Making Geospatial Technology Accessible to All

By Allegra Wrocklage on July 6, 2021

A conversation with Breece Robertson, author of Protecting the Places We Love

Human-driven climate change and development are rapidly changing our lands and natural resources right before our eyes. Yet many conservation organizations don’t have access to the technologies they need to better track and address these impacts.

Upstream Tech is committed to making sophisticated technology accessible to conservation organizations without requiring teams to have geospatial training or expertise. To support this goal, we recently began a partnership with the Center for Geospatial Solutions to provide a range of services to Lens users. These could include mapping properties or easements for use in Lens or translating organizational strategic plans into a property-scale evaluation of conservation benefits across entire service areas. 

Breece Robertson is Director of Partnerships and Strategy for the Center for Geospatial Solutions. She spends her days helping conservation organizations of all sizes access geospatial technologies to better inform management and decision making. Her new book, Protecting the Places We Love: Conservation Strategies for Entrusted Lands and Parks, outlines a suite of geospatial technologies that conservation organizations can use to meet their goals. Already available as an ebook, it hits the shelves in paperback today. To celebrate the release of her book, we sat down with Breece to learn about what inspired her writing and what’s next in geospatial technology.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

A photo of Breece Robertson (left) next to the cover image for "Protecting the Places We Love" (right).
Breece Robertson and the cover image of her book.

Upstream Tech: You have a fascinating career in geospatial technology. Can you share more about your background and what led to your role with the Center for Geospatial Solutions?

Breece Robertson: After college I spent a year camping throughout the intermountain west, from Canada to New Mexico. I learned about public lands and tribes and other communities there, and realized I wanted to help protect land and support the people who use these lands. 

After getting a master’s degree in geography and planning, my first job was teaching GIS and scenario planning. I loved teaching but wanted to be more connected to conservation. The Trust for Public Land (TPL) was hiring a GIS person so I called them up, which turned into an 18 year career there. I built their GIS program from scratch, including community and geospatial planning processes for conservation and national-level projects like ParkScore and ParkServe. I got experience working from the main streets to the mountain tops using geospatial technology to solve problems!

I met Jeff Allenby at an Esri conference where we discussed the gaps and barriers to organizations wanting to use geospatial technology. When he started the Center for Geospatial Solutions, I joined as well.

What inspired you to write Protecting the Places We Love?

I learned a lot about geospatial technology during my time at TPL and I wanted to share my expertise. When discussing this with Esri, we realized that their last book on conservation was published over a decade ago. It was time for a conservation book focused on geospatial technologies. 

Through the book, I wanted to share my knowledge to help others understand how to use geospatial technology - and not be afraid of it! We can’t waste another minute to do everything we can to save the places that need to be saved. They’re critical to avoid biodiversity loss and climate change. I wanted to inspire people to use GIS and give those already using it some ideas for how to up their game. 

In the book I discuss the challenges around democratizing data to make it available to everybody and linking large landscape conservation to local conservation. I highlight organizations across the globe who are using geospatial data, including Upstream Tech. It’s a good cross section of inspiring examples about the ways people are using this technology.

Visualized in Lens, the Rio Grande River winds through New Mexico.
Visualized in Lens, the Rio Grande River winds through New Mexico.

What excites you about the Center for Geospatial Solutions’ partnership with Upstream Tech?

Both our organizations are bringing down barriers by making it easy for organizations to begin using geospatial technology - even those that only a couple of years ago couldn’t afford it or didn’t have the expertise to use it. Through our partnership we’re bringing remote sensing capabilities to help organizations monitor their land and geospatial expertise to help them prioritize lands that need to be protected and effectively manage them. 

I live in Santa Fe and have been volunteering with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. They’ve recently started using Lens, and it’s been great to see the efficiencies that Upstream Tech’s technology can bring to land trusts. It’s really freed up their staff to seek out new conservation opportunities rather than spending their time monitoring. I’ve been able to see first hand how it helps the organization be more efficient and effective at conservation. 

There’s so many other things geospatial technology can do that makes me really excited about our partnership. Some examples are tracking conservation and restoration progress and carbon sequestration or understanding how land use changes are affecting water quality, equity, and environmental justice.

What are two or three important developments you see on the horizon for remote monitoring and geospatial analysis?

We are seeing rapid changes in the environment because of climate change - wildfires, more intense storms, drought. Where I live in Santa Fe or at Bears Ears National Monument where I camp, I’ve never seen it drier. These trends are only increasing in pace and scale, and technology needs to accelerate alongside them.

Bears Ears National Monument (photo credit: BLM).
Bears Ears National Monument (photo credit: BLM).

One way I see this happening is through the ability to do real-time or near-real-time tracking of changes on the landscape. We’re getting better at that as computing power and technologies like Lens become more accessible. That tracking allows us to intervene and make changes in land use management or restoration activities as needed. 

I also see remote sensing technology emerging as a way to engage communities. These platforms can allow people to use imagery to detect change themselves, rather than having to rely on experts. We can put those tools in the hands of the public.

What are some examples you’ve seen that show the power of maps and geospatial analysis for conservation decision making?

When we started building out GIS capabilities at TPL, it was amazing to see the “ah-ha” moments when we showed on-the-ground project staff a map of their work. The maps sparked new insights and helped the organization to be more strategic. GIS helped to craft programmatic and mission-driven initiatives.

For example, showing areas on a map where a portfolio of conservation projects overlapped with critical black bear and longleaf pine habitats in the Southeast enabled project staff to prioritize new conservation activity to increase habitat connectivity. In Los Angeles, maps that showed park need alongside demographic and climate resilience data helped to guide placement of parks that would cool neighborhoods in summer heat and reduce flooding by absorbing stormwater. 

Maps paint a different picture for people and provide insights and understanding around the importance of the work they’re doing. This more effectively connects all the puzzle pieces of land conservation.

Interested in learning more about how Lens might work for your organization? We’d like to hear from you! Please send any questions or comments to lens@upstream.tech.