Project description

Silent Forest (Floresta Silenciosa, in Portuguese) is a multimedia platform that was born from a collaboration between an interdisciplinary and international team of journalists, developers, photographers and scientists. It all started with the team of researchers behind the "Anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests can double biodiversity loss from defenestration" article, including Jos Barlow, Gareth D. Lennox, Joice Ferreira, Erika Berenguer, Alexander C. Lees, and their investigation on the impact of disturbance in the state of Pará, in Brazilian Amazonia. Their research, published in Nature last year, illuminated how harmful disturbance and degradation can be for the health of the Amazon rainforest. From the in depth data collected in Santarém and Paragominas (two research sites in Pará in the Amazon region), the researchers were able to create groundbreaking models of the greater impact disturbance was having in the state of Pará, leading towards an understanding of the risk for the Amazon as a whole. The Floresta Silenciosa sought to share their research and the data behind it in an interactive, multi-layered story. Our goal was to create a portal that allows the user to dive deeply into the issues at stake, using data visualizations to showcase some of the main findings of the research paper.
The platform’s development was leaded by Ambiental Media (https://ambiental.media/site/en/), a startup from Brazil that transforms scientific content into innovative journalism. An international network of scientists, called Sustainable Amazon Network (redeamazoniasustentavel.com.br), financed the media team, and the journalistic work was developed with independence: Scientists that doesn’t belong to the network, or that didn’t participate in the paper, were interviewed, and data from other independent sources were used to complement the initial one. Even so, to ensure the journalistic approach of the platform, we offered the result of the data visualization process (maps, charts, infographics and virtual cards) freely to other media outlets, such as The Guardian, Mongabay, Estadao, and others.
Important to state that Ambiental Media is one of the initiatives that is searching for solutions to the business model crisis that journalism is facing all over. We are pursuing different sources of monetization, which include partnerships with Foundations and Scientific Networks, as long as they don’t compromise our journalistic exemption.

What makes this project innovative?

The Floresta Silenciosa project is a unique combination of interactive storytelling, journalistic approach, and data presentation. Our work is different because it is fundamentally tied to a special kind of goal - the explanation of a groundbreaking scientific paper. With a basis in highly technical methodologies and data analyses carried out by the research team based in the UK, the international group of journalists created a multifaceted website that takes the user on a journey including interviews with the researchers, maps and graphs of the data, an exploration of the research results, and recommendations for policy changes. We used the latest data visualization techniques, with three of our infographics made interactive using D3.js. It was no small feat to embed these interactive elements within the framework of our WordPress page, as responsive iFrames - a technique we believe is highly useful for any newsroom seeking to work with new technologies within the constraints of a content management system. It is important to note that our team worked in a unique way - entirely remotely and internationally (Brazil, UK, USA). The finished project is a testament to our team’s efforts to coordinate across time zones and schedules, frequently using tools like video calls and constant updates to files on the cloud in order to collaborate. Another innovative aspect of the project is the content approach: We created infographic information on rainforest degradation, a phenomenon much less known than deforestation, but equally impactful. Deforestation and degradation are not the same thing. While the first is easily detected by satellites, the second is a discreet villain: small fires, illegal logging, fragmentation and hunting are silently consuming the Amazon Rainforest. Our work brought to many newsrooms an unique perspective of a real-world problem that was going unnoticed, which created awareness and another point of pressure over government agencies.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

To ensure the journalistic exemption of the project, we decided to offer the content freely to other media outlets. Ambiental Media manages in Brazil a community (a private Facebook group) formed by media professionals (journalists, photographers, video makers, designers, developers and others) and scientists. All infographic information was shared with journalists from other sites or newspapers (big or small), specially the main map showing degradation.
To create a buzz around the platform, we organized a physical event in Sao Paulo to launch Silent Forest, and invited journalists, environmentalists, scientists, and others. It worked very well, which can be seen from the traction we obtained: The content was replicated by about 15 other channels, including The Guardian, Mongabay, Estadao (a major newspaper from Brazil), Nexo (best online newspaper from Brazil), a mention in Germany’s Greenpeace newsletter, a tweet from United Nations, local radio programs, and others.
The website itself received 5,000 visitors during the launch time, which we consider amazing, since Silent Forest was our first big project; MapBox numbers indicates around 350,000 views to our main map on degradation, which can give us an idea of the impact we achieved through offering the infographic information to other media outlets.

Source and methodology

The paper itself Barlow et. al 2016 (Nature) was the main source of verified, peer-reviewed data and analysis. The research team participated in the journalistic process by explaining their scientific research methods and their data every step of the way.
Other sources of data were sourced to complement the visualizations and maps on the platform. We wanted to explain the new insights on pressures to the health of the Amazon rainforest, and the different variables that make up the degradation that the research team discovered in Pará. We decided to include datasets on logging, forest fires, roads, and previously measured degradation. The sources for these are as follows:
Logging hotspots: Imazon Geo
Previously measured degradation: Imazon Geo
Forest Fires: NASA FIRMS Fire Archive
Roads: OpenStreetMap
Background satellite imagery: MapBox
We also created a special page to explore data on bird species. Each bird species has a ‘report card’ showing how degradation affects that bird’s population. The card includes a line showing the population model at different levels of degradation. We also included custom illustrations to highlight bird species from the research region in the Amazon rainforest. Sources for this special interactive section were as follows:
Birdsongs: Xeno-Canto (sound files used under Creative Commons license)
Illustrations: Wiki Aves — photos of the bird species used as references

Technologies Used

Apache Server, Wordpress, PHP, Javascript, MySQL, Open Refine, D3.js, Mapbox.js, Leaflet, Mapbox, Mapbox Studio, Mapstarter, RStudio, Excel
Mapstarter: Mapstarter is a useful tool for working with D3.js. We used it to import data for the state of Pará and export a starter interactive map for two of the visualizations on the platform, automatically scaled to fit the geographic scope of the state. Mapstarter allows users to change dimensions, map projections, color schemes, and basic behaviors like zoom and tooltips.
Mapbox.js, Mapbox Studio: In their own words, Mapbox is a mapping platform for developers to integrate location data into any mobile or online application. We used MapBox’s Javascript API and satellite imagery, with Leaflet as well (see below) to create the first map on the page which shows pressures on the Amazon rainforest as a whole. Interaction features on this map include a legend that toggles four layers — forest fires, roads, wood extraction hubs, and Imazon's broad measurement of degradation (a precursor to the research that led to this project). With the ability to zoom in and navigate the map, the reader can compare the situation not only between the two research sites (Santarem and Paragominas) but also throughout the Amazon region.
Leaflet: A javascript library for mapping that has all sorts of features that help you put a personalized interactive map on your website.
D3.js: D3 stands for Data Driven Documents and it's another great Javascript library that is becoming increasingly popular in newsrooms for the purpose of creating interactive content. We used D3.js for the two Pará state map visualizations and for the special bird species visualization feature.
Open Refine, RStudio and Excel: All three of these tools were were also key for working with the datasets.
QGIS: QGIS is a great open-source GIS software that we used to work with vector data for all three geospatial visualizations on the Floresta Silenciosa platform. QGIS helped us crop the data to constrain it to the amazon region for the first map, and create the hexagon for the second map. We used the MMQGIS plugin to create a hexagon grid, and join the points from the original research dataset to the grid.

Project members

Thiago Medaglia - Project Manager and Editor
Juliana Tinoco - Special Reporter
Laura Kurtzberg – Web Developer
Flavio Forner – Web Design and Art Edition
Felipe Valente - Social Media
Gustavo Faleiros - Editorial Consultant
Alberto Cairo - Special Adviser (Data Visualization)
Goretti Tenorio - Proofreader (Portuguese)
Maria Bitarello - Translator

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