Where the animals go: Big data and design. A talk by James Cheshire

Rudolph the seal, Manu the jaguar and a wolf named Slavc are just a few of the characters featured in the stories of the journeys animals take when they travel across the world. These animal stories are demonstrated through graphics produced from enormous amounts of data and displayed in the book ‘Where the animals go’.

Dr James Cheshire

Last night the author of ‘Where the animals go’, James Cheshire, a geographer and associate professor at University College London came to Bristol to give a public talk in the School of Geography at the University of Bristol. James was introduced by Andrew Byatt, a wildlife documentary film producer for the BBC Natural History Unit and a producer of The Blue Planet and Planet Earth.

James began by telling us how he first started mapping the occurrence of surnames in the States and showed us a graphic of the geographical spread of surnames across the USA. James has worked with Oliver Uberti, an award-winning designer and visual journalist for some time, initially on a series of maps and graphics using data captured from people in London including mapping peoples cycling journeys into and out of the city. Together they produced the book London: The Information Capital.

This mapping of the journeys of people turned to the mapping of journeys of animals, and James has used the approach favoured in wildlife documentaries of telling the story of one individual animal. James showed us a graphic illustrating the depth of the ocean that Rudolph the seal is swimming through as well as the swirls of wind that Albatrosses are flying around in Antarctica.

James talked about a road trip to visit snowy owls in the Great Lakes and one of the map graphics showed the journey the owls take heading back to the Arctic. James and Oliver combined weather data and animal tracking data to come up with a neat graphic demonstrating warblers dodging tornados. Another vast data collection on ants showed how some ants take on roles of nursing, cleaning and foraging, often relating the age of the ant.

James alluded to the support that they give in order to try to cause the least disruption to animals in their natural habitat. He talked about when Oliver spent some time with Save the Elephants in Africa, tracking elephants journeys due to the building of new train lines and roads, and the long distance the elephants had to travel. They were keen on the idea of building crossing tunnels for the wildlife to cope with the man-made development. An interesting observation was that despite animals having to take sometimes quite extensive detours to their normal tracks, they very easily adapted to their new routes. He talked of the crocodiles best left alone in Australia, as in some cases where crocodiles were moved due to the perception that crocs are bad, they made extraordinary effort to get back to where they were moved from, sometimes travelling many miles to return where they came from. James described the big PR campaign organised to save a wolf called Slavc from hunters on his long journey across the Alps which is shown in another extraordinary GPS tracking visualisation.

Dr James Cheshire. University of Bristol. 18 January 2018

In order to develop maps and graphics tracking wildlife, the very latest technology has been deployed including satellites, drones, camera traps and mobile phone networks. Where before, tracking animals meant following footprints, a vast array of technology, gathering and analysis of huge amounts of data can be utilised in order for us to learn more about the lives of these animals. James told us that the use of social media through both Facebook and Instagram is also being used to monitor where animals are travelling to around the world. Some wildlife adapt in unusual ways to the changing world and James told us about storks pitching up on a rubbish dump in Morocco to save making a long migration to find food.

James said that the recent appreciation of data visualisation is useful in communicating to funders as well as of course to the public and enjoys providing workshops on how to visualise data.

Professor Rich Harris, Professor of Quantitative Social Geography who organised the evening summed up saying it is “just extraordinary what you can do with data and maps”. To find out more and to buy the book please visit Where the animals go

Blog piece written by Liz Green, JGI Coordinator