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The University of Waterloo created a goose-tracking map, because geese are bullies

The University of Waterloo created a goose-tracking map, because geese are bullies

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The Autumn Deer Rut In London's Richmond Park
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s a well-documented fact that geese are surprisingly unstable jerks who will not hesitate to hurt you physically, possibly with the help of their monstrous serrated tongues. A goose is the kind of animal you’d want to avoid in a dark alley, at a house party, or say, on a college campus. An easy way to do this: don’t go where the geese go. Canada’s University of Waterloo, which is home to a fairly large goose population, uses a digital tracker called Goose Watch to help students avoid their aggressive waddling neighbors.

Launched in the spring of 2013, Goose Watch lets students submit the locations of various nests around campus and find travel routes least likely to result in an altercation with a ruffled waterfowl. Users can select their comfort level with geese — from “comfortable” to “I want to keep my distance” — and the app will find directions based on that comfort (or lack thereof).

The interactive map is only active during nesting season, roughly a few months out of the year. The previous year’s Goose Watch remains online as an artifact until it refreshes for the next season.

I spoke over email with James McCarthy, the main developer of Goose Watch, to find out if mapping is the answer to angry geese.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

goose watch

Why did you decide to develop Goose Watch? 

Backstory time: Canada Geese start nesting in the spring and can be very protective of their nests. They won’t bother you as long as you give them space, so knowing where nests are is generally helpful in getting around campus in a way that ensures nesting mothers are left undisturbed.

In 2013 the University’s Student Success Office wanted to have some fun with this so they started crowdsourcing goose nest locations over Twitter. They put these on a static map of campus and updated it when new data came in. Someone requested that the point locations of nests be added to the University’s Open Data library and they responded quickly. In my department (Mapping, Analysis, and Design) we have a lot of expertise in geographic analysis and web mapping, and knew that we could make something much more interactive and useful than a static map, so I pounced on that data once it was made available.

The technology stack we used to build the application is the same one we teach in upper-year GIS courses here, so I built this to both promote the University’s Open Data project and to have a local and fun example I could take in front of a classroom and demo how I built it and what the pieces were that made it work. I didn’t expect it would take off like it did.

 How does the app work? 

The nest submissions are sent into a queue to be reviewed and approved for inclusion on the map. The approved submissions also appear in the University’s Open Data catalog.

The routing is done using a network service built from data on campus pathways. When a user asks for a route from one location to another, the start and end points are supplied to the network service along with the nest locations which are used as barriers on the network. The network service calculates an optimal route that takes you around the nest locations. The comfort level setting adjusts how close the resulting route will take you to a nest. The lower your comfort level the bigger a buffer it will give you around nest locations.

What has the reaction from students been like? 

The reaction has been very positive. People really get a kick out of it and several people (not just students, but people who work on campus, too) have told me they find it useful. I also think the fact that nesting season happens around exam time lets us provide a fun distraction for students at a time when their stress levels can be pretty high.

How many nest submissions do you usually get? 

Nesting season usually only lasts a couple of months, and each year we get 60–90 submissions. We had about 100 submissions of nests and pictures this year, not all of which are approved / confirmed. We ended up with 42 confirmed locations on the map.

Do you use have data on how frequently it's used on campus? 

During nesting season we usually see around 5,000–10,000 page views over those couple of months and a few thousand requests for routes (I don’t have hard data for this year on the number of route requests).

We also got another wave of views when it was posted on Reddit last week which pretty much blew our previous records out of the water. We ended up with about 70,000 views over two days.

 How do you think mapping applications will change in the future? Is there a way the platform could be used more effectively? 

The web mapping / geoweb world is moving at a crazy pace and it seems like new options for doing spatial stuff over the web are appearing weekly. It’s becoming really hard to keep up with these options and figure out where to focus our time from an educational perspective.

Some of the bigger trends I’m seeing in the web mapping world include public participation, 3D and augmented reality, and how to deal with big data. I think we’re seeing GIS become less of a standalone field and more as something integrated into fields where location matters. And not just in the obvious ones (geography, planning, etc.) but also in fields like health, data science, climate modeling, networking, infrastructure, and a whole bunch more.

There has never been more data available to people and more tools to collect, analyze, and visualize that data. A major issue is whether or not the people working with that data have the right skills and geographical competencies to take the spatial nature of the data into account and that’s one of the places where geographic education really needs to be focused.