Technology is beginning to evolve that easily uses digital data to map characteristics of place, ecology and geology. This information is becoming available all throughout the web, in many instances they're published online from databases collected by foundations and non-profits. Since a problem has to be defined by its particular characteristics before people can sort out a solution, these mapped data representations are invaluable in making the character of a place and its integration with the natural terrain patently clear. This leads to effective solutions rather than so much of the destructive activity that we've seen in human habitation.
One tool that's used for this in engineering and infrastructure projects is the GIS database, which can provide all the information for the land gradients, water, energy flows, geotechnology, hydrology and so forth. Using it in established urban areas to design and engineer complex responses to natural and built environments is becoming more and more necessary. With this approach, large areas of urban fabric can be studied with alternate scenarios that provide realistic projections of how new projects will benefit society as well as reduce their impact on natural systems.
A tool now made available for the larger global view of the natural environment has been developed by the Nature Conservancy and the University of California Press is the "Atlas of Global Conservation". Some of the maps are online in an interactive format for very general classifications that begin to identify the regional ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain.
As this blog describes the project, there are eye-opening global maps that display incredible amounts of information that are not apparent in local studies that isolate small areas without any sense of the connection to the entire biosphere. These global maps include Freshwater Fish, Forest Clearing, Into the Wild, and Salt Marshes which provide pure data about the state of the world. These maps are supported by comprehensive data surveys that have not been undertaken before. This allows us to see now, in ways not possible before, the vast ecological regions in an accurate view that drive the natural processes we depend on. So we can understand what we're doing as we continue to alter the natural systems - or maybe not.
To quote the article in the Spring 2010 issue of Nature Conservancy magazine:
To create the atlas, a team of Conservancy scientists asked researchers and conservationists around the globe to share their information. The response was overwhelmingly generous, says lead author Jonathan Hoekstra. Individuals and institutions offered up entire databases - in some cases, the results of a life's work.
Ultimately the Conservancy collected and incorporated the work of some 70 institutions representing hundreds of scientists, says Hoekstra.
And from Nature Conservancy Lead Scientist Sanjayan:
We're at the point where we can see the worst and do the most. Forty years from now will be too late. Forty years ago - on the first Earth Day - we didn't fully know what was going on.