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Digital Delta - Mapping Extremely Diverse Wildernesses

Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth...
Read this amazing article about the partnership between Steve Boyes and Jer Thorp, as well the Wild Bird Trust's most recent research expedition across the Okavango Delta:

Digital Delta

Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping
in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.
by Andrew McMillen

Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

What, then, are these men doing here?

Dr. Steve Boyes discusses the route through northern Bostwana's Okavango Delta with teammember Bertus Louw. (Photo: Steve Boyes)

This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org, with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

The expedition team uses a makoro as transport for a solar panel through the high floodplains. (S.Boyes)
The expedition team uses a makoro as transport for a solar panel through the high floodplains. (S.Boyes)

“The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

A Powerful Pairing

The Into the Okavango project might have languished in some dark, unvisited corner of the web if the data being gathered, uploaded and shared wasn’t able to be presented in a visually engaging way. It helped, then, that Steve Boyes found a seemingly unlikely but kindred spirit in Jer Thorp, a Vancouver-born New Yorker widely considered one of the world’s premier data artists.

Thorp – whose thin frame is offset by shaggy brown hair, a beard and black-framed glasses – was in the audience at a National Geographic symposium in June 2013, when Boyes gave a moving presentation named ‘Reviving The Heart of Wild Africa’. As director of the Wild Bird Trust, Boyes detailed his lifelong interest in African wilderness, particularly the plight of the critically endangered Cape Parrot.

“While he was talking, I remember thinking, ‘there must be some way that I can help’,” says Thorp, who was energised by Boyes’ infectious enthusiasm and clear-headed ability to articulate his dream for sharing these wildlife habitats with the world.

Boyes (left) and Thorp share a common mission to inspire creativity and empower research through the sharing of data. (Photos: S.Boyes/J. Thorp)
Boyes (left) and Thorp share a common mission to inspire creativity and empower research through the sharing of data. (Photos: S.Boyes/J. Thorp)

“Steve looks like a caricature of an explorer – he's tall and comic-book handsome, and seems to almost always be wearing exactly what you'd expect an expeditionary in Africa to be wearing. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and this crystal clear dedication to his cause that is really contagious.” Thorp approached the South African afterwards, and over dinner a few days later, Boyes was telling his new friend about the data that the Okavango expedition would generate each day.

“He got progressively more and more excited,” says Boyes. “Cool data makes Jer’s world go ‘round. He loved the idea of representing this data live as we progressed through the delta. Jer saw instantly that he could do something ground-breaking with this live data stream from an exciting expedition in one of the most remote wilderness areas on earth.”

To Thorp, it was clear from the offset that there was “a bridge between the kind of observation-based science that he was doing and the data visualization work that I'm most well known for,” he says.

Steve looks like a caricature of an explorer – he's tall and comic-book handsome, and seems to almost always be wearing exactly what you'd expect an expeditionary in Africa to be wearing.

As co-founder of recently-established The Office of Creative Research, a six-strong team operating out of New York, Thorp has spent years turning complex data into beautiful visualizations. Put simply, he turns dry spreadsheets into stunning interactive artworks that are shared widely on the web. His past projects include JustLanded and GoodMorning, two simply websites built in 2009 that mined Twitter’s API for tweets mentioning those two phrases, and represented them on interactive world maps. He also had a hand in developing a poignant memorial to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Thorp designed an algorithm and accompanying software tool to aid in the placement of nearly 3,000 names according to their relationship to one another prior to their deaths, through a process dubbed ‘meaningful adjacencies’.

Early results of Jer Thorp's Just Landed visualize the flight paths of Tweets featuring the words "just landed". (Video: Jer Thorp)

“I like to do things that have never been done before,” Thorp says. “In some small way, I’d love to change the dialogue around data, and our relationship to it. But my main driving force is to work on novel problems that are hard.”

Into the Okavango certainly fit that bill. Within six weeks of their Washington meeting, Boyes and Thorp had mobilized the development of an Android app to run on the Samsung Galaxy tablets that the team would take on the trip. Satellite data sponsorships with sat4rent.co.za and Inmarsat were arranged in order to upload the necessary data.

Thorp and his team worked with data samples captured on previous expeditions to ensure that the idea for a near-live representation of the team’s travels could be rendered on the map. “Because of a crazy travel schedule, most of the work on the site happened in the two weeks leading up to the start of the expedition,” he says. “Steve and the team actually didn't see anything from us at all until they got home – apart from a screenshot or two – because they couldn't load the site via satellite. So they had to have a fair amount of trust that what we were doing was in line with their mission.”

Says Boyes: “It was always going to be a one hundred per cent surprise. We had no idea. It was always going to be us sending all this data out, and seeing what Jer does as a creative person.”

"The Ascender" is a digital magazine dedicated to crafting
original, meaningful stories exploring the future. Their mission is the
progress of humankind through immersive, powerful journalism.

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