Sharing best practices in global conservation

Little more than four years after leaving university, Harriet Branson is already making a strong impact in the conservation arena. A technical specialist at the international charity Fauna & Flora, she is playing a key role in sharing best practice methods of using GIS – within her own organisation, across global conservation projects and even more widely within the conservation sector.

GIS is used extensively at Fauna & Flora, an organisation that works to protect all kinds of endangered animals, birds, plants and landscapes. 175 employees, in more than 20 countries, use Esri’s ArcGIS system to better understand the risks for threatened species, monitor changes in natural environments and prioritise intervention initiatives. 

Working within the organisation’s UK-based Conservation Technology Team, Branson has rapidly gained a detailed understanding of the optimal methodologies for using GIS in all kinds of conservation projects, from monitoring chimpanzee movements and understanding the thinning of the forest canopy to collecting habitat degradation data. Now, she is proactively seeking ways to share her experiences with other conservation organisations to help optimise the use of GIS in more conservation projects around the globe. At the same time, she is keen to learn from the experiences of others, so that she can continue to advance the success of Flora & Fauna’s own conservation initiatives with GIS.

Bringing the industry together

In November 2023, Branson worked with colleagues in the Conservation Technology Team to organise the first ever ‘GIS in Conservation Day’ to bring together GIS enthusiasts working across the conservation sector. Held, fittingly, in the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge, it attracted representatives from 10 organisations involved in all aspects of global animal and bird conservation, forestry and wildlife management, the prevention of illegal wildlife trade and arctic and landscape surveying.

Consultants from Esri UK took part in the day, delivering a series of lightning talks on new tools and techniques relevant to the conservation sector. Plenty of time was available during the event for networking and sharing ideas. Branson now hopes this will be the first in an ongoing series of regular GIS events, specifically for the conservation sector. “I would love this to become at least a yearly event,” she says.

It is a big ambition for one young lady, but she is both enthusiastic and realistic. “It’s not going to happen overnight – but the conversation has started. It’s sometimes hard to get organisations together and now that I’ve achieved this first step, I’m hopeful that the momentum is there to keep moving ahead. We can look forward to better things as we continue to meet up and keep talking.”

Giving back to the GIS Community

Branson is a strong advocate for transparency in the conservation sector and for sharing GIS methodologies, data and know-how for the benefit of all organisations that are trying to make a difference to our planet. “I feel that it is important to give back to the GIS community, especially in conservation,” she says. “It is important to share datasets that can enhance conservation initiatives or improve understanding of habitats with other conservation organisations, especially those that may not otherwise have access to this data.”

She is aware that in smaller conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there may only be one person with GIS skills and software. “By sharing our expertise and approaches with GIS, we can make it easier for these kinds of organisations to use GIS more effectively too,” she explains. “Within the conservation sector, I would love to see more sharing of GIS methodology frameworks and standardised practices for mapping conservation areas that all conservation organisations can use.”

In her role, Branson makes frequent use of Esri’s Living Atlas of the World, a rich collection of global datasets, maps and apps from a vast array of contributors. Recognising the incredible value that Fauna & Flora gains from this resource, her aim now is to use the Living Atlas as a means of sharing Fauna & Flora’s data with other conservation groups. “Our plan is to not just take but also contribute,” she says.

Empowering people with GIS

Branson is particularly passionate about using GIS to improve collaboration and communication with the communities living in or near conservation areas. GIS, she says, can be used to answer one of the most critical questions in conservation: How can we do conservation in a way that is not just beneficial for the forest or coast or habitat, but also gives people the ability to continue their lives in a sustainable way.

“To deliver sustainable outcomes for nature, you also have to focus on people,” she explains. “It’s really important that people are involved in the decision making and understand what is going on in their landscapes. GIS can empower local communities, by helping them to understand the landscape dynamics. One of my personal aims is to grow the use of GIS as a communications tool and use it to give local people the knowledge they need protect the landscapes that they treasure and rely on.”

Already, Branson is working on a range projects at Fauna & Flora that use GIS to empower and involve local people. In a recent project in the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, for example, ArcGIS was used to help create marine designations, working in collaboration with fishermen, fish traders and coastal communities. The result was a community-led design, digitised in ArcGIS Pro, which identified where there was need and consensus for conservation and where ethical, sustainable fishing could continue. An ArcGIS StoryMap was created to share the findings, outcomes and goals of this project with citizens within the country and other stakeholders.

Developing an authoritative voice

It was her family’s Times Atlas that originally stimulated Branson’s love of maps at a young age. She then began to use GIS during an undergraduate degree in geography and honed her skills while doing a Master’s degree in earth observation and geo-information management at Edinburgh University. “GIS allows you to look at issues from a different perspective and can give you such a powerful insight into landscapes, statistics, people and places,” she says. “As soon as I discovered GIS, I began looking at things all around me and thinking, this could be done so much better with a map! I got addicted!”

Today, her motivation stems not just from her love of maps but also from her desire to make a positive impact for nature and people. “I’m driven by impact,” she explains. “If I can see an area where things can be improved or an opportunity to have a bigger impact on conservation, I want to do it. I want to shape the conservation industry in a way that is sustainable, bring people together and become a conduit for sharing workflows, methodologies and ideas.”

Her goal for the future? She says that she aims to develop an ‘authoritative voice’ in conservation. Quite frankly, though, she already has.

Harriet Branson author photoHarriet Branson - Fauna & Flora

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