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Environmental Areas of Responsibility

The Environmental Areas of Responsibility (EAOR) Project developed a prototype organizational information sharing tool for the Plata River Basin (PRB) in South America (see Figure One). Through this project AAAS explored relatively simple steps towards the integration of the disparate yet related organizational activities across the PRB. Using an online map, EAOR provided information on 243 organizations working at local, sub-national, and international scales within and around the PRB. It focused on the often elusive activities occurring at widely varying scales of operation ranging from the local to the transnational. EAOR was made possible by a contract from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration – Office of Global Programs in 2003.

Figure One: The Plata River Basin

EAOR was conceptualized during a pilot effort funded under the the NSF Biocomplexity in the Environment program. This pilot project sought to develop international sustainability science and policy networks across the PRB. The wide range of partners engaged in that effort all voiced frustration at the difficulty in understanding which organizations were working on what in which particular areas. This complaint was similar to issues raised in similar AAAS activities occurring at the time in Russia and Southeast Asia. The complaint reflects a fundamental obstacle to achieving sustainability: the wide range of information and spatial scales found within the sectors and disciplines involved. The result of such fragmentation is often wasted resources, lost time, and missed opportunities as organizations constantly seek meaningful partnerships in a void of information amid general resource scarcity.

EAOR sought to address these fragmentation problems by simply adding a geospatial component to a database of standard organizational information to create a cross-referenced ‘rolodex on a map’. EAOR is designed for academics and professionals working in sustainability science and technology issues across disciplines and sectors who need to find potential colleagues and information sources on specific topics in locales across the PRB. It is fundamentally intended to provide a starting point for further information using location, not topic or discipline, as a reference. EAOR is currently a prototype, and truly meeting these design specifications requires ongoing programmatic activities that continually grow the content and improve its delivery according to user needs.

The EAOR content grew from a AAAS databases of organizational and project-level activities gathered during the NSF funded project. A local partner, Fundación Proteger (, expanded the information on each organization already in-hand while adding many more entries. This information gathering used a web based data entry form developed and hosted by AAAS and translated into Spanish and Portuguese by Fundación Proteger.

The resulting entries include a wide range of science, policy, and commercial organizations involved in sustainability issues in the PRB. Each entry has information on the organizations address, goals, projects, online information, and best point of contact. See Table One for the full list of EAOR database contents. Note that not all organizations provided such complete information as only a few fields were actually required to encourage the widest contribution to the geospatial component. The current interface to EAOR also only delivers the organization name, website, and mission to the end user. Based on feedback AAAS can consider releasing more information on each organization to the public.

In addition to the above information the critical geospatial attribute was also gathered. To collect this attribute AAAS developed and maintained an online geographic information system (GIS) using the ArcIMS product from ESRI, Inc. This online GIS allowed remote data entry by Fundación Proteger staff who contacted organizations to determine those areas where each organization had activities. Many organizations among those contacted declared no explicit spatial focus, rather they only worked at the national and international policy levels and had no specific area of focus. These organizations are not mapped within the current EAOR interface.

Providing effective access to the 243 mapped organizations requires some division among them based on their fundamental attributes, such as whether they are a governmental organization, non-government organization, etc. A literature survey was conducted in the hopes of finding a ‘standard’ list of organizational types applicable to sustainability science and policy activities. However, little was found that encompassed such a wide range of organizational types as those deemed important by AAAS, ranging from activists to commercial entities and government agencies. In the end, a compilation of organizations was described by AAAS staff from a variety of marketing and government sources and developed into the categories found in Table Two.

To further ease access to these organizations it is necessary to divide them by the geographic area covered into three categories: national/international, sub-national, and local. The alternative is provide them all within a single interface which results in so many concurrent and overlapping polygons as to render the resulting map incomprehensible. This division was accomplished by simply dividing the area extent of each organizations polygon into the three categories via statistical analysis.

The EAOR map interface provides the public-facing point of access to the EAOR database. It too is based on ArcIMS from ESRI and uses HTML and javascript to deliver one primary function: return database contents in response to user selections on a map. That map includes several layers of features that give the user a sense of location and perspective on the map. These layers are:

  • The boundaries of the Plata River Basin as adapted from the World Resources Institute ‘Watersheds of the World;
  • Major rivers as denoted by the Digital Chart of the World;
  • Large lakes as denoted by the Digital Chart of the World;
  • Wetlands as denoted by the ESRI ArcAtlas data product, and;
  • Countries draped over elevation as indicated by GTOPO30 digital elevation model from USGS.

Of course, other such data layers such as cities can be added based on user comments. However, a minimalist approach has the advantage of reducing overall visual clutter. A sample of a succesful EAOR map search is provided in Figure One. This sample shows the results of a search in the northwest region of the PRB. Results include three NGO organizations active in the region. The online EAOR interface provides related textual information and allows selecting each text block for more information, highlighting selected polygons in turn, and more.

Figure Two: Sample EAOR Map

The organizations found in the EAOR database have varying concentrations across the PRB, as shown in Figure Three. This figure combines the 243 organizations mapped within the EAOR database, displaying the number of organizations working in each cell (one cell equals one-tenth of a degree). Some areas have up to 76 organizations concurrently addressing them while others have far fewer. Indicating such densities of science and policy activities is one of the benefits of adding a spatial component to standard organizational databases. While the organizational distribution depicted in Figure Three is highly influenced by the initial networks of AAAS and Fundación Proteger it does provide an interesting view on basin wide science and policy activities.

Figure Three: Organizational Density in the PRB

Note the EAOR interface was taken offline in 2009.