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Summer 2013

Newsletter Archive


GIS for Conservation at Miistakis

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No matter what question one asks about responsible land use planning, there is a spatial element to the consideration of that question. GIS, spatial analysis, and the maps we produce can greatly enrich our perspective on a wide range of issues related to the challenge of balancing conservation and appropriate development. GIS can be a very useful and powerful tool.

This is not to say that every problem is best addressed solely through the analysis and mapping of spatial data. There are more efficient and effective ways to approach some problems, and some things that matter to conservation and land use can't be represented spatially, and are fundamentally unmappable.

This article provides a brief discussion of the Miistakis perspective on GIS for Conservation, one of our areas of special expertise. We'll highlight some recent changes in this field, draw attention to some elements that stay the same, and share some of our recent conservation GIS and mapping successes.

The Liberation of GIS

Recent changes to GIS have made it more of a technology of the people. Popularization of GIS has served to improve spatial literacy - our ability to understand the spatial context in which things are set - and to change the nature of the work done by GIS specialists. There are several components to this revolution:

Changes in Access to Technology

In the early days of GIS, a technical specialist was required to find or create data, and to manipulate this data to create even the simplest map. GIS software licenses were so expensive that they imposed a serious barrier to access, especially for the occasional or basic GIS user. One could scarcely afford to have a passing interest in GIS; it was an "all-or-nothing" prospect.

Now, free programs like Google Earth make it easy for anyone to load reference layers, create custom views, generate their own data, and even perform simple calculations and analyses. Functionality that used to be expensive and complex, like the creation of animated fly-throughs of three-dimensional landscapes, is now at all of our fingertips. For those that require more than basic GIS and mapping capacity, the blossoming of free, open-source GIS software like Quantum GIS now offers a user-friendly alternative and removes the barrier that costly licensing used to present to the GIS-curious. As an added bonus, the open-source community is supported by user forums and online resources that provide a great learning platform for novice users who want to expand their GIS knowledge and capabilities.

Changes in Access to Data

Access to accurate, high-quality, and affordable data - the locational and thematic data upon which all GIS work relies - is a perennial challenge, especially here in Alberta. Historically, reliable GIS data was either impossible to find, severely restricted regarding access or use, or prohibitively expensive. Some free data has always been available, but this was often of diminished quality compared to pricier options. This has significantly limited GIS specialists' ability to do their jobs, especially in the service of smaller organizations and non-profits; tight resources that should have been applied to actually doing GIS work were instead diverted to more menial tasks like finding, acquiring, and manipulating data to make it useable.

In recent years, however, access to GIS data is improving. More data of better quality is readily available, often at no cost to the user. Government agencies, including the Province of Alberta, are embracing the open data model and releasing more data for free public use. For our part Miistakis is making data that we create, and that may be of value to others, available for free through our Resource Library. Here are some great examples from Alberta and beyond that are useful for a broad range of conservation and land use applications:

  • ABMI - The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) has recently released province-wide datasets depicting current land cover and human footprint.
  • GVI - The Province of Alberta offers free access to the Grasslands Vegetation Inventory (GVI) which maps land cover at the ecosite level for most of the Grassland Natural Region of Alberta.
  • Calgary Open Data - The City of Calgary has recently launched an Open data Initiative and hosts an online catalog of various spatial and non-spatial datasets for the City.
  • Southern Alberta 2012 Aerial Imagery - In July 2012, eleven municipalities in southern Alberta pooled their resources and flew aerial photography for most of southern Alberta. Through the MD of Willow Creek web site, the resulting sub-metre resolution orthoimagery (detailed enough to see individual trees, vehicles on highways, etc.) is available for free download.
  • GeoBase - An initiative of the Canadian Council on Geomatics, GeoBase is a repository for many different spatial data sets that have been harmonized across all of Canada.
  • Natural Earth - The Natural Earth Project web site hosts worldwide, cartographic-quality data sets that are useful as reference layers for provincial or larger scale maps.

These are only a handful of examples of newly available spatial data resources. At Miistakis we pride ourselves on our knowledge of GIS data; please contact us with your data questions.

Improved access to GIS data frees up resources that would previously have been spent data-mining, and allows us to proceed more directly to actually doing the work. Redundancy and duplication of effort is also minimized thanks to recent technological improvements. Decentralized data distribution models and new developments in the design of spatial databases ensure that value added from one data user is available to all users, and versioning protocols ensure that changes or refinements to data are captured at the source.

Changes in Computer Power

By their very nature, GIS data sets are large. The size of a data set increases in proportion to the increasing resolution and accuracy of the data, and it wasn't long ago that the power of computer processors was a serious limitation to the scope of GIS analysis that could be performed. Recent advances in processor engineering have effectively removed this barrier for the vast majority of actions performed by the average GIS professional. That being said, Miistakis still runs some analyses that take several days for a computer to process!

Some Things Change, Some Stay the Same

Much has changed in the world of GIS, and in our ability to make good use of it to address important conservation and land use planning issues. But some things remain the same, and some challenges persist despite all the recent improvements:

Mo' Data Blues

As mentioned above, increased data access has made a big difference in the GIS world, and raised the standard of the work we're able to do across the board. But some data issues persist. Some much-needed data- for example, a high-resolution, accurate, and free digital elevation model (DEM) for Alberta- remains unavailable. Also, differing standards across jurisdictions make efforts to create and use harmonized trans-boundary data sets difficult and costly. More effort is required to create pragmatic standards for data collection.

Miistakis is working to improve access to data in Alberta and other jurisdictions, and we regularly help our partners locate useful data for their GIS and mapping efforts. We have also worked with groups such as the Calgary Regional Partnership towards the establishment of useful spatial data and metadata standards.

Some Expertise Required

Improvements in the access to and quality of GIS technology make GIS more publicly available, and allow almost anyone to make a basic map. However, the skill and experience of a GIS specialist is still required to go beyond basic maps and make the best use of this technology where it's appropriate.

The GIS staff members at Miistakis are experts at applying GIS, spatial analysis, and mapping to complex conservation and land use challenges of today. This involves not just the technical aspects of the work, but the equally important conceptual phases of any GIS project. Before performing the technical aspects of the work, it is important that we ask the right questions. This involves working with project partners and sharing expertise to make sure we agree on the objectives of the work, and the process required to achieve these objectives.

An effective application of GIS will always involve careful consideration and articulation of the research question, expert employment of the technology, and the production of high-quality outputs- maps, animations, reports, videos, presentations, etc.- that are consistent with the intended audience and outcome of the project. No matter how good the technology gets, maps without context or that are designed to answer the "wrong" question are still going to be of little value.

The Right Tool for The Job

Sometimes GIS and mapping are not appropriate tools for achieving conservation or other research objectives, and part of the strength of GIS lies in knowing when it is and isn't appropriate. Not only can the creation of a map sometimes fail to produce the desired result - it can occasionally generate an adverse reaction, impede progress, and do more harm than good.

GIS, spatial analysis, and mapping are just one suite of tools that Miistakis uses in the work we do. We pride ourselves in our ability to work with partners and draw on the breadth of our expertise to identify approaches that are efficient and that apply the right tools to the task at hand.

Conservation GIS Successes

Here are some recent Miistakis projects, each with a strong GIS component, which highlight our strengths in using GIS to address complex problems, and make GIS technology and potential accessible to a broad range of partners:

Community and Conservation Values Mapping for MD Ranchland

Miistakis worked with the council, staff and residents of the Municipal District of Ranchland in southwestern Alberta to first identify and then map community and conservation values. MD Ranchland is a sparsely populated municipality with a long tradition of ranching, containing some of Alberta's most iconic landscapes. Concerned about the pressure to develop and convert their landscapes, and feeling defenseless against the claims of proponents that development would not compromise the things most important to Ranchland residents, the MD asked Miistakis to provide them with tools that would allow them to communicate local values on an "apples for apples" basis.

Miistakis created two valuable tools for MD Ranchland: a mapping tool that allows the MD to efficiently make maps depicting different characteristics of the landscape, and a series of GIS data layers and maps that depict common community values as identified in a community workshop. The latter is being considered as an input to changing municipal planning, and the former is used regularly by MD Ranchland staff to create maps for ratepayers and council.

Conservation Priorities Mapping for Livingstone Landowners Group and Lee Lake Residents

The Livingstone Landowners Group (LLG) and residents of the Lee Lake area in southwestern Alberta engaged Miistakis to create a series of maps that depict the conservation priorities of their members.

Mapped priorities include wildlife habitat, multi-species conservation value, native prairie, and the water retention values inherent in the landscape. The maps will be used to more clearly communicate the values of local landowners during community consultations, and in web-based and other communication materials. Upon receiving the maps, one landowner remarked that "This has turned out to be an excellent product, perhaps more useful and informative than we might have even hoped at the outset."

Modeling Ecological Connectivity in the Greater Calgary Region

Miistakis is working with the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP) through a research group headed by Dr. Michael Quinn (Mount Royal University) and Dr. Mary Ellen Tyler (University of Calgary) to model broad-scale ecological connectivity networks within the greater Calgary region and its headwaters. The research makes use of the ABMI data cited above and employs a least-cost network modeling approach modified from the work of David Theobald. The results of this work are pending publication, and may be considered by the CRP in future revisions to the Calgary Metropolitan Plan.

Land Suitability Assessment for the Land Trust Grants Program

Miistakis is working with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) to build tools that will improve their ability to evaluate applications to the provincial Land Trust Grant Program (LTGP). The LTGP provides a mechanism for AESRD to promote stewardship of private land that is consistent with the government's conservation objectives by providing grants to land trusts. Applications to the LTGP are assessed for their financial viability and for the suitability of the land being considered for conservation. Miistakis is assisting AESRD in the development of standardized assessment tools for incoming applications, including the mapping of land suitability values across the province.

Assessing Wind Development Potential with the Prairie Conservation Forum

The Prairie Conservation Forum (PCF) and Miistakis are exploring the development of a GIS-based assessment process for the appropriate development of wind energy resources within the Prairie and Parkland Natural Regions of Alberta. The process would seek to engage a diverse group of stakeholders, and would seek to balance the potential for development against regional and local environmental conservation priorities, as well as social values at the community level. This project is in early stages with Miistakis recently completing a review of existing approaches to assessing wind development potential.

If you would like to know more about any of the projects described above, please visit our website or contact Miistakis directly.

Do you have conservation or land use-related issue that you think might benefit from our skills and experience? If so, we'd love to hear from you; contact us to learn about the many options for partnering with Miistakis.