ArcNews Online

Summer 2010
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GIS-Based Web Site Unites Conservation Science and Practice

By James R. Strittholt, Executive Director, Conservation Biology Institute


  • GIS is Data Basin's common language-bridging tool through ArcGIS Online.
  • Maps are built on a series of Esri basemaps with Data Basin datasets customized by users.
  • Data Basin is vast and provides users with different doorways into the system through ArcGIS Online.

Esri ServicesConservation is becoming increasingly challenging as the world's population approaches seven billion and natural ecosystems are increasingly strained under human demand for food, water, energy, and other natural resources. Global climate change adds a heightened sense of urgency to find solutions to a growing list of complex conservation problems. To attain true ecological sustainability, we must find effective solutions to the myriad of conservation problems we face, and we must act quickly through a variety of means—new policy creation, altered management strategies, and changes to individual behaviors.

Conservation is all about place; therefore, mapping plays an integral part in successfully addressing many of today's conservation challenges. Whether it is planning for wildlife connections across a human-dominated landscape, designing strategies to minimize or offset new human infrastructure like roads and pipelines, or developing forest management plans that significantly lower the impact on native species and protect water resources, mapping is fundamental to finding solutions to these issues.

  Data Basin home page, click to enlarge
Data Basin home page. Note featured content and direct links to social media outlets.

While it is impossible to know everything, many believe we know far more than is currently being applied. In many instances, the barriers to finding and implementing solutions are more constrained by political and social reasons than by the lack of scientific or technical knowledge. For example, conservation scientists and conservation practitioners too often operate in separate spheres or communities, and all would benefit greatly if they could find a common space to share and interact. Likewise, everyday citizens are keenly interested in many conservation issues and welcome the opportunity to participate to make a meaningful contribution.

Is it possible to bridge conservation science and conservation practice using GIS as the common language? Could a GIS approach be fashioned that would meet a high scientific standard while, at the same time, appeal to nonscientists? Could the political and social challenges we face be addressed simultaneously with the technical ones? And finally, could a solution be constructed that would have immediate benefits but be flexible enough to meet new social and technical challenges in the future? These were the questions the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) was asked to address by the Wilburforce Foundation, which has spearheaded this effort.

After more than two years of design, programming, and user prototype testing, the Conservation Biology Institute has launched a new Web site called Data Basin. Built on the ArcGIS Online technological foundation and with direct support from Esri's Professional Services staff, Data Basin is an innovative Web tool that is free and available to all users.

Data Basin is based on six major building blocks—datasets, maps, galleries, people, groups, and tools. Users can easily search for any or all of these items within the system.

Datasets are spatially explicit files, currently shapefiles and ArcGrid files, with other formats (e.g., image files and geodatabases) being incorporated soon. These can be biological, physical, or socioeconomic datasets that can be uploaded by users, downloaded, or visualized inside Data Basin. More than 1,000 datasets are currently in the Data Basin warehouse, with more being added every day. In addition, Data Basin is linked with other Web map services allowing greater content to users. While data sharing is the primary theme of Data Basin, sometimes privacy is required to advance conservation. Therefore, users can elect to make datasets they upload totally private, available to specific groups, or available to everyone. Some types of datasets are the following:

  • Maps are visualized datasets created with easy-to-use tools within Data Basin. Maps are built on a series of Esri basemaps with Data Basin datasets customized by users. Maps can be kept private, shared with groups, or made public. Users can critique maps with provided drawing and commenting tools.
  • Galleries are meaningful collections of datasets and/or maps created by Data Basin users. Users and organizations can publish galleries (including studies, atlases, and books) that others can easily find and use. Examples of galleries in Data Basin include the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) North American Environmental Atlas and the Atlas of Alberta: The Last Great Intact Forests of Canada, by Global Forest Watch Canada.
  • People are members of the Data Basin community. Users can search profiles to find data providers, potential collaborators, or interested audiences.
  • Groups are user-defined subsets of Data Basin users collaborating on a specific topic or issue. Group members can share, analyze, and discuss datasets and maps. Data Basin allows private (closed) and public (by request) groups. Groups can be used to conduct peer review, negotiate a conservation solution between disagreeing parties, generate products from a working group on a specific topic, and more.
  • Tools are map-based, analytic functions provided to users to help them answer basic conservation questions using the available datasets. Tools are being developed by CBI or outside partners, such as The Nature Conservancy and the University of Alberta, for inclusion in Data Basin. Those currently in development include an environmental risk avoidance tool, protected areas planning tool, and watershed assessment tool.
  public map created by a Data Basin user
Public map created by a Data Basin user showing vegetation of Yosemite National Park in 1997.

Anyone with an Esri Global Account can join Data Basin. Once registered, users are asked to complete a simple, editable profile page so others can get to know them. Users are then provided with their own private workspace where they can easily organize content that they contributed or find in the system; create and edit personal profiles; manage their account; track creation of datasets, maps, and galleries; and manage their group activity.

Data Basin is closely integrated with various social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn—and has incorporated RSS feeds throughout the site for easy topic or item monitoring by users. Now users can interact easily with conservation data and maps, as well as each other, in the same system.

The depth and breadth of Data Basin is so vast that breaking up some of the content for users was important—to essentially provide users with different doorways into the same basic system. This was attained by introducing the concept of centers. Centers are topics or geographies of special interest to Data Basin users. Users can find specific datasets, maps, galleries, people, groups, and analytic tools under each center. Three centers currently exist within Data Basin. Thanks to generous support from the Kresge Foundation, the Data Basin Climate Center and Aquatic Conservation Center have been initiated. The Boreal Information Centre is the third center and focuses on conservation of the North American boreal forest region. This center is currently funded by the Ivey Foundation, Limited Brands, TNC, and Toronto Dominion Bank. Other centers are being designed and include a Connectivity Center, a Conservation Education Center, and an Aboriginal Peoples Center.

In addition to the datasets and maps, Data Basin provides users with information about conservation based on the ever-growing content of the site. Various components are routinely featured, giving emphasis to noteworthy contributions. Data Basin supports its own active blog with content frequently updated by CBI staff and guest bloggers.

About the Author

Jim Strittholt is executive director of the Conservation Biology Institute, Corvallis, Oregon, and has over 10 years' experience in applying computer mapping technologies (including GIS and remote sensing) to address various ecological assessments and conservation planning projects in the United States and internationally. He holds a master's degree from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

More Information

For more information, visit or contact Jim Strittholt (e-mail:, tel.: 541-757-0687); Tosha Comendant, Data Basin project coordinator, Conservation Biology Institute (e-mail:, tel.: 707-266-4270); or Erin Ross, Esri (e-mail:

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