By Jamie Gibson and Alicia Arenzana

Since its launch in February 2014, Global Forest Watch has beamed the latest data on global forests straight to the world’s desktops, tablets and phones. It’s vastly raised our awareness of where trees are being lost and the accelerating rate of deforestation in some areas, like Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Madagascar.

The interactive map at the heart of the platform has seen around half a million views in that time, which means we can find out which forests the Global Forest Watch community are really interested in. Importantly, the converse is also true: we can see the parts of the world where people are not looking. With the recent launch of the latest UMD dataset and last week’s World Forestry Congress, we thought it was time to shed light on the forests with friends and those left out in the cold.

This first map shows which places users of Global Forest Watch are looking. You can clearly see that South East Asia, Europe, West and Central Africa and Central America are the most popular areas for views, from the high clustering of darker green points.

We didn’t want to stop there, in order to look at the effect of zoom level on the data. We have a hypothesis that you can’t get an accurate understanding of what’s happening in an area when viewing the map at a low zoom level (zoomed out), although we acknowledge that you can observe general regional and global level trends at zoom levels 3-5 (the default zoom level is 3). So we produced a second map that excluded all the points where the zoom level was lower than level 5.

One thing you can see clearly is a large number of points that have been removed over the Atlantic Ocean. This is where people have navigated around the map at the global level before zooming in on their point of interest. There is still a strong interest in places like South East Asia and South America, but you can more clearly see that boreal forests are not getting as much attention as tropical forests.

We think these kinds of insights are hugely important for the NGO community. Just from looking at user analytics, you can start to see what is important for the world. We use that to prioritise our work, to make sure we meet two goals. First, retain user interest by keeping the spotlight on these important and high priority areas, and second find ways to draw attention to areas that receive less attention. In an era of big data, it is possible to gain these insights from a few lines of code and a bit of data wrangling.

But this quick analysis just scratches the surface. We could unlock much deeper understanding of user behaviour by adding additional contextual layers, like land use and land cover data, to see precisely what people are investigating (is it intact forests, plantations or community owned areas that receive most attention?). From that we could start optimising the site further to continually surface things the world doesn’t know, or isn’t paying attention to, and keep a good watch on global forests.


Jamie Gibson is a social scientist and Alicia Arenzana is a data scientist at Vizzuality.This article originally appeared on Vizzuality.