues for a country, whether that’s attracting tourism, selling timber or cleaning water and avoiding floods. It can be quite easy to forget that we’re not just protecting living beings, we’re protecting the value and benefits that come with their continued existence.

Use Global Forest Watch to understand the dominant drivers of forest loss. You can see that in France and Spain, Forestry and commodity driven deforestation are the main drivers, while in Northern Africa you can see more loss driven by shifting agriculture or urbanization. LINK.

The flipside of this, of course, is that once trees are perceived to be worth more out of the ground than in the ground, they get cut down. Agriculture is a major driver of forest change around the world, and in many cases this switch is supported because a farm can be much more economically valuable (it creates food and jobs) than a forest; even if that forest provides so many benefits that are hard to quantify (clean air, clean water, safety from floods and avalanches).

The people I met on this trip have a difficult balancing act, between protecting trees and extracting value out of them. And this job becomes harder when you can’t necessarily ‘see’ all of the benefits on one side or the other. This made me think that we (as a data visualisation community) need to be much better at communicating the benefits of the natural world, the role it plays at the foundation of all life on the planet, and that many of our actions are connected to and facilitated by its flourishing.

Tourism and infrastructure are priority concerns in their work.

In many places around the world, tourism produces revenue to keep parks going. Even in the USA last year, you may have seen the entry fee to National Parks increased substantially as they are being made to ‘pay their way’ rather than being supported by a central budget. Madagascar has a similar issue, with park entry fees from the most visited places helping support the whole network.

Unfortunately, if you want to get people into parks, you need infrastructure like roads and paths to get them there. Once they are there, you also need a good internal network of roads and paths inside the park so it can be managed effectively. (We did some work on accessibility by road in another project). This need for infrastructure in order to take advantage of economic opportunities prompts difficult conversations on how to balance the preservation of intact, untouched forests with sustainable development.

Gif showing the Global Map of accessibility, so you can see the time it takes to get to the nearest city from any location on Earth. LINK.

Facebook is still a big deal.

Despite the events of this year, it doesn’t seem like this particular cohort of people have stopped using or given up the world’s largest social networking platform. Almost the entire trip, in the precious rest-time between work and dinner, I saw people posting images, replying to comments or sending messages to their friends on Facebook.

In the professional setting it was mentioned pretty often as a means for engaging the public and getting ideas out to the world. I heard an interesting story about people using Global Forest Watch to have conversations with the public: with two or three different sides contesting the origin of some floods — each backed by their own ‘data’ and observations. Having the option to call upon a global-level, impartial tool helped them separate the facts from the conjecture. This confirmed an observation I’ve made a few times, but it was great to hear first-hand how the tools we make can help change the course of a conversation on the internet.

It reminded me of the importance of designing your site and your data to be consumed in places that aren’t necessarily the website you built. This is not just about adding share buttons, but making every single chart, graphic or map telling a simple, self-contained story that people can’t help but share. That’s when users become your advocates, and they spread your message even further.

A GFW map embedded in a news story by an NGO called SPDA. See the whole story for yourself (in Spanish) here.

People may prefer people to platforms (as a source of information).

It was interesting to hear people talking about their go-to sources of information. As I wrote in a previous blog post, it seems that people are preferred sources of knowledge. Especially where you have close networks and teams passing information around, it can be hard for a global-level tool based on data derived from satellite images taken weeks before to compete.

There are certain things (particularly the mixture of weekly GLAD alerts, recent satellite imagery and Fire alerts) that are more valuable to these people on the ground, and we saw that they are being used.

The thing to take away from this, building on my previous point, is to remember about the personal and verbal user experience. Data is most likely to be understood and used when it’s socialised among a group of people; and the network of partners built up around GFW certainly helps make sure that a lot of conversations about forests reference GFW (either explicitly or implicitly). It’s our job, as user researchers, to think about the flow of information into and around that group of people, to make sure we generate as much impact as possible.

All forests are different.

Throughout the trip there were many conversations about the differences between the forests in Georgia (where half of the participants were from) and the forests in Madagascar. In Georgia, forests have two main uses: a source of firewood in winter, or a resource that improves environmental stability (i.e. windbreaks, flood regulation, water quality). In Madagascar, forests are many things, including: something to attract tourists, a place full of resources, areas that could be converted to grow rice, as well as places to undertake scientific research.

Beyond these general differences, you’ve got to remember that in just one country (Madagascar), there are five distinct types of forest. And in each of those regions are thousands of hectares of forest, and in each forest are hundreds of different species.

Allee des Baobas is a magical place — but you don’t get that same sense of wonder when you look at it on Global Forest Watch.

This got me thinking about the nature of our tools, which mostly give a ‘global’ ‘overview’, and that maybe we’re missing something by not celebrating all that local-level variety and explaining it to the people viewing our maps.

What do we do about this now.

Bringing all this together, there are three big things that I’m going to keep exploring in our work in the future, both with GFW and all our other tools.

1 — Keep thinking about how we can make it easy for people to present our tools to others.

One of the core user stories we hear is about finding some data on one of our sites, constructing a story, and then using maps and charts to tell other people that story. It might be a discussion on Facebook, or an advisor talking to their minister, or a colleague entertaining and informing their peers. The storytellers are out there, and we do consider them when we’re building tools, but I think we can do more to embolden and empower a bigger wave of storytellers.

2 — Build deeper, emotional, affecting connections between people and the world around them.

I think we are missing a chance to build much stronger connections between people and the environment. There are so many little details that, right now, you can only see if you go there and hear from the local experts that spent their whole life growing up around the forest. We could do a lot more to build in that awe and wonder that grabs people, awakens their brain, and helps build an unforgettable experience. We’re on the cusp of doing that — see the landscape view on the Half-Earth Project Map for example — and I’d love to see more of that coming soon.

Check out the new landscape experience we released for the Half-Earth project!

3 Show the solution, not just the problem.

Linked to this, you never really see the work happening on the ground when you view one of Vizzuality’s websites. It’s hard to build a global community of action when all the data you hear is focused the problem, not the solvers and solutions! I think we can do better at reaching out, cataloguing the great work that’s being done, and inspiring others to follow in their pioneering footsteps.

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