Protected Planet by the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is a staggering achievement of data management that catalogues our planet’s most precious places. The open data platform visualizes and shares detailed geographic data on 250,000 conservation areas around the world, available for anyone to use.
I was curious to learn more about the freshly relaunched Protected Planet site. Stacy Talbot and Edward Lewis from UNEP-WCMC kindly shared reflections on the origin, design, and technical infrastructure of the project.
Protected Planet is an amazing resource. How did it originate and how do people use it?
Protected Planet is the authoritative source of data on protected areas and other conservation measures. It exists due to the extensive efforts of governments and others to map, monitor and report data on these critically important areas of biodiversity. This is a long running project -- the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) was established in 1981, but can be traced back further to a mandate by the United Nations in 1959 to build a global list of national parks and reserves.
Open knowledge and data of these areas are essential to informed decision-making and policy development, as well as business and conservation planning. Nonprofits like the Rainforest Trust use Protected Planet on a daily basis to understand the current level and extent of conservation areas in the over 50 countries they work in. Businesses in mining, oil and gas, and financial sectors use the WDPA to identify the biodiversity risks and opportunities of a given project. Conservation planners use the information to predict the outcomes of various proposals and focus on initiatives and areas that are most likely to result in positive impacts. Funding agencies like the US Agency for International Development use the WDPA to assess the effectiveness of natural resource protection policies. The data on Protected Planet is also available for non-commercial use via download and through the API. We’ve seen integrations in organizations from Google to NASA to the US Army!
This 60 year old effort recently went through a beautiful redesign. What drove this refresh, and how did you tackle challenges along the way?
Our team at UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre is made up of UX/UI designers, front and backend developers, dev-ops and project managers. We work closely together, and brought in conservation knowledge by working alongside members of the Conserving Land and Seascapes programme.
The overall site structure and experience needed improvement so that users could quickly and easily get access to the data they were looking for. We also wanted to increase the number of dynamic statistical charts and infographics to provide a more visual way of viewing the data. Bringing the code up to date was also an important factor and we have used Vue js, Mapbox GL and amCharts on the frontend.
One of the critical technical issues we faced along the way was optimizing querying speed - there are over 250,000 protected areas in the database. The data can vary greatly between different countries and regions so we had to design visualizations to be flexible enough to work for all situations.
What does it take to manage, process, and serve all of this data?
We update data every month with contributions from national governments, and our aim is to ensure all countries are updated at least every five years. It can be difficult to ensure data standards are met, and it can take a long time to finalize contributor agreements. Once the datasets have been checked and formatted they are imported into the database which powers protectedplanet.net and the API, along with other platforms such as Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool.
The WDPA is built as a GeoDatabase file, along with some pre-calculated stats in CSV format. These files feed the PostGIS database behind ProtectedPlanet. Data is then served by a Ruby on Rails backend and a Vue.js frontend and Mapbox to visualize the Protected Areas on our maps. In 2021 we are hoping to improve the whole process of the monthly updates, from collecting the data from countries, error checking it and importing it into a centralized database, and are interested in investigating new solutions to streamline the process like the Mapbox Tiling Service.
What considerations informed your map design?
Our main goal was to make it straightforward for our users to search for data and discover detailed information. Protected areas are inherently specific parcels of land and ocean that are managed for the long-term effective conservation of nature - the details are very important. We wanted to emphasize the potential for users to zoom to individual protected areas whilst also getting the ‘big picture’. As such, being able to change scales efficiently was critical.
For the map design, it was important to make sure the colors met accessibility standards. And we are required to apply UN approved country boundaries to the maps that we use. There are specific instructions on how certain boundaries must be drawn and styled, and a list of UN approved placenames to be used alongside the boundaries. Customization in Mapbox Studio makes this straightforward. We also have a Protected Planet Report coming out next year that summarizes the state of protected and conserved areas in 2020 - we’ll be using Mapbox features throughout the report. One aspect I’d like to see in future Protected Planet Reports is the integration of quick-rendering 3D mapping.
Any advice for other teams at international organizations working on data projects?
Don’t reinvent the wheel, look at what data is already available and what tools have been created. Organizations need to collaborate by bringing their datasets and expertise together to create comprehensive overarching tools and platforms that can be used on a global scale to tackle the world's environmental issues. Think about your users and how you can help them create real impact towards environmentally positive outcomes.
Appreciate the insights Stacy and Edward!
If any readers have a passion for technology and the environment, Protected Planet is always open to collaborate and interested to hear about other projects. The Mapbox Community team is ready to help with any conservation mapping needs. Get in touch to reach out or to connect with UNEP-WCMC.