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Audubon’s new tool, The Explorer, is a groundbreaking interactive map tracking bird migrations for 450 different species worldwide. “Groundbreaking” isn’t hyperbole. There’s never been anything like it, and the amount of data compiled onto one site is an enormous collaborative accomplishment. This week Postlight’s Nathan Henry and Shawn Kelly chat with Melanie A. Smith and John Mahoney from Audubon about creating The Explorer and getting people involved in birding and conservation. 

Transcript

Nathan Henry: I’ve put this up in front of people who aren’t birders. They don’t know much about birds, but their first inclination is feeling an invitation to want to learn because it is so beautiful.

[POSTLIGHT INTRO MUSIC]

Nathan: Thanks for joining us on the Postlight podcast. Very special guests today. John Mahoney and Melanie Smith are joining myself and Sean Kelly from Postlight to talk about the bird migration explorer from the National Audubon Society. Something I’m super excited to dive into. John and Melanie, welcome. I would love to do some intros. So John, will put you on the spot first. Give us a little bit about your role at Audubon and some fun fact, maybe your favorite bird. Gotta keep it relevant. 

John Mahoney: Sure, yeah. I’m John Mahoney. I am Audubon’s Vice President of Digital Products, so I oversee our public facing digital products on the web and mobile, including our mobile app. I think my most recent favorite bird is the tufted tit mouse that sort of appeared outside my window perched, like right outside looking in with a—a real inquisitiveness that I appreciated. So that’s—that’s the current faith. 

Nathan: That’s very exciting. Melanie, coming all the way from Alaska, joining us. So thank you so much for, for the virtual commute. So, would love to hear a little bit about your background your role at Audubon and your bird du jour, at least, cause I’m sure you have many that you track. 

Melanie Smith: Yes. I am the program director for the Bird Migration Explorer at Audubon. I’m part of our migratory bird initiative team, and I am a geospatial ecologist and ornithologist. I’ve been doing GIS mapping, conservation planning, conservation advocacy and Bird and Mammal ecology for a long time at Audubon. So working on various projects that combine those different elements. And the Bird migration Explorer was kind of the—the ultimate combination of those putting it together across the hemisphere. 

Nathan: Yeah, that’s amazing. So I know that you are an avid birder. What is the biggest sort of accomplishment that you’ve seen, like what bird did you set up to find and you’ve actually seen or, or something that’s memorable? I would just love to hear like, what about birds that that keeps you passionate as a birder. 

Melanie: Yes. I have so many favorite birds and you didn’t press me to pick a favorite cuz that might be the hardest question you ask. But I do have a really good bird story about finding a hard to find bird. I went with seven other friends up to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a few years ago, to try to find a gray headed chickadee. And this is virtually the only place in North America that they can be seen. So they’re more common over in Asia. But here there’s this one spot in Alaska. It’s very hard to get to. You have to drive eight hours, fly an hour and a half on a small plane, raft down a river 25 miles and then go to this one little spot and they nest there. And I did manage to find one. And I think that I’m the last person to have seen ones that would’ve been three or four years ago. And I don’t think anyone has seen one since they’ve been this mysteriously disappearing population. And they may have just moved out of Alaska entirely now. 

Nathan: That is quite the story. There—there was some version of like, almost like survivor and amazing race and conservation to find this—the prize of the—of the bird that—that you were able to see. Melanie, I think wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a website or an app that showed you where a certain bird would be, when they might be migrating at a certain point in time, that you know where you could go watch them? Wouldn’t that just be a—an actual great piece of software that—that the world should develop? 

Melanie: That sounds like the kind of thing I would love to sit and look at for hours. 

Nathan: Exactly. So yes, shame—shameless plug for the listeners. So that is exactly what we’re gonna dive into, but I have one more intro I wanna get to. Also with us today is Shawn Kelly, a tremendous engineer at Postlight, who has done just a yeoman’s work on this application. So Shawn, love to get a background on, you know, your time at Postlight and, from—for your fun fact, I’d love to know like, what was the thing you learned most about Audubon or their mission during this process of building this deeply, deeply complicated app that we’re gonna talk about? 

Shawn Kelly: Yeah. My name’s Shawn Kelly. I’m a lead engineer over at Postlight, and my role has been to help the engineering team align with product and design, and in this case, the science team and just help the entire project move forward, get to where we are today with software out in the world. My fun fact, what’s the best—what’s—what did I learn about Audubon?

Nathan: Or—or conservation in general? My question is based on a hypothesis that as you and I as generalists, when we work with clients, we actually pick up some part of either their mission or their culture. Just curious like what one of those pieces of—of data might be that you’ll take with you from this engagement? 

Shawn: For sure. I think the part that always fascinated me is just how much the world these birds cover. And their view of things is so much wider than mine, like and—I—and I think I’m a big, strong, smart human. And here are these creatures without any technology other than the trackers that are attached to them, but that’s not assisting them, but just how much of the world they see and cover and just that—the efforts of all these individuals in the field, making that visible to the rest of us. It was awesome to see. 

John: Yeah, it’s amazing to see. 

Nathan: And last intros. I—I forgot to introduce myself. Nathan Henry had a product management at Postlight. And fun fact about me is that on my first day starting at Postlight, I was assigned to the Audubon project that was just about to kick off. And so my Postlight journey is wrapped deeply in the Audubon project. And so it’s—it’s felt like home to me as Postlight has felt like home to me and my fun bird story is I’m originally from northwestern Illinois and every time my mom sees an indigo bunting, she’ll text me that—that she’s seen the bird. And it’s just something that we’ve done. I don’t exactly know like the history and—and why we started that, but it was a unique bird I think that she saw the first time. And so she has moved from bird curious to a bit of a birder through my journey on this project. 

John: Yes!

Nathan: Which has been very exciting to watch her evolution, which I know aligns directly with the Audubon mission. But with that, I wanna start to dive into some of the work. And I think the—the thing I wanna understand first, Melanie, I would love to hear your explanation on the Migratory Bird initiative because I know we play a piece of that, but I assume there’s a larger connection and a larger effort that that Audubon is undergoing.

Melanie: True. The Migratory Bird initiative is really something we started in response to a big problem that’s happened in the world. Recent science has shown us that we’ve lost 3 billion birds in North America over the last 50 years. And then when we look forward, we also have analyses that show us that birds are in trouble from climate change that’s coming and has already started to occur to their habitats. And so, we know that birds have been having a hard time in recent decades and that that might just get harder in the coming decades. And birds are really an excellent indicator of the health of ecosystem because they’re everywhere across the world and they need a lot of the same things people need. So we feel like if we can improve the world for birds, we’re improving the world all around. And we started the Migratory Bird initiative with the idea that we need to be doing more, and we need to be looking beyond our borders here in the United States. Because the majority of our species spend a large part of their year outside of the United States. So we need to be looking at the full annual cycle. And to do that, we wanted to pull together all of the best and latest available data into kind of one big picture of what are all the birds doing, where are they going, where are they concentrating, where are they running into challenges? And start to make sense of it and do conservation better than we’ve done it in the past.

Nathan: That’s amazing. And it just makes so much sense hearing sort of the response to the need and finding not just tools for awareness, but actually engaging in finding advocacy to actually make meaningful change in the space. I have learned a lot about the impacts of, you know, Whether it’s a particular challenge or climate or buildings, lights, feral cats, all those things, and you know, it matters. Each of those, you know, items or threats have direct relation to birds and our overall ecosystem. John, taking the—the Migratory Bird initiative and layering in your view of product and digital, I know when you came to Postlight with this idea, you all had done quite a bit of work in validating of what a platform or what a website could be. I’m curious about the bridge between connecting software to the migratory Bird initiative, and then if you could talk about that a little bit, and then also what sort of homework did you all do before you could validate that, yes, let’s go build this thing. How did you sort of make this initiative turn into a dream that could be validated?

John: Yeah, it was a journey, for sure. And it’s been a multi-year journey imagining what sort of user facing product this initiative could generate. I think the really important piece here for this project was our in-house visualizations and all of the sort of prototyping and work that we were able to start with. So these migration maps, that sort of are at the core of the explorer, that shows the full annual cycle journey of these migratory species. We’ve done a lot of prototyping on those, on those exact maps and had built in a lot of in-house expertise to do that, which was sort of a first for Audubon. And Melanie and, and the rest of the N B I team really got us off to a great start in terms of what this could look like. Cuz you know, with a data visualization project this vast and this potentially expansive. You know, anything you can get on paper early is so beneficial. And we had really functional, really kind of breathtaking in their own right prototype maps that show these species annual cycles in hand before we even came to Postlight, even before we started our prototyping. That happened before Postlight. And a big question you have to ask when going down this route is, who are the audiences? You know, we did another sort of big prototyping workshop to try to zero in on that because again, that answer could have been any number of things. And we really did a lot of work to focus ourselves down to two main audiences, which are the bird curious audience, I guess we sort of called it, which isn’t the most perfect term. But that really sort of aligned with our—our Audubon’s core audience, our members, the folks who are either really into birds already or who are curious enough to be fascinated by the world of birds and we can reach them with a product like this. That was the first audience. And the second audience, which I think is super important, is the sort of conservation practitioner audience. Again, these sort of labels are kind of euphemistic, but this audience describes a lot of folks at Audubon. So these are folks across the country and the hemisphere now who are on the ground doing work to preserve bird habitats. And we wanted to build a tool that could empower them to bring data to the decision makers that they’re meeting with on a regular basis, to advocate for birds and show them just how important some of these places across the hemisphere are to birds. How many migratory species depend on this particular habitat, this particular area, and to empower them with a tool that could, that could really tell that story in a compelling way. So I feel like that’s 2% of the answer to your question, Nathan. But I mean doing a lot of internal prototyping, thinking about what it could be focusing in our audience. Those were two steps, but tho that took multiple years. 

Nathan: For sure. Yeah. I think there’s a, a lot that we could continue to unpack there. I think uncovering this—the end of your answer there was talking about data in the amount of data that we use here. Melanie, you made a comment once that when we’re working on this, that no one has aggregated all of this data. It has not been sort of, housed in one place before. And so I think that is a monumental achievement that we, that we were able to uncover. But I’m curious, talk a bit about the data, like what types of data are here and what challenges did getting access to that data? I’d love to, to hear about like what it is, what were we trying to include? How did we get to some of this data? Cause it wasn’t all Audubon’s. How we were able to, I guess, obtain it? Or, or use it in certain regards. 

Melanie: Well, this project has so many big projects nested within it, and the data is one of those projects. Just getting the data is a project of its own and processing the data and then all the other downstream parts from there. So acquiring the data was a effort among many partners. The data, generally speaking, they come in already really big buckets of data. So each of our partners have these really incredible programs. And they are these really big buckets of data. So we were taking those big buckets and integrating them in a way that they can be visualized together and interact together. So that’s true for eBird, for automated radio telemetry from Motis, and from, let’s say, the geno scape project, et cetera. But when it came to the tracking data, they were scattered among hundreds of different scientists at hundreds of different institutions. So it wasn’t a one stop shop. It wasn’t like working directly with Cornell to use eBird datasets. It was actually building individual relationships one by one with each scientist and asking them if they would share their data with the migratory Bird initiative and let us visualize it and analyze it and apply it to conservation. So we have all of these data sharing agreements with individuals. And then they shared their data with Move Bank. Either their data were already on Move Bank, and they were able to just share it with us. Or they put it there and uploaded it to Move Bank so that they could. And that gave us this one central location to manage tracking data that came from all over and have it be pre formatted. And then we’re able to get in the back end of Move Bank and pull it down all at once as one big data set. So we one big can of data out of many small ones. So then you’re pulling in, you know, several of those large cans in, into our system and writing, you know, scripts to strip out outliers and maybe poor quality records and things and, and get it all in a, in a format that we could pass it to you and you could start doing things with it. There’s a very technical side of just getting the data and having it be interoperable. But the partnership side is just as big of a, of a piece. This whole platform, it’s heavily built on relationships. 

Nathan: Yeah. That’s amazing. That’s one of the things that I actually felt working on this platform with you all. Yes, sure, this is, you know, the Audubon Societies for Migration Explorer. But this is really for everyone, and this is a shared initiative. That partnership does come forward in the, in the public facing. And I think one of the, the pillars to success were these partnerships and so beyond sort of the, the scientific community that you called out with a, you know, actually aggregating the data. I wanna actually call out our trustee partners here, Blue Raster. They are GIS and application development firm based in Virginia and they were integral to our success and helping sort of bridge all of the data that Melanie and your team were working on and, and how the front end and how the application would receive it with what Shawn was working on. That big piece in the middle that we kind of just skipped a little bit over was all about Blue Raster and so I really wanna make sure that they get the accolades and the awareness. So Shawn, I feel almost remiss to just kind of have a quick answer to the data question. There’s so much data. And—and when I say data, it’s not like this could be contained on a spreadsheet. This is like mountains and mountains and mountains of data. I wanna ask a twofold question to you. One, if you could just give us a high level overview of just sort of the tech stack. Like what did we build with, like what tools were we using? And then I do wanna focus on this data. How did we use it? What challenges did we have? Just paint the picture for us and then talk to us about this data, and then we’ll dive a little bit more into the app itself. But I—I’m—I’m fascinated by the data because I don’t know if I’ve ever worked on a project that has had this much data and precision. 

Shawn: Yeah, the tech stack at its cores, it’s pretty simple actually. We have a front end application, which we all see in the browser that’s being delivered by AWS’s Amplify service. Which handles all our deploys and lets us scale with number of users. It, it kind of gives us a lot of capabilities all in one nice package. And then at the core of the experience, the part that we’re all probably most excited about, where a lot of this data lives, is the map experience, right? And for that, we’re leveraging Esri’s ArcGIS platform. And we’re using that to query and render these data rich maps. So those pieces at their core, there wasn’t a lot of complexity there. It’s actually pretty simple. But I think where all the work was was we’re dealing with more data than we can send to the browser. For one, it’s just giant pools of data that we can’t just send to the browser and let it work it out. From that simple foundation, a lot of work went into figuring out how to shape that data so that it could be explored and understood by a very wide audience. Something John mentioned, we had these two audiences of the curious individual and the experts at the other end. Which is, I think, an admirable and great goal, but it’s also a lot of ground to cover, right? Like if we were just serving one or the other, I think our job would’ve been a lot easier. If we were just talking to more of the amateur level. You know, we wouldn’t have to worry about precision and accuracy quite so much. We could have just gave the impression of what was happening. And vice versa. If we were only dealing with experts, maybe we could have a degraded user experience, but we’d have very, very accurate visualizations. But being we wanted to serve both, we wanted very accurate visualizations, but high performance as well. So that could work on a very wide variety of devices and over a wide variety of network connections. Right. So a lot of the work was working with our, as you mentioned at the team at Blue Raster, to shape the data in a way that could achieve this goal. Working with design and science team to figure out the best way to tell the story with the data we have. and then obviously working with the engineering team to take those pieces and make it a reality. 

Nathan: Yeah. You say it so eloquently that like, of course we just had to do these things and make it happen, but I know that there were strong challenges there. Just this degree of precision and almost like laser sharp perfection brought this to one—it makes it completely accurate and extraordinarily robust. And I think that is also one of the hallmarks of the application. But I do think that also created a lot of challenges with you, specifically Shawn and—and the—the tech team of how do you handle this. And so I know we work, you know, very deeply with Melanie and her team. Working through how we might, you know, shape this data. Talk about like, how did you transform some of this? And I’m thinking of, you know, showing like a bird’s annual migration cycle showing how these birds take these heroic journeys. To steal a line from Melanie that, that I’ve heard her say multiple times these heroic journeys where they might be going from Alaska to let’s say Peru or South America or something. But how did you take that and how did you make that look real? What is the technical transformation there of that migration, that annual migration cycle over for these birds? Mostly curious mountains of data and you are talking about the browser just couldn’t render it. So how did we overcome that challenge?

Shawn: Well, some of that’s provided by what ArcGIS provides to us. The folks at Esri have developed a very powerful tool where we’re starting with these locations that we’ve been provided by the science teams, and when we develop the layers in the map on the front end, We’re querying, depending on the map, we might be querying a span of time, a specific set of tiles. If we’re looking at a subset of the map or so, we’re sending that query to the ArcGIS service, and it’s able to give us a subset of data that matches that. And then on the front end, this is where there was a lot of trial and error basically. Sometimes it made sense for the backend to give us all the geometry of that result, and then we would render that geometry just as it was provided. In other situations, that would just be too much. It would overload the system. So we would say, query, just give me the points and then on the front end, we’ll take that and calculate the geometry ourself. Looking at, you know, using various transformations between map projections and things like that to generate what you see on the screen.

Nathan: You’ll make it sound so simple. And I think that also having that true North star of why we were doing this allowed us to really dig in on, on this hard work and these hard challenges. Because we all wanted this to be in service of the birds and conservation and tying it all back to Audubon’s mission. I do think that every single person that contributed in any way, large or small to this, really believed in that mission. Which leads me to my next question for John. Kind of thinking through where we are now. We’ve launched where we’re out there in the world. When you look back to—two parts here, one, tell us about how you view the outcome? Like, did we achieve your original goal? And then second, where along the journey did you say, yes, this is going to work? Because I assume there was two moments. I assumed there was a point of validation where you maybe took a deep breath of like, “ah, yes, we’re gonna get there.” And then how did it feel at the end? 

John: Yeah, I mean the answer to that second part was basically the very end. You know, if you work on product like this and you’re really deep into it, you’re only seeing imperfections. You’re only seeing where it’s failing. You are consumed by those aspects of what you’re about to launch, and it’s hard to step back and realize, “wow, we have a, you know, single page app that has these incredible migration maps for over 450 species. We have all this connections data. We have all of these maps that show you the challenges birds face across their migration journeys and where they encounter those challenges.” You can enter in your location or any location you’re interested in and see analysis based on that geography and how the birds that migrate through that geography connect you to places across the hemisphere, like Melanie said. If we protect birds just in one place along their journey, which for some species spans literally the full extent north to south of the entire hemisphere, we’re only doing part of the job to protect that species. So when you step back and realize that we built an app, has all of that, and we made it into a coherent experience. I think—and—and yeah, Shawn’s point, those, those two audiences on kind of both ends of the expertise spectrum, I guess you could say, made this really challenging. And that was, that was tough. But I think stepping back and taking off my, you know, super Debbie Downer product manager hat, what really happened towards the end, you know, and especially when Shawn and—and the team came in and we solved a lot of those performance problems that we were facing. You know, this is a gargantuan app. It’s trying to do so much, and it was, you know, like all great software, a race to the finish line and seeing it all come together there was incredible. 

Nathan: That was great. I feel like we all knew we were gonna get there. I just feel like maybe we didn’t know how and when. Melanie, I have so many questions for, for you. You are so deep in the science that you actually probably could tell me without looking up on the Explorer where a particular bird might be passing through at this current time. So I’m wondering, . When you use the explore as a consumer, does it achieve your science goals? Does it represent to you as both a scientist and a birder, do we support our, our bird nerds and our bird curious? How did we do, from a very science and user perspective? 

Melanie: I feel like we absolutely did. I love making data beautiful. I think that’s what draws people in. And too much information or poorly designed information just makes your eyes glaze over. Like even though I’m a scientist and I care about the details, if it’s not presented well, it’s just not something I’m gonna spend a lot of my time on. So it was really important that the data was wrapped in a way that it was very visually appealing and told a story. It needed to be accurate. And because, Those partners we’ve talked about, they’re mostly scientists, and a lot of us you’re working with at Audubon, we’re scientists. And as scientists, we, we all care about accuracy. It needs to be right, it needs to be accurate in order to be credible. But in order to be exciting, interesting, useful, engaging, then it needs to tell a story and be visually appealing. So those are those two sides of that point. And that’s what I feel like we came out with. It wasn’t easy to get there. Required a lot of design detail and a lot of analytical detail and always making sure to carry both of those through. And that’s where we got to. And I think Postlight, you brought that, that visual appeal and the storytelling, you brought that out in a way That is what we were looking for. And you know, so many people look at this and for the first time, and they say, wow, it’s so beautiful and it makes them want to go and learn something about birds. 

Nathan: Which is amazing, and that’s exactly right. I’ve put this up in front of people who aren’t birders. They don’t know much about birds, but their first inclination is feeling an invitation to want to learn because it is so beautiful. It invites them, it—it welcomes them into this world that they may not know, and then they can start to see, “oh, Here’s my zip code, what’s happening around me.” And “oh, I know what an oriole is. Like, where are those?” And, and you can just spend time going through and understanding what’s around you or what connects you to other places. I have one more question for you, Melanie, and this is for me, the the turning moment. The first time I thought, “oh dear, I don’t know that we’re gonna have success,” was the moment that we had to figure out our custom map projection and the custom cartography. Because those were spaces and worlds that I did not know how to achieve. And so I’m curious if you can help talk through even just that part of how we’re, how we’re showing this data requires that map projection to be a certain way. I’d love to know about the projection and the cartography element. 

Melanie: I’m glad you pulled that out as a point of interest because if you look back at the project as a whole, That decision about the map projection had a huge influence on the entire setup of this project. And that would be probably unexpected, but it’s absolutely true. Because when you’re trying to show birds migrating across an entire hemisphere, so half of the globe from north to south, The curvature of the earth is important. You can’t just show that on a flat web mercator surface and where Greenland is almost as big as South America. That’s not accurate at all. And to give people a, a real impression of what these birds are doing. Again, accuracy. And it’s not just accuracy though, it’s also part of that compelling story. You can really kind of visualize that bird that’s being tracked, moving from, you know, Argentina, all the way to Alaska and see it kind of curving around the Earth. And that look and feel was important. And then just like kind of a nerd level detail. But because we were mapping in hexagons, they all needed to be the same size. You can’t just have little tiny ones at the Equator and absolutely enormous ones in the Arctic. That looks ridiculous. So we needed an equal area projection that would make you kind of feel like you’re watching a bird migrate around the globe. And that was a requirement from the start, from before we met you all. And that drove decisions around what technology to use. And we really wanted to use the Esri technology as the base for this, and we really wanted to implement that equal area projection. So when we started to wire frame, and prototype really early with you all. We weren’t using an equal area projection yet, but we knew we needed to get there and implement that. I can totally see how that would seem like a, “oh, I hope we can do this” moment. But I wasn’t feeling like that. I totally always thought we could do it. Because like the superpower of Audubon, Blue Raster or Postlight. Plus Esri. I knew we’d figure it out. 

Nathan: I agree. The part that I love about this decision, sort of going through that really challenging moment and figuring that part out with our partners in in Audubon, was at the end of it, now when you look at these journeys, you see the Earth’s curvature without any base map. You would not need a base map like you actually can see topography based on birds and how they migrate, which I just think is fascinating, that of how, you know, they, they go over, you know, the Grand Canyon or around it and things like that. And so I feel like that allowed us to fully commit. Cause I feel like that was our, like we’re doing this and let’s go all the way in and all decisions have to wrap around that. But the results were paid off. 

John: I’m really glad you picked up on that too. Like, I think a big part of this application is telling the story of that data in a way where it’s not the lead story, but it’s a really important piece. Like, I didn’t come to Audubon as a bird person. I’m—I’ve been here long enough where it’s getting harder and harder to remember my life before birds, obviously. But, you know, I, I can still try to put on that hat and I think it’s an important hat to put on because the amount of data we have about migratory birds is just incredible. So much of the data in this platform is generated by these, you know, scientists around the hemisphere, around the world who can put tiny radio transmitters or you know, light sensitive geo locators, literally strapped to the tiniest songbirds legs, cuz the technology has gotten so advanced that—that’s possible. And this data exists for birds in such an incredible density that, you know, we have audubon’s projects like the Christmas bird count dating back to almost a hundred years. We have eBird, which is this incredible tool where people are logging what birds they see and when and where, all around the world for over a decade. And it just creates this incredible data set that doesn’t really exist for any other sort of category of wildlife that I am aware of, at least at this degree of richness because it overlaps with people’s passions, right? You’re, you want to see that bird, you wanna remember where you saw it, you want to tell people about where you saw it. And that also just happens to generate this super valuable data. And we’re so lucky building an app around it, cuz we can’t, we can’t build this app without this data obviously. And, you know, just the story of how it’s generated and where it comes from and how amazing that is in itself is hopefully a story that came through. It sounds like it. It has been. 

Nathan: Definitely. You know, storytelling through words is important. And so of course we do have, you know, context there for folks to read. We have storytelling through science. We have storytelling through visuals. We have storytelling through technology, like the, the amount of stories and, and birds that have stories. I, I just think that’s fascinating. I think, you know, thinking through how we’re doing our part for conservation, I truly hope that we are doing as much as we can here. I wanna pivot us to kind of what’s next. Shawn, I know that we’ve still got some work, we’re still working here on, on mobile support and we’re still doing some feature development, so we’re not done yet. But I’m curious, you know, when you think of, of the app. What would you think of as what’s next? Like as a, a science person, more in computer science than bird science? Like what opportunities do you see here? I’m just kind of curious from a product perspective. You did performance, we’ve added features. Did we leave anything on the table, I guess is what I’m saying, or do you think this is a, a rich technical experience?

Shawn: I think the big ones for me is more mobile support. Talking about reaching that wider bird curious audience. That’s where a lot of the world lives now. And with that, if we could start layering in some of the things that come with mobile, like location of the user. Again, really taking that exploration thing to a new level when you start taking your computing device out into the world with you, that’s a whole different type of exploration. Especially if you wanna take it even farther. You start getting, I don’t know if this is appropriate for this particular application, but I could imagine that migration data being interesting at when you get into an augmented reality space where you’re overlaying this data onto the real world, not just on a map. So there’s things like that that could be interesting. And then my hat—I can never take this hat off, but I always just want things to go faster, so there’s always room for better performance. So… 

Nathan: That’s amazing. When you said layering this on top of like the actual world, Melanie’s wheels were turning and John was like, yes, we should do this. So that, that seems to be quite attractive. John and Melanie, I, I’m not sure which one I want to ask of both of you. What’s the reception been? I’m curious, like who’s seeing? How are they enjoying this? What is feedback that Audubon has gotten from this? And maybe it’s both from, you know, the digital community or anyone that you’re showing this as well as the scientists. So I’m kind of curious, like users or, or contributors as well as who else is seeing this and, and is it well received? 

Melanie: It’s been really well received as far as I know. I have seen really only positive comments. Social media has been a, a good way to get. When we did the launch, we were able to get it out to a lot of people that we don’t know or that didn’t know what we were doing and was a surprise. And the first time they see it, they’re very excited. They’re reposting it on Twitter and saying, everyone needs to check this out. So there was a lot of that kind of just grassroots social media buzz and excitement when we launched. So again, that first impression, it makes a really good first impression. When it comes to the conservation practitioner audience. We’ve done a lot of training internally to Audubon and also externally. We’ve been presenting to different agencies and organizations because they have questions about, well, how were the data produced and what do they really mean? And can I draw this conclusion by looking at this map? And so there’s a lot to talk about with the how you use it. So if you just want to engage with it to have some points of interest around birds, you don’t really need to be trained to do that. But if you want to apply it to a conservation question, you might have some deeper questions about exactly what does this mean? How should I interpret it? Is this a proper application of these data? So we’ve been holding trainings and it’s been, again, really well received, and I feel like it’s better received. Like people come in saying, oh, this is neat. What can I do with it? And then by the time we’re done an hour later, they’re excited to go out and try a bunch of stuff. So what’s been interesting to me is to learn about the things that weren’t all immediately obvious to people. And so it’s been really important to engage with people if they want to take it and really dig in deep. 

Nathan: That’s amazing. John, I’m curious, what are you hearing from users? 

John: A lot of the same as Melanie for sure, and I think there is a lot here. And we built an app that can do a lot and in many cases can do things we didn’t even necessarily think about or anticipate. So that’s been the feedback I’ve been really interested in. And was sort of something I’ve been preaching for a while, is like getting this out is only just the beginning, right? It’s only been out since the fall. We’re in the first couple of months of this tool’s life and we hope that this is a foundational tool for Audubon for many years. So, you know, we’re just, we’re just kind of starting the journey. And I think the folks that I’ve been really excited about are the ones who we can put this tool in their hand and they go, oh, I can do this. You know, I can do this. A lot of folks at Audubon and beyond in the conservation world, you know, come to the NBI team with really specific requests. You know, we know you have a lot of this data. This is kind, I’m, I’m speaking of a world sort of before the Explorer exist, can you please do some analysis around, you know, give all of the migratory birds that depend on, you know, let’s say this, this national park that I’m advocating for a, a certain sort of management policy—to pull a totally hypothetical situation out. But coming to our team and be like, can you give me a, a detailed analysis of like all the migratory species that depend on this park and, and when they depend on it and where else they find this habitat, how important this habitat is to their full cycle and, and now, the hope is that this tool, you can do a lot of that without having to come to us to come to Melanie and, and the NBI team to do this sort of analysis that previously was only possible, you know, with that level of expertise, engaging on sort of a case by case basis. So, and that’s where really the training comes in and, and really getting this tool out there for our own folks to use in many ways, you know, that’s a really exciting audience. If it is a small one, it’s still a really exciting one cuz that’s the audience that we can really empower. So that’s been awesome. And—and to also hear, Yeah, like on social media, when you see the folks who are really engaged in this world, in, in the world of bird migrations, tie in saying like, wow, I’ve, I can’t believe all of this is in one place. Or, you know, this is the newness of this, which as a non-scientist is, you can understand, but it’s kind of hard to wrap, fully wrap your head around to see people who, for whom that’s really hitting home with like how new this is and how kind—first of its kind it is? That has been awesome. Awesome to see. 

Nathan: Yeah. I think, you know, revolutionary, it’s not a word I use often when I think of software, specifically things that—that I had some part in. But this is unique. This is amazing. This is transformative. I mean, all the words that I can think of. So I wanna wrap up our time. I know that y’all have more conservation efforts in, in things to do at Audubon, but I really just wanna sincerely thank you both for bringing a gnarly, really ambiguous problem to our doorstep. As a product person, that is the product I wanna work on all the time. And I feel like we got a tremendous solution out of it. And I’m just so pleased with this work that everyone has contributed in any regard. So we should probably tell people where to find this. So John, tell us where to find it. And then spend time here, of course, But like how does it contribute back to Audubon’s mission and, and how might people become involved in conservation efforts? 

John: Yeah, absolutely. You can find the Explorer ay explorer.audubon.org. And yeah, if you’re kind of getting into this world for the first time and folks who we hope to reach and engage with this product, you know, the most important thing is realizing just how important birds are and how important, you know, habitat across the hemisphere is to birds and how they connect us, right? You can care about conservation in your community and that’s extremely important, if not the most important thing you can care about. But then you know what tools like this can do hopefully, is show you how your efforts in your community connect you to efforts that communities across the hemisphere. So you’re doing work to help the birds in your area and you help them thrive across, you know, their entire migratory journey. And, and maybe you realize that the importance of work being done in another continent is equally as important. So, so just sort of grasping the full scope of the conservation efforts in play and, and what we do is hopefully a message that folks can take away from this, and you can absolutely use the explorer to take action and sign up and hear more about Audubon’s efforts to help migratory birds and just learn more about birds along the way. So we’d encourage everyone to do that. For sure. 

Nathan: Exactly. Melanie, what else can users do? 

Melanie: I would say do three things. Go to the bird migration explorer. Look up a bird species. Everyone has seen a bird . So there’s some bird that you’ve seen in your local park or outside of your house. Just look it up and, and check out where it goes. The other thing is to look up your location, type in where you live, and you’ll get to see a map of where your birds come from throughout the hemisphere. It’s, it is so interesting to find out which birds come from which places. I always like to go in and look up the farthest locations and see who flew there. And the third thing would be go to the conservation challenges section and learn about one threat to birds, and then join the Audubon Flock. Become part of Audubon by signing up. And you’ll start to get some emails to learn about migratory birds and migration science and bird conservation. If you wanna get more involved after that, you can. 

Nathan: Amazing. So three simple steps and you get to experience the app and contribute to conservation efforts. Thank you both so much from joining us from Audubon. Shawn, always so great to work with you. I’m so glad that you joined on the podcast to, to help bridge the gap between all the data and the website because there’s a lot there to unpack. One more time. Explorer dot audubon dot. Melanie and John are active also on social media. You could find them if you wanna talk about the bird, you wanna talk about the explorer, Postlight. It’s hello@postlight.com. I would love to talk to you about birds or GIS or complicated problems that you might be having for your software. This has been super fun. I really appreciate you joining us for, for the podcast. I’m so excited to continue our long-term partnership. There’s more to come on the Explorer, more feature work. The work is never done, which is awesome because there—there’s always features to do to support conservation.

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