London College of Communication and Microsoft Research Ltd have developed a new interactive web tool that will create a dynamic, up to date map of threats to endangered species around the world.

The Threat Mapping Web Application will use information about threats to species and the interventions being taken to protect them gathered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (SSC).

As a major network of over 7,500 experts based around the world, the SSC has a vital role to play in providing the data that underpins conservation planning and policy. However it currently records information about the status of species in particular areas or regions manually, through forms or hand-drawn maps that are then uploaded to its database. This time-consuming process means that new information about activities affecting threatened species – such as changes to resources, populations or pollution – can take time to record.

To speed up the process and give conservationists access to real-time data, researchers at London College of Communication’s DigiLab, in partnership with Microsoft Research, have developed a web application for the SSC database that lets users upload information in a standardised way, by using a simple drawing tool or by editing information by region, species or threat.

That means scientists from different disciplines who use different methodologies and ways of mapping threats – for example mammalogists and freshwater experts – will contribute their different knowledge in a standard system, thereby building up layers of information in a way not previously possible.

This information creates live, map-based visualisations that demonstrate the multiple threats to a particular species in a particular area, which can be viewed in ways that suit the user – such as by changing the colour palette to identify over-lapping threats. Species experts will also be able to tag the area they are working in with supporting data, such as photographic evidence of a particular threat.

Joint Principal Investigator Dr Amanda Windle, DigiLab Fellow at LCC, explains:

“Evaluating a threat to a species is not a single activity but a process of consensus amongst experts all contributing their knowledge. They evaluate multiple factors that inter-relate in a very short time-frame, with thousands of species enabling a range of users to view the wider picture on global and local threats.

“This new application will allow users to see threats in a dynamic way, live on a global map, and enable them to edit, change and research new data as it is generated. We believe it will be highly valuable to conservation policy and planning at all levels, for which up to date, accurate and detailed information is crucial.”

The London College of Communication/Microsoft Research team began the process of designing the look and feel of the tool’s interface by interviewing a range of researchers and conservationists. The research also considered the role of policy advisors, for whom the tool is likely to be valuable because it allows large amounts of data about species, regions or threats to be combined speedily. Feedback from these sessions was then used to plot the many different journeys taken by users when recording or searching for a threat to species.

Throughout the process, usability was a key concern. Joint Principal Investigator Dr Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Research says:

“The Species Survival Commission delivers a hugely important service – systematically assessing species at risk around the world. We know generally the factors threatening species, but with this application we can now start mapping them as well, adding key scientific information to conservation assessments.

“The key thing here is that the process of mapping, editing and searching isn’t a linear set of steps. We have created a tool that is intuitive to use and allows people to find their own route through the data, without having to go through a one-size-fits-all process that users find so frustrating when using some web interfaces.”

Dr Windle adds:

“The wide range of stakeholders interviewed gave us the perspective that really brought mapping the tree of life, alive. It was speaking to experts in avian species, for example, that stimulated us to think of a map not just as land and water, but as a three dimension, non-static environment in which species migrate and flock. Standardising a set of processes for all was one of the biggest challenges which remains an ongoing task of conservation mapping.”

Dr Windle led a team of design and technology developers, including Jason Rainbird and Richard Mason, in creating the visual look and feel of the tool. The project is part of an ongoing partnership between Microsoft and the IUCN.