On Being “The Goose Guy”

Two years ago the Student Success Office at the University of Waterloo launched their GooseWatch program, aimed at getting students and other members of the campus community to report goose nest locations so they could be put on a map and communicated to the campus. For those that are unaware, UWaterloo is well known for having a large population of Canada Geese. The geese are a minor inconvenience in day-to-day campus life, but around nesting season they can get aggressive and protective. The GooseWatch map they created showed people where nest locations were reported on campus and also shared some tips of how to handle an encounter with an aggressive goose. A few days after that map showed up, myself and my colleagues in the Mapping, Analysis, and Design department looked at the static map and thought it could be more interactive. We’ve been dabbling with campus data and building campus mapping applications for a few years and one of the common themes we encounter is people wanting to do wayfinding on campus. The lack of a quality routing dataset had always been a hindrance, but we had recently acquired some campus path data through our connections at Esri Canada and MappedIn. Around the same time, the University’s Open Data API began hosting the submitted nest locations which made it easy for us to drop them on a map rather than having to digitize them by hand from the static image.  Using those two datasets, in the span of an afternoon we had a demo version of what we called the “Goose Avoider” up and running. It’s function was to take a start and end point and find a route on the campus path network that didn’t come within some predetermined distance of goose nests. Someone in our department quickly had the idea to make the distance customizable, so we added what we affectionately named the “fear slider”. It let you set how afraid of geese you were, and the higher you set the fear level the further it would route you away from nests. The tool queried an ArcGIS Network Dataset we had published with the path data, the University’s Open Data API, and was built using Esri’s JavaScript API. We had a few main motivations for building the tool:

  • Promote the University’s Open Data API and show the University that putting as much data as possible into it is really useful for developers. This campus has a plethora of talented programmers and designers, so the more data we make available to them the more creative applications we will see. Getting data opened has often been a struggle, so I’ll take any opportunity I can to show the benefit to doing so.
  • Create a demo application that uses the stack of tools we teach most often in GIS project courses.
  • Provide a handy tool for the campus community, having a little fun in the process.

When we finally promoted the tool about a week after we started it we were pleasantly surprised at the uptake. We assumed people would get a kick out of it, and indeed it did: The Faculty of Environment (where our department is housed) wrote a story about it and put in on their front page. Some geospatial blogs like AnyGeo wrote stories about it. It was mentioned in the Macleans OnCampus blog. Twitter reaction was awesome to see, and apparently it was even mentioned on the local CTV news as part of a story on the goose population on campus. I say apparently because I didn’t actually see it, I only heard through word-of-mouth. I was asked to demonstrate the application at a booth at the 2013 GO Open Data conference, and I also delivered a lightning talk on the experience. From the launch on April 19, 2013 to May 9th, 2013 we had 2,506 requests for safe routes. All in all it was a fun experience and while we had thoughts about other things we could do with the application nesting season is only a few weeks and so we put it aside once the hype died down. Fast forward ten months and I received an email from the Student Success Office looking to join forces to create a single application that combined their crowdsourcing efforts with our ability to build interactive mapping applications. After a month or so of design and development work we were ready to launch GooseWatch 14. The Student Success Office does an awesome job of engaging students on our campus, giving them both timely useful information and fun distractions (and lots in between), and they saw this as a bit of both so it was a natural fit. Because we actually had some time to prepare this year we were able to create a new application from the ground up that not only encompassed the routing functionality we had built last year, but also gave users the ability to snap a picture and send in nest locations they found around campus and have them show up on the map. We built an administrator interface that allowed the SSO to approve and reject pictures and nest locations for a bit of quality control, and went live in late March/early April. We were sitting on the finished application waiting for nesting season to begin which took a while because we had a particularly long winter here in Waterloo. The response was once again excellent, especially with the promotional skills of the SSO behind us. Beyond the internal response which had eclipsed last year’s, we also had media inquiries. I did a radio interview with Craig Norris for CBC KW’s The Morning Edition, and just yesterday spoke to Tim Alamenciak of the Toronto Star and was quoted for his story on controlling Canada Goose populations. As mentioned in Tim’s story we had dozens of nest and picture submissions and thousands of visitors to the new Goose Watch site during this nesting season. All of this attention on a fun little app has lead me to realize that some people think I am somehow qualified to discuss goose behaviour, which I am most certainly not. I believe the interviewers I linked to in this post quickly figured that out while talking to me and smartly focused on the tool I was building rather than the goose behaviour angle. The truth is that I have no secret strategies for avoiding them or dealing with them, and I have no education on the subject. I’m a geomatics geek that likes maps and gets a kick out of building applications that people can use. I think spatial information is incredibly powerful in people’s day-to-day lives and any chance I get to showcase that is one I’ll have fun with. That does not make me any sort of expert on the subject, however. I spent my undergrad writing code, doing spatial analysis, and staring at rocks, minerals, and fossils. I still do two of those things every day, you can probably guess which one has dropped off of the radar (though I still think rocks are cool). As I’ve mentioned to people I know, this thing took on a life of its own and was a fun exercise in how to manage a project from conception to development to production to promotion, something I’ve never really experienced before. Being part of that entire life cycle as a developer is something you don’t get to do every day.

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