Save the Sound works across the entire Long Island Sound region to fight climate change, save endangered lands, protect the Sound and its rivers, and work to restore natural ecosystems. With projects across two states within many local geographies, keeping all of their efforts and wins organized requires smart, strategic, and software driven-solutions.
“We’ve often heard from supporters that it is hard to get a thorough grasp and understanding of what it is that we actually do for the causes that interest them. The Impact Map allows Save the Sound to present the breadth and variety of our work in an easy to understand and easily accessible format that our supporters can truly enjoy while exploring all of the wonderful work we do.”
The Commons worked with Save the Sound staff to build the interactive Save the Sound Action Map application to demonstrate their work through an accessible, easily understood platform. Before getting started on the project, our team met with the client to make sure that the end product met their key goals. Ultimately, the team wanted the application to focus on a region-wide map that visualized the locations of eight distinct programs ranging from clean-ups to policy wins.
Of utmost importance to the client was the ability to make the map responsive and user friendly in order to demonstrate the reach of STS’s programming, regions of activity, and specific action locations. Moreover, the client wanted full autonomy to update map data after completion of the project. This desired independence will reduce the reliance on third party developers to push necessary updates, will allow in-house data management to include map updates, and will reduce costs to manage the application. All told, these desires will allow for more dollars to be spent on the projects seen on the application rather than the application itself.
The information shared via the map can provide critical data that informs the general public about the work done in their region. Beyond basic education and information, the map will target a variety of audiences including local and state government representatives, funders, active volunteers, partners, and in-house staff.
The Commons team met all of the client’s specifications through the development of the custom web application, Save the Sound Impact map.
We built the application on the popular R-Shiny framework. The R-Shiny framework makes it easy to build interactive web applications straight from a R-hosted database. Shiny combines the computational power of R with the interactivity of a website, providing the key necessary components to deliver the end application desired by the client that users can visit via an embedded webpage.
The map allows users to explore the breadth and depth of conservation efforts Save the Sound has invested in across the Long Island Sound Region. Users will arrive at a map displaying all projects and information. On the left hand legend, users can toggle between icons that indicate various programs, search tags, and filter by both project type and year. All of this functionality provides multiple ways to help users acquaint themselves with the information provided on the map, expanding both the time they spend exploring the information and educating themselves on the impact of these efforts. Moreover, users can pan, zoom, and geolocate to an area of interest.
The Commons’s Widget Building Process
The process to produce the final mapping application required a deceptively substantial number of steps to align on expectations, develop widgets, and deliver results.
First, we always scope out the project goals with the client. Our team recognizes the importance of aligning with our client at the gate before any development begins.
Second, we collect all of the data from the client that they intend to have displayed on the map. Often, as was the case here, we need to spend some time restructuring the data. Considering that data populating this map arrived from eight distinct programs, we had to spend time working with the client to identify parameters to include, clean data, and structure it for inclusion for each individual program. While the investment in time and attention at the beginning may feel excessive, the end result of this investment in cleaning is invaluable not only for a more reliable application but also to meet the client’s desire to be able to manage and maintain the application in-house after the completion of the project.
Third, we build the back end of the R-shiny application to make sure that all of the data, components, and features are included in the final widget. For those that are not familiar with software development, this building component is where our team takes all of the requests made by the client to build the final application. So every time the client asks for a small change, we go back to the “build” to make updates.
Finally, our team enters the user interface design phase of the project. Here, we take all of the features and functionality that we built in the R-Shiny application and build a branded, user-friendly wrapper. The application behaves as expected and desired across all devices and operating systems. The styling gives our team a chance to show our aesthetic chops while also aligning in-house branding guidelines by the client.
Behind the aesthetically driven interface, the application is fed by a Google Sheets structured to complement the client’s data management workflow. Because the client will ultimately hold responsibility for managing and updating the data, the workflow had to align with their current systems and procedures as closely as possible. By using Google Sheets that feed directly to the R-Shiny application, the client benefits from database control without the complexity of an Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Instance, both of which offer great data management opportunities but would only add unnecessary complexity to this application. Going forward, the system allows for a simple update to the Google Sheet to result in an update to the public mapping application.
In an effort to hand the keys completely over to the client after the completion of the project, we set up the system so that the client can alter additional elements beyond the data feeding the system. This includes updating descriptive text, changing or adding pictures, refreshing logo images, altering marker size, and linking external weblinks. Ultimately, as Save the Sound continues to make an impact across their region, they can update the content in-house, without relying on additional support from The Commons team.
Going forward, we set up the client to manage the hosting of the application via Shinyapps.io. This user friendly platform offers a cost-effective solution to reliably maintain the application in house. The client can manage this service without having the technical expertise required to build the application itself.