Online maps

Possible Objectives

  • Capturing evidence of companies’ wrongdoing in how they use land
  • Recording and monitoring the environmental value of areas of land
  • Providing concrete evidence to governments to encourage them to recognise indigenous lands

This introduction to online mapping is part of a Primer for using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. It is designed as a starting point for organisations and activists interested in adding technology to improve their advocacy work, and is the product of a partnership between Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room.

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Rainforest Foundation Norway The Engine Room

What is it

  • A powerful, visually engaging way to present the information you have collected about your focus issue (such as through participatory mapping, or mobile data collection). Maps can be: static, like images and illustrations; animated, for example showing a change over time; or interactive, where users can zoom in or out, click on areas of the map to see more information, or provide their own information (crowdsourcing)
  • Maps can be created from scratch and uploaded on the internet, or information can be added to existing online maps like OpenStreetMap, Google Maps or Crowdmap.

How it can help

Online maps can be used for real-time monitoring (showing the places where most incidents happen), campaigning (showing that forest cover is being dramatically reduced) or analysis (gaining new insights by overlaying different types of data on the same map).


Maps for campaigning don’t always need to be interactive. Some maps work best as an infographic – a static image that clearly presents text explanations and color coding. First, choose your online map platform: It is often easiest to use existing online interactive maps, which already include information layers such as roads and satellite images. Commercial maps include Google, Bing or MapQuest. The free OpenStreetMap platform contains information from volunteers, and is usually less precise in remote non-urban areas.

Understanding coordinates and polygons

If you are collecting data through mobile tools, drones, or participatory mapping, it’s important to master mapping basics. Any object on a map has coordinates that pinpoint its location on a grid of latitude (north-south) and longitude (east-west). Knowing an object’s lat-long coordinates gives you its position (known as point-based information). To find an object’s size, you need to join points around its perimeter into a single polygonal shape.

Then, create your own layers on top: There are many different ways to add information from basic markers to ‘heat maps’ (which show when a type of incident is concentrated in a particular area). Some sites provide data designed to be added into rainforest maps. InfoAmazonia offers maps of the Amazon region on deforestation and forest fires. Sarawak Geoportal has similar information on Malaysian Borneo. MapBox Studio, the JEO Wordpress theme and CartoDB offer powerful, easy-to-use software for creating interactive maps. However, this requires you to upload your maps to MapBox servers, so it’s unsuitable for dealing with sensitive information (a guide to installing JEO in English and Portuguese). Creating your own interactive layers usually involves programming tools called Javascript libraries (Leaflet.js and OpenLayers are the most common).


The cost of designing and creating online interactive maps depends how easy the tools are to use, and what programming skills are needed. If you are not a programmer, the easiest tools are CartoDB and MapBox - but you will need to pay a fee any more complicated maps (although both come with a free option that has limited functionality). Digital Democracy’s MapFilter tool is a tool for presenting interactive, filter-able maps and reports, currently in the prototype stage, that is designed for use in remote areas. The Global Forest Watch Map Builder tool lets you build custom interactive maps for free that feature GFW’s data on forest change and basic polygon analysis tools. It works with both public and enterprise ArcGIS Online accounts and requires only basic knowledge of mapping platforms. Google Maps is free for up to 25,000 daily map loads (a very high number), but expensive beyond that. Using libraries such as Leaflet.js with OpenStreetMaps is free, but requires a skilled programmer. Maps produced by a commercial provider are often free at the outset, but can become expensive if used widely.

Risks and challenges

Companies store information about when, where and how you load maps on a commercial mapping platform, meaning that public maps on commercial platforms can pinpoint the location of individuals who uploaded information, putting them at risk. Avoiding errors is crucial: information presented in the wrong spot could defeat the purpose of the campaign.

Case studies

Impact of animated maps to show forest cover loss

Open Development Cambodia works to collect and provide quantitative information on Cambodia’s land, economic and environmental issues. They used the forest cover change information over a period of ten years to create a time-lapse video showing forest cover loss.

How did it help?

  • The video was quick and easy to make because ODC already had all the information prepared and uploaded on their interactive maps.
  • The time-lapse video was an effective advocacy tool because it clearly showed the extent of forest loss in Cambodia. It has been viewed more than two thousand times.

Mapping resources and communities in the Amazon

RAISG (Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information) is a multi-year project that aims to raise awareness and advocate for indigenous rights and environmental issues, and has collected information on protected areas, indigenous lands, water basins, and illegal logging.

How did it help?

  • RAISG presents all the collected information through online interactive maps, as well as downloadable static maps with infographics, and reports. Their information is also used by other organisations such as InfoAmazonia.
  • RAISG maps are a useful tool for evidence-based advocacy because of their strong methodology. Its partner organisations are able to rely on the collected information when lobbying governments.


This site was created by Rainforest Foundation Norway and The Engine Room as an introduction to using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. Download the whole primer here. It was first published in July 2016. Last updated in July 2016.

Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) is one of the world’s leading organisations in the field of rights-based rainforest protection. Its mission is to support indigenous peoples and traditional populations of the world’s rainforests in their efforts to protect their environment and fulfil their rights by assisting them in:

  • Securing and controlling the natural resources necessary for their long-term well-being and managing these resources in ways which do not harm their environment, violate their culture or compromise their future;
  • and developing the means to protect their individual and collective rights and to obtain, shape, and control basic services from the state.

RFN collaborates closely with more than 70 local and national environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations in 11 countries in the Amazon region, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.


The Engine Room is an international organisation that helps activists, social change organisations, and change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact. The Engine Room provides direct, project-level support for social change organisations; brings together communities to coordinate emerging ideas and collect practitioners; and documents and publishes findings to help anyone in the sector make better decisions about using data and technology.

Tom Walker and Tin Geber researched and wrote the main narrative, while Ruth Miller led work on the design and visuals creation. Vemund Olsen and Christopher Wilson provided invaluable input and editing support. The site sourcecode is available on Github. Comments or questions? Contact or

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