“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” — Dr. Jane Goodall

In 1960, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall traveled to Gombe National Park in Tanzania with a notebook, a pencil, and a pair of binoculars, looking to study the world of chimpanzees. Her first weeks were frustrating, as the chimps fled from her every time she drew near. But over time, Goodall gained the trust of the chimpanzees and learned enormously from their behavior. And through it all, she recorded her observations on paper.

Goodall, who turned 80 in April, is a legendary conservationist, scientist, activist, and humanitarian. And now, she is wholeheartedly embracing the rapidly changing world of technology and its effect on conservation efforts. The Jane Goodall Institute, which is a global non-profit that empowers people to make a difference for all living things, just announced the launch of a massive open online course (MOOC) that is modeled after the digital mapping technologies already on the ground in Africa to prevent deforestation.

JGI is also using digital mapping to empower children in the US to be the Jane Goodall of their own communities by giving them the tools to find out what their ecosystems are missing and encouraging the kids to change them.

Mapping deforestation

In Gombe in particular, the amount of chimpanzee behavior data was massive. But there was little data about their habitats and the deforestation occurring. According to Lilian Pintea, vice president of conservation science for JGI, 80% of the forests around the park were destroyed between 1972 and 1999.

So JGI asked villagers in Africa to map out the ecosystem around the village — the forest, farmland, community areas and resource locations, the trees that their children gathered under for shade.

“It created the Jane Goodall Institute’s community approach, and we recognized we have to develop ways for community to be more engaged both in conservation and [the] scientific and data collection process,” Pintea said. “People were very proud and empowered to be able to have this chance at knowledge.”

A partnership with Google has advanced this process. Now, the team can use Google Maps Engine and Google Earth Engine to monitor the forests. Gombe National Park has rugged terrain, so previously, it was difficult to see where the most degradation was occurring. But after viewing these high-resolution satellite images, conservation goals were established.

Now, near Lake Tanganyika in Gombe, where Goodall originally sat with her pencil and notepad, villagers are using the combo of Google’s Maps Engine and Earth Engine on Android tablets to monitor the habitat that affect chimpanzee populations. The community elects one forest monitor, who patrols the forest and takes photos, records data, and stores the it offline with Open Data Kit. Internet connectivity and energy availability are the most difficult challenges.

Using the software, JGI found that 2.4% of forests within chimpanzee ranges have been destroyed in Africa over the past 12 years. In 2012, JGI set a 30-year goal to protect 85% of chimpanzees and their habitats in Africa.

Our relationships to trees, to chimps, to the land — they are all very context-specific based on history, geography, and culture. Having widely accessible images and data is powerful.

“When we overlay [the data] with satellite imagery, it provides context. Once you walk them through this, it develops a common language and transparency, which is so important in this conservation process,” Pintea said.

Bringing it to the classroom

This technology has been very successful in tracking deforestation, but Goodall — and by extension, the team at JGI — wants to ensure that future generations learn to appreciate these forests and all living things and their habitats on Earth.

“We thought, how can we use that to help kids in US, where they use these real world skills at a different level?” said Stephanie Keller, manager of environmental education projects.

Now, across the US, the digital mapping will be used to teach children community resilience and awareness, and empower and encourage them to be good stewards of the environment.

As Goodall once did, the children start by walking around their habitat, making detailed observations. With a piece of paper, they record their surroundings: what animals live near the school? What plants are by the building? Where do you get your food? Books? Water sources?

The next question is what’s missing — what the biggest issue is in the community.

For one second-grade class in Denver, Colorado, it concerned coyotes. The signs posted in the community parks that showed how to protect people from coyote attacks were difficult to read, especially for children, non-English speakers and non-readers. The class realized this when they simply walked around outdoors.

“There’s something cathartic about doing something with your hands,” said Erin Viera, associate vice president of Roots and Shoots. “The pen and paper map first helps make connections that they might not see, and new connections are made when they make it into a digital version. They really support each other.”

The class mapped out the signs, transferred them to the digital platform, designed more coherent signs, and presented their findings. As a result, the community government is changing the signs to one of the ones designed by the class.

“We don’t have a culture where young people are used to being asked [what they want to do], or kids are embarrassed. Community mapping is setting them up to succeed,” said Viera. “Before we ask them to make some grand decision, we use mapping and it empowers them to get to know what’s around them and make a decision based on knowledge.”

The Roots and Shoots program is a youth-led community action program sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute that runs in 120 countries. The digital mapping program was piloted in three school systems in New York, Denver, and Los Angeles. It’s designed for K-12 students, and Keller said teachers utilize the tool differently. One in LA had the class map out plant species. A first-grade class in Florida mapped out black bear habitats in the community in order to live more peacefully with them.

To take it a step further, Roots and Shoots is offering an online community mapping tutorial from July 7 to August 3, in which informal or formal educators can sign up to learn about the program. Anyone can sign up, and people around the world are doing so. Eventually, Viera would like to see older children taking Android devices or other tablets out into the field, rather than the paper maps, so they can really understand how to better integrate technology with nature.

Ever so eloquently, Goodall discussed her own goals for the initiative in her post on the official Google blog:

“My wish is for young people around the world to think about the ways you can use technology to learn more about the wonderful world we share. Then, to take action, and inspire others to do the same. You have the power to do so much more than I did in 1960, to spark change I could only imagine back then. And you can do it no matter where in the world you are.”