Mapping, for the people, by the people

ICRAF scientist Tor-Gunnar Vågen (Left) and collaborators take readings in the Western Ghats, India, to be used for mapping

ICRAF scientist Tor-Gunnar Vågen (Left) and collaborators take readings in the Western Ghats, India, to be used for mapping

“We want mapping to be easy…” Tor-Gunnar Vågen stated at a recent seminar. “… and fun.”

The senior scientist and leader of the Geoscience Lab at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), was demonstrating the features of the new Landscapes Portal, a map website with enormous promise.­­

Soft-launched in January 2014, the Landscapes Portal allows anyone, anywhere, to share, search, visualize and download spatial data from landscapes around the world. By gathering data from users worldwide (crowdsourcing), the portal is expected to improve the availability of location-specific data on natural resources and related phenomena, at better resolution (detail) than previously accessible.

Such data make the difference when it comes to designing appropriate solutions to development issues such as land degradation, a primary threat to global food security and the society. Detailed maps can also help conservation, by showing patterns of factors such as agriculture, wildlife migration paths, changes in river flow, land cover change, and population dynamics.

On the Landscapes Portal, users contribute their spatial data and digital maps directly, by uploading these as “layers.”

A layer of data for a defined area can include both rasters (e.g. satellite images) and vector data of things like soil properties (pH, organic carbon, texture and so on); land use; rainfall; and erosion. The portal allows the various layers to be ‘stacked up’ to produce richly detailed maps with various phenomena superimposed. One may, for instance, overlay rainfall, erosion and soil organic matter ‘layers’ for a particular site, to visualize any connections among the three. These maps can be downloaded and further queried offline, and even embedded in documents and presentations.

Vagen is leading the team of scientists and programmers that designed the portal around a combination of various open source software[1].  The team also migrated geospatial data from ICRAF research between 1998-2012 onto the portal; these data were previously hosted on the ICRAF Geoportal website (also developed by the ICRAF GeoScience lab).” The new Landscapes Portal is more user-friendly than the old Geoportal, in addition to allowing users to seamlessly upload and share their spatial data,” said Vagen.

“You can upload data from any source, as long as you have rights to do so,” he added.

Those uploading also need to provide metadata—data about the data— to go with their layers, which allows the layers to retain the mark of their contributor (owner) once online.

“Ownerships are overlain. This keeps things transparent. People need to know where the data came from,” said Vagen.

Image of Interactive map from the Landscapes Portal, showing soil pH in central Kenya for 2011.

Image of Interactive map from the Landscapes Portal, showing soil pH in central Kenya for 2011.

The quality of the data is very important, and GIS experts from ICRAF’s Geosciences laboratory review the data regularly.

“We rely on people being honest.  But we do keep an eye on the data; if we see something that’s off the wall, we’ll hold its public access and also check with the uploader,” said Vagen.

The Landscape portal has a forum, too, where people can interact online and post short blogs (‘map stories’) for discussion. Vagen and colleagues at ICRAF moderate the forum.

It is a positive sign that since the site went live in January 2014, 500 data sets have been added by contributors worldwide. The Geoscience Lab is expecting a rapid growth in usage once the Landscapes Portal becomes better known.

When this happens, a community of mappers, working locally but contributing globally, will make spatial data at good resolution available to the world.

Such information is precious to researchers and land use planners. It can assist greatly with making evidence-based decisions for managing natural resources sustainably, including in the areas of:

  • climate change adaptation
  • hydrology
  • targeting of agroforestry interventions
  • monitoring soil fertility
  • monitoring species abundance and biodiversity
  • soil and land use mapping
  • measuring the impacts of interventions.

At present, one needs some knowledge of digital mapping to be able to contribute to and use the landscapes portal, Vagen accepts. But as it grows and the developers add more user functionality, it will become easier for non-specialists to use.

By making it possible for anyone to upload, access and download fine-scale maps on important parameters, the Landscapes Portal will promote the use of maps in making development decisions, whose effects are felt across landscapes.

Visit the Landscapes Portal

The Portal is developed with support from the CGIAR Resarch Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

See presentation on the Landscapes portal.

Interactive map from the Landscapes Portal

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[1] , Including Postgres, GeoNetwork, GeoServer, OpenLayers and others.'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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