GIS – Storytelling with Data?

At left, Sean Gerrity, American Prairie Reserve President and National Geographic Fellow, marks a photo waypoint with his GPS Treasure Hunt team.

You could say that we were so excited about GIS Day that we celebrated a week early. In truth, because the entire American Prairie Reserve staff (normally spread over 3 locations) was together last week for a meeting, we took the opportunity to get everyone involved in some GIS fun.

As an organization, American Prairie Reserve uses GIS in a variety of ways – from Google Earth tours in presentations and printed map materials to wildlife research and recreation planning. At the staff level, however, very few people directly work with geospatial information and software, as is probably the case at many organizations. An effort to change that was made possible with technology that we’re all familiar with – our phones.

Using the Trimble Outdoors app, which is available for iPhones and Android devices along with many other similar applications, staff from departments ranging from fundraising to land management received basic training on the app and GPS technology (even coordinate systems!) before heading out on a lunchtime treasure hunt. By practicing navigating to and creating waypoints, making tracks, and taking geo-referenced photos, GIS became more than an acronym. It is now a way to remember the location of a scenic overlook to share with visitors, send trip ideas to tour guides operating on the Reserve, and collect species data with citizen scientists.  It was also the key to finding lunch!

Sean's Treasure Hunt tracks and points, including photos, video and audio.


The accuracy and functionality of apps and GPS-enabled phones aren’t likely to replace the handheld units used by our field staff – at least in the near future. Nevertheless it’s safe to say that everyone walked away with a better understanding of a part of mapping that is easy to forget as technology gets better and better – data. Collection, management and the sharing of data are areas of GIS that some take for granted when they’re on the viewing end of things. For those of us working in remote areas, even in the United States, reliable, well-documented and up-to-date data is a treasure all of its own.

In sum, our pre-GIS Day was a success, not only because our staff learned a different way to explore and document the world around them, but also because it made us think about how we communicate information about the world to others. When you get down to it, GIS is just good, old-fashioned storytelling (does that make it GOFS?) and each of us are capable of creating the layers that make for a great tale.


American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife reserve in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. APR’s President Sean Gerrity is a National Geographic Fellow. Learn more about the Reserve, including progress to date and bison restoration efforts, on the Reserve’s website.


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American Prairie Reserve (APR) is assembling a world class wildlife park in northern Montana, with the goal of one day creating a seamless 3.5 million acre grassland ecosystem. Learn more about APR, including our bison restoration efforts and how to visit, on the Reserve's website.