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Following seven productive days of virtual GISCorps training in ArcGIS Online and Esri’s Conservation Solutions, instructors and staff at the Southern African Wildlife College requested ongoing mentorship and support from GISCorps as they integrate the tools into their day-to-day workflows and their curriculum. The College trains protected area staff from across the continent, focusing on managing complex ecosystems, conserving wildlife, and empowering local communities.

Shawn Morgan of Canada and Paul Hoeffler of the United States had delivered the virtual ArcGIS Online training sessions for the College and agreed to extend that relationship by taking on a two-year commitment to serve as mentors supporting the College’s use of ArcGIS Online. Shawn brings extensive experience with web GIS curriculum development, while Paul has a deep understanding of the use of GIS in protected area management. Together, Shawn and Paul have been meeting with instructors and staff at the College for monthly meetings to discuss upcoming GIS projects and challenges. They also provide support as needed via Microsoft Teams.

The ArcGIS Online training at the College and the subsequent mentorship program are the first two missions in what will be a series of projects funded by the National Geographic Society in support of Esri’s Protected Area Management grant program, designed to put web GIS and the Conservation Solutions in the hands of rangers and managers at African parks and protected areas.

As part of the mentorship component of GISCorps’ NatGeo/Esri project, Shawn Morgan and Paul Hoeffler visited Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) three times between October 2022 and May 2023. Following are the reports submitted by Shawn and Paul after each trip.  

Report by Shawn Morgan – October 2022

This was the first visit since the GISCorps mission started in January 2021 and much has changed at SAWC, mostly due to college staff changing. The diploma program will use the Esri ArcGIS Online (AGOL) Conservation Solutions introduced by this GISCorps mission. This diploma is largely built around 6 longitudinal research studies which are to use customized versions of the AGOL solutions. The 6 research studies are:

  1. Monitoring high altitude species for climatic impacts.
  2. Monitoring vultures and their habitat and their effect on the environment as an indicator species for protected area management.
  3. Community-led landscape management for ecosystem restoration and sustainable ownership through land use planning and environmental community actions.
  4. Improving responsible resource management on the SAWC campus and surrounds.
  5. Protected area integrity in support of natural resource preservation and its biodiversity.
  6. Regenerative land management through planned grazing with a focus on ecosystem health and biodiversity.
Shawn Morgan at the Southern African Wildlife College

These projects are mostly just getting started. They will allow diploma students apply their first 2 years of education by actively taking part in the research during their 3rd year. The first few courses for this diploma program are to be delivered in January 2023, so there is still time before students are in 3rd year. In these first 2 years students learn the skills needed to be productive remotely/online, and apply that knowledge in their 3rd year at SAWC’s campus and the study areas for these 6 studies.

This visit helped Shawn better understand the challenges faced by SAWC for this mission. A major issue is electricity load-shedding, where the grid feed to the college is cut due to power generation issues, and the internet is also interrupted because the providers’ off-site infrastructure also goes offline (this happens for 2+ hours at a time). Using a SaaS product like AGOL requires reliable internet. Another challenge is that the availability of SAWC staff who are technical/knowledgeable with GIS is limited. The diploma program will likely contract out its education for technology given this limitation. Creating and maintaining educational materials for the diploma program will be difficult with this reliance on contract faculty.

To help move the project forward Shawn introduced SAWC staff in multiple departments on campus to Esri’s AGOL capabilities, discussed and made clear the need for internet redundancy, and established how the GISCorps team can support SAWC staff in setting up the Esri technology for the 6 longitudinal studies tied to the 3-year diploma program. Shawn also assisted in writing a grant proposal that, if awarded, would provide new technical staff and a redundant internet backbone for the entire college.

Location of Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC)

In supporting the diploma program, Shawn, given his 9 years of teaching Esri/AGOL at Fleming College in Canada, shared a plan to use Esri materials on and Esri documentation provided with the organizational licensing of AGOL. Curating these exercises and materials for the diploma students will allow SAWC educators to deliver training without the commitment of constant technical revisions.

While there, it was clear to Shawn that SAWC’s SharePoint and extensive dashboard use could benefit from Esri’s mapping capabilities in AGOL. Shawn demonstrated the benefits of mapping dashboards and how story maps can fill reporting needs to multiple departments at the college. This generated excitement and was hoped more staff will learn and adopt Esri/AGOL, helping increase institutional knowledge in these great products.

Another need observed is having a more clear and centralized data management at SAWC as each individual maintains their own (often Excel-based) file-based data stores. Any dashboard reporting currently is quite involved given the data silos throughout the organization. A Postgres/PostGIS database was setup and a DevOps employee was shown how to use Safe Software’s FME to migrate data into/out of their various data formats, including the existing SharePoint and Esri-provided AGOL Organization. The Postgres is to serve as a development environment for what a centralized datastore would be like and help as a container for information flow into and out of AGOL for the organization.

Moving forward, recommendations to SAWC and for the GISCorps mission are to continue mentoring SAWC staff in AGOL, customize the AGOL conservation solutions for the 6 longitudinal studies, provide pedagogical and technical advice for the 2-years of training in the diploma program, and continue to foster AGOL use institutionally. Particularly this last point, while not a core part of the GISCorps mission, this additional use will help in further understanding the value AGOL can provide and contribute to the future sustainability of the GISCorps missions’ outcomes.

Report by Paul Hoeffler – March 2023

In March 2023 I traveled to the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) located at the edge of Kruger National Park outside of Hoedspruit, South Africa to further my understanding of and contributions to the on-going GISCorps project: ArcGIS Online Mentoring for SAWC. The one-week trip was a part of the next phase in mentorship beyond remote support, which built on an earlier instruction-based GISCorps project centered around the Esri Conservation Solutions. These deployment patterns depend upon ArcGIS Online, which is a complex cloud-hosted geospatial data and user management platform, requiring constant monitoring, configuration, and management. The ArcGIS mobile and Online apps are excellent tools for data collection and sharing, but can present challenges for data security and integrity, which may be compromised with a few clicks of a well-meaning user – if sufficient training, understanding, and controls are not in place.

The Southern African Wildlife College has valuable resources in its dedicated staff members, campus, location, mission, and access to Kruger and other national parks. Most of my time was spent with Peter Hamming, a researcher with the Applied Learning Research Unit (ALRU) at SAWC, who manages most of the systems, processes, and data that the GISCorps project is centered around. Peter is a professional guide and arranged nearly all of the logistics for the visit. I had the opportunity to meet, talk, and work with other faculty, staff, and volunteers, including Karl Ferreira (IT DevOps & Database Administrator), Dr. Alan Gardiner (Department Head), and Dr. Richard Fergusson. The trip provided an invaluable opportunity to meet Peter and the staff at SAWC, explore the campus, to work shoulder-to-shoulder on technical problems, to be immersed in the environment and near the wildlife that the College is dedicated to protecting, and to observe inherent challenges. These include load-shedding (power and therefore internet outages), a relatively remote physical location, IT challenges (stability of wifi; field work conducted in offline environments), as well as staff levels and retention.

Workspace for the week: data sources and considerations across the whiteboards, volunteer-provided laptop and second screen; server rack in upper-right hand portion of photo; ever-important and pleasant oscillating fan and window (to the right, not pictured)

The ArcGIS Online Conservation Solutions provide a rapidly-deployable template for data collection and presentation in common conservation scenarios. Solutions must be configured for specific requirements.

ArcGIS Online, Conservation Solutions, ArcGIS mobile apps (Field Maps, QuickCapture, Survey123), ArcGIS Pro, Experience Builder, Instant Apps, Experience Builder, WebApp Builder, etc. are added to established and competing applications and data sources/repositories such as QGIS, SharePoint, drone imagery, temperature loggers, voice recordings, paper data sheets, SMART, EarthRanger, Gaia GPS, etc. This presents an increasing challenge for administration, data flows, keeping current on products, and maintaining required expertise. As each system and app performs some functions better than others in different scenarios, it’s difficult or impossible to consolidate platforms.

SAWC ALRD’s main data repository is the Microsoft 365 environment and ArcGIS Online is best-suited for data collection and presentation. This means that data collected using ArcGIS apps must be loaded to M365 (for retention purposes, as well as use in research/academic pursuits), potentially transformed, analyzed, and/or summarized, and then written back to ArcGIS Online for use in web maps and apps. This requires yet another set of data flows, in addition to the many others.

Left: Daily commute (walk)
Upper-right: Game drive truck in front of thatched-roof house (accommodations)
Lower-right: Sunset in Kruger National Park near SAWC campus

One challenge is the frequency of major and breaking changes to ArcGIS Online, related products, licensing and the ArcGIS mobile apps. This affects administrators, workflows, products, guidance, and end users. Another concern is related to data loss or loss of integrity in ArcGIS Online, where no native backups are available and some data are automatically deleted after 30 days or less. Related mobile apps are easy to use, but when data doesn’t sync back new problems are presented. FME workspaces created during my trip are designed to address the data retention and integrity concerns.

An additional risk related to ArcGIS Online for ALRD staff is the utility realized by those outside of ALRD and beyond the scope of research projects. The flexibility and utility of Survey123 forms, dashboards, and other apps draw other departments to the platform. This may further over-extend staff with supporting or developing non-ALRD projects and creating future technical debt. The apparent opportunities of a self-service model, great reach (sharing with the public), and powerful, flexible products create a significant draw.

Through discussions and work with Peter, I was able to provide direct technical assistance, guidance on various issues, and administrative direction for ArcGIS Online.

Major deliverables included a series of five documents that provide a basis for ArcGIS Online organization governance and management, set requirements for shared items, provide specific recommendations for administrators, content creators, and those collecting data in offline environments:

  • SAWC ArcGIS Online Acceptable Use Policy: foundational document for guiding operations (14 pages)
  • SAWC ArcGIS Online Shared Item Requirements: baseline requirements for shared items (6 pages)
  • SAWC AGOL Recommendations for Administrators: best practices & SOPs for administrators (5 pages)
  • SAWC AGOL Recommendations for Users and Publishers: guidance for content creators (3 pages)
  • SAWC AGOL Recommendations for Field Workers: guidance for mobile data collectors (1 page)

These documents will evolve as projects, staffing, and technology change. Opportunities for future support tasks were also identified and reported back as a part of this visit.

Upper left: Woodlands Kingfisher, frequently heard and seen around the house
Upper right: Peter (right) and Paul (left)
Lower left: Elephant crossing (within Kruger National Park)
Lower right: Scenic overlook, lion in approximate center of the frame (within Kruger National Park)
Report by Shawn Morgan – April 2023

My second trip to SAWC was to help further the work completed in both Paul’s trip a few months ago and my original one from October 2022. Those two previous trips revised the direction for improved Esri ArcGIS Online adoption at SAWC, and established policies governing appropriate and safe use of ArcGIS by staff and students. I had 3 students from Fleming College (where I teach) accompany me to help as well (these students paid their own way). These three students were tasked with building a basemap and collecting facility data for the SAWC college community as part of their studies at Fleming. Their basemap will serve as the main map of the campus grounds and also provide enhancements to existing basemaps with more context for the lands surrounding the campus. Regional information will also be added to cover identified locations in the longitudinal studies as outlined in the original project. 

From left to right: Hillary Elliott, Amanda Sawyer, Adrian Koornneef, Peter Hamming, Shawn Morgan

Upon arriving in the last week of April, I learned there were staffing changes at SAWC that will impact GISCorps project. First, Richard Fergusson departed the college. He was leading the Diploma programs and there was a new staff hired, but was not present yet. So unfortunately, some of the diploma/curriculum goals for my trip were not achieved. A second change was that Karl Ferreira was promoted to a more senior role within the IT group, as the original IT manager also departed a few months ago. Much of the IT support now is subcontracted to an external company and Karl’s moved to head this department. He and I discussed how there will be more IT-based opportunities that will co-exist and support Esri’s ArcGIS Online. This included internal metrics for dashboards, an already-improved redundant internet connection so connectivity remains active during the frequent loadshedding power blackouts, and better solutions for efficient workflows within the college. There is perhaps a new opportunity that can be spearheaded with Karl’s’ group as a spin-off. 

The 3 Fleming College students accompanying me were concentrating on creating a basemap and doing requirements gathering to create a campus navigator for those visiting, finding their way to accommodations and dining, and to help modernize the experience for those new to the campus. Hazel Timm manages the hospitality group at the college and gave some great insights into her vision and needs. In addition to the basemap, a room finder website, printable map, and virtual tours of the campus will also be created by these students over the next 2 months. We are going to try and integrate video and 3D immersive views of key areas on campus into the mapping applications created. Using my Google Pixel phone some example 3D views were created and then prototyped some software to work as embedded content in AGOL Storymaps and Experience Builder. While indoor views weren’t as nice, the external campus ones really helped give a feel of the campus. I created a simple website to share these immersive views with SAWC staff for comment (you can see this demo browser here  

From left to right: Amanda Sawyer, Shawn Morgan, Hillary Elliott, Adrian Koornneef

We also determined some applications to build for facilities maintenance and emergency management, including where fire extinguishers are, creating digital logs for when they are checked, and the location of various underground infrastructure like water shutoffs, electrical lines, etc. These will be built and shared with various maintenance groups and key SAWC staff only. Data was collected, some user requirements gathered, and the 3-students from Fleming will build data collection tools for SAWC staff to maintain the initial layers created out of their academic work for SAWC. 

The Fleming College group along with Peter went on a game drive in Kruger National Park, participated in a bird ringing (banding) exercise led by Peter for visiting students from a veterinarian college, and we went on a hike in Blyde Canyon. These events allowed us to see how SAWC work with external groups, provides non-degree training opportunities, and get much needed time with Peter–given Richard and Karl’s departure from the department, Peter has taken on many of their tasks and was hard to get time with. These fun activities allowed us to strengthen our relationship, understand how to best deliver value for our efforts, and give my Fleming students a better understanding of the natural area around the college. 

The Fleming College group along with Peter went on a game drive in Kruger National Park

This trip was successful and will result in great solutions as created by my Fleming students, as scheduled for delivery at the end of June. The time on-campus also helped me curate the evolving needs of the SAWC community in relation to implementing and using Esri’s ArcGIS Online. GISCorps’ plan (as revised in October 2022) to support the longitudinal studies is still the focus, with my students building supporting mapping and web-based solutions for the college to reinforce GIS and ArcGIS Online use and their potentials for the college community. 

Project completed.

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