Science is about storytelling. To us, science is about bringing to light the fascinating stories, knowledge, and experiences of people from all walks of life who know their environments and places best. As an organization focused on people and geospatial technologies, we aim to share stories in conjunction with these technologies. Most geospatial technology work represents people as dots on a map, and fails to consider the ways in which local knowledge can be represented through these powerful and highly visual technologies. We aim to change that.

Our NSF undergraduate team interviews Belizeans about changes on the coasts and cayes. Photo from June 2019, Citizen Science GIS.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s part of the reason we focus so much on drone imagery and maps to complement the stories being told through our science. Images stimulate thought. They create an emotional reaction. They draw us in to a social or environmental issue. Pictures don’t necessarily tell the whole story, but they allow an entry point for people to begin to explore the story.

Hopkins Village, Belize flown with our DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0, June 2019.

At Citizen Science GIS, we are storytellers. This summer in Belize, our National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site has combined DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0 drones, Esri Drone2Map and ArcGIS mapping technology, and interviews with community members to better understand changes occurring in Belize. We’re 8 years into our work in Belize and we’re entering the third week of this summer’s fieldwork. We wanted to briefly share a few of our favorite images and a few of the stories we heard about so far to give you a sense of what our team is learning from everyday, extraordinary citizens in Belize. Thank you for following our journey. Thank you for all that you do for science. And thank you for recognizing the power of storytelling in science. Let us know in the comments, how you share stories through science.

One of our first dayes on the cayes of Belize flying drones and interviewing community members. Photo from June 2019, Citizen Science GIS

“These conch aren’t here for decoration!” The cayes off the coast of Belize experience social and environmental changes on many different scales. The communities that live here have to come together, and their combined ingenuity and resilience has resulted in a wide variety of different conservation and mitigation methods. Tobacco Caye like many others suffers from severe coastal erosion which threatens the livelihoods of many people on the caye. 

Tobacco Caye from above with our DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0 drone, June 2019.

As recent as eight years ago, Tobacco Caye was losing so much beach so rapidly it threatened many homes and other buildings along its coastline. For about 6 days men from the community collected hundreds and hundreds of conch shells. They piled them up one by one along the coastline to break the wave action and save the beach from erosion. To this day, this method although temporary is saving their beach. The residents who live here continue to witness change on and off the coast. But their resilience and strength demonstrate the collective and resilient spirit of many Belizeans in the face of adversity.

Just to the right of the dock and boat, notice the conk wall built by locals to combat erosion. Tobacco Caye from above with our DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0, June 2019.

“The Monkey River can’t do its job.” In Monkey River Village on the Belize mainland, we learned that the community is losing large amounts of land to erosion. After speaking to several concerned members of the community we were able to piece together a more complete story of what is actually going on. Though erosion has always been a natural cycle in Monkey River Village, in the past few decades the beach has not been able to replenish itself as it normally would. As many locals point out, this is because the Monkey River has become slow and shallow due to human activity farther up the river. As a result, the river is unable to push out sediment and rebuild the beaches. In the image below we can see the buildup of sediment stuck at the mouth of the river. 

Sediment buildup from Monkey River, June 2019. Images from our DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0.

“Taking back our beach!” For years now, Monkey River Village has been experiencing accelerated erosion that has eaten away at the beach. Of the 190 inhabitants of Monkey River Village, 8 people have lost their homes due to erosion. From our interviews we learned that the people of the village first attempted to use tires as a mitigation technique to cut back on wave action that erodes the sand. The tires were a failed attempt. It was not until geotubes were installed in 2018 with the help of community partners and residents of Monkey River Village that they have been able to combat coastal erosion. Due to the geotubes, Monkey River Village has been able to not only reduce coastal erosion, but also prevented the displacement of an 82 year old resident with a home right over the eroding coastline. 

An attempt at combating erosion with used tires in Monkey River Village, photo June 2019 by Citizen Science GIS.
Community response to combating erosion with geotubes in Monkey River Village, photo June 2019 with our DJI Phantom 4 Pro Ver 2.0 drone.

“The Future of Science is Strong in Hopkins Village!”  We had the opportunity of working with an enthusiastic group of children in Hopkins Village on the Belize mainland for the annual Maps, Apps and Drones Youth Academy at Miss Bertie’s Hopkins Community Library. As always, the kids were so excited for Dr. Drone and the team to be back in the village so they’d have the opportunity to fly the mini-drones and examine drone imagery from our fieldwork. We all thought it was amazing to see how excited the kids were to learn about the drones and fly them again. It was definitely a great time working with them and seeing their faces light up with this experience. The academy has helped develop many young, scientific minds. For example, Karim who just recently graduated from primary schools has been with us for 4 years. He is a leader in mapping debris in his community and becoming an expert in the drones. The future of science is looking bright in Hopkins and the enthusiasm of these kids is proof of that!

The youth of Hopkins take flight with our Parrot Mambo mini-drones. Photo from June 2019 from Citizen Science GIS.
Karim in the field with Ari from the NSF REU team. Photo from June 2019, Citizen Science GIS.

Contributing authors, include NSF REU team members: Ari Ortiz, Jana-Elisse Clevenger, Kayla McClendon, Tyler Love, Zayna Flowers, Lucas Farmer, Tim Hawthorne.

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