From the beginning, computers have been an important tool for scientific disciplines, combining computational power with the flexibility of software tools and databases. Not all disciplines benefitted equally, however. While laboratory and medical sciences enjoyed rapid computer growth, many field sciences, like ecology and parks management, lagged behind. The stark differences in funding levels between these areas of practice also contributed, because computer adoption in the early days was an expensive process.
Recently graduated from the new Field Natural History program at the University of California and several interim years working as an ecologist with various NGO’s, Charles Convis spent the mid-late 1980’s working as a volunteer for the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, helping parks and conservation groups in many countries acquire computer technologies and skills, creating databases and simple mapping systems. He encountered many other early adopters working in conservation and GIS, like Karen Beardsley and Harvey Croze at UNEP, Rodney Jackson and Michael Norton-Griffiths at IUCN. Out of that experience came the idea that a foundation or organization could carry out this task more effectively than a single itinerant programmer, so in 1988 Convis wrote a proposal for a Conservation Computer Support Foundation. The proposal was shared with IUCN, WWF and the University of California. The foundation would focus on low-tech approaches and a services-oriented ethic designed to assist small grass-roots organizations around the world. The initial funding requests were not successful, so Convis decided to proceed without funding and began to directly approach software and hardware vendors as a way to gain access to expensive technologies that could be donated to needy groups. One of the earliest vendors was Esri, whose GIS software was becoming well-known in the resources world but whose retail price was out of reach of the nonprofit community. Jack Dangermond in particular was deeply interested in the concept of the Conservation Support Foundation and in 1989 finally offered to help host and build this Foundation Idea if Convis would join the Esri organization.
With daytime duties at Esri centered around the Digital Chart of the World project, Convis and Dangermond spent many evenings and weekends talking about conservation and technology, and how one builds a community and helps it to grow and thrive. Many of the lessons Dangermond learned in building Esri as a global business were shared as to how they might apply to building a community of conservation GIS enthusiasts. One of the first lessons was how critically important it was to get together in person, to be a physical community and build direct personal relationships. In 1990 Convis began to invite anyone interested in Conservation and GIS to attend the annual Esri summer conference, waiving the conference fees and setting up backyard tents and potlucks to make it affordable. In 1991 enough conservation GIS people showed up to allow Convis to organize the first of many dedicated conservation GIS tracks at the Esri user conference. 1991 also saw the first “Conservation Users Special Interest Group” open meeting, at which the basic ideas about what a group like this should be were first shared. 1991 was also the first year Convis asked Dr. Mike Hamilton if the private UC James ecological Reserve might be available to these conservationists, beginning a long association with that wilderness site.
Even as these community efforts took off, Convis had also worked from the beginning on the bread and butter issues of technology donations, organizing and distributing donations of Esri software, training, books and data under what was and still is called the “Esri Conservation Program”
The early successes of both the donation and community programs led Convis in 1991 to re-write the original 1988 conservation foundation proposal into an new charter, laying out the basic structure and mission of an international conservation support organization consisting of volunteers linked by email and internet, providing technology support and collaborating to help create standards for conservation GIS.
While the Conservation SIG’s presence at its first Esri International User Conference may have been humble, it facilitated the creation of many important and powerful relationships. During the following year, the Conservation SIG was adopted as a formal Esri program and grew to include over 60 member organizations, with close to 100 participants, and presenting 40 papers at the 1992 Esri International User Conference. Esri’s Conservation Group clearly filled a void and was also able to provide equipment and funds necessary for many conservation agencies to reach their goals with GIS and computer technology. At the 1993 Esri International User Conference – in which the Group doubled its participants and papers – it was determined that there was a need to convert the Group into an international consortium with its own independent organizational structure such as a non-profit association. The Conservation GIS Consortium (CGISC) was thus created. Its original members include Marshal Mayer’s Desktop Assistance group, Ed Backus from Interrain Pacific’s, and Steve Beckwitt and Peter Morison of the Sierra Biodiversity Institute. The Consortium provided GIS services to the conservation community and became instrumental in managing and administering several important GIS funding programs, including Esri’s. Simultaneously, an Internet discussion group called CONSGIS was created due to the support and efforts of Dr. Peter August and the University of Maryland.
The Consortium continued to thrive, and with grants from Esri, Hewlett-Packard, the Smithsonian, and five other hardware and software vendors, the Conservation Technology Support Program (CTSP) was created and launched in 1995. In addition, attendance at the Esri International User Conference continued to grow along with relationships and networks. As time passed, it became clear that there was a need for more formality and organization between the groups and programs that had been created. In 1997, the International Society for Conservation GIS was created and hosted its first annual conference. The conference featured 16 authoritative and scientific papers covering a wide range of conservation GIS topics, and attracted almost 100 participants. From the poster session to the Sunday night campfire, the conference was a success in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it was at this conference that the group formally agreed to form a non-profit organization. With the creation of an interim board of directors and the assignment of committee chairs, the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) as we know it today was formed! Tasked with developing the organization from nearly the ground up – from bylaws and fundraising to website development and creating support for international colleagues – the members of the newly created SCGIS had their hands full, but laid the foundation for the successful Society from which we continue to benefit. True to its initial goals, SCGIS continues to assist conservationists in using GIS and technology effectively and efficiently by encouraging and supporting open communication, networking, scholarships, and training.