By Ford Cochran
National Geographic’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. Now the Society has introduced a sweeping new digital resource for turning inspiration into action.
The Global Action Atlas (accessible today in preview beta form) connects people to causes and grassroots projects, enabling those who want to do good to volunteer, donate, advocate, and share information about on-the-ground efforts to improve our planet. The goal: Help individuals find and support local initiatives tackling some of the major challenges that face human societies and natural systems all over the world.
National Geographic Chief Cartographer and longtime colleague Allen Carroll leads the team that created the Global Action Atlas, which has been under development for more than a year. I spoke with him about the atlas–and his hopes this Earth Day for how it might make our planet a better place.
National Geographic Chief Cartographer Allen Carroll
What prompted you to create the Global Action Atlas?
The idea came from the Society’s mission statement–“Inspiring people to care about the planet”–and the conviction by myself, colleague Frank Biasi, and others that we have a responsibility and an opportunity to turn inspiration into action. Frank had been talking about a projects atlas for a while. That became the Action Atlas.
Photo of elephants in Mali by Carlton Ward
The idea: Thousands of organizations all over the world are doing amazing work. There are almost limitless important, local, on-the-ground projects. We could collect those efforts, share them with a global audience, and give them opportunities to take action.
Donating, obviously. And volunteering. Sharing information. Becoming a fan and spreading the word via social networks. Joining organizations.
Once the idea took shape, how did you turn the atlas into a reality?
With a lot of help! We got early support from World Vision, and with them we created a prototype that helped prove the concept. Then we did something really smart: Got the word out to a few dozen organizations–including the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Save the Children, the WILD Foundation–and asked them to participate on a trial basis. National Geographic’s own research and conservation projects will also be represented within the atlas. That gave us early momentum.
We got an amazing response. We had always felt that National Geographic was a logical convening organization, and that was proved over and over as more non-profits came on board. They were excited about the concept, they told us, and excited that National Geographic was doing it.
Photo of Ugandan villager by Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps
What were the largest hurdles you had to overcome?
Technically, it’s been surprisingly simple. We’re using Microsoft’s Bing interactive mapping platform. Icons on a map link to information about action opportunities.
The real challenge was figuring out how to vet lots of organizations so we could bring the atlas to a truly worldwide scale, and the nuts and bolts of taking donations. So we partnered with GlobalGiving, which does a great job of vetting non-profits and receiving and processing donations.
How does a person use the new atlas?
There are several ways to explore and discover projects of interest: There’s a rotating list of featured projects. People can search by place name, subject, keyword. They can browse themes and sub-themes. And of course, they can find and view projects on an interactive map.
The information you see on every project’s profile page–summaries, project goals, media galleries including photographs and video, blogs–comes from the organizations that are doing the work. People can follow the projects they care most about and become fans of them, share them through Facebook and other social networks. They can find other projects from the same organization, or similar projects by theme.
The atlas gives people a place to make targeted donations and track the progress. Participating organizations must update project summaries at least once a quarter, so there’s a record of progress and ongoing feedback on how donations get invested.
What about people who want to share news of their own philanthropic projects through the Action Atlas?
Our “About” page has information on how to participate, with a link to an online application form. Participation is free. We’re sustaining the atlas by retaining a small fulfillment fee when people donate, which is split with GlobalGiving and covers the costs of operations and maintaining the website. We’re transparent about this fee, and donors can choose to make an incremental contribution to cover it, or have it deducted from their donations.
We think the Action Atlas will be of particularly great benefit to small organizations without the marketing capabilities and global reach of the largest philanthropies. For international organizations, there’s an additional upside: By donating through GlobalGiving, U.S. donors get all the tax benefits of contributing to a registered domestic charity. GlobalGiving disburses funds monthly to all the participating organizations with notes on how much was contributed to each of their projects.
Now that the Global Action Atlas is live for preview by the public, what comes next?
We have no firm date yet for emergence from beta–it’s very much a process of continuously ramping up. We also don’t see the atlas as a stand-alone website. We hope and plan to have mobile apps, plus access to projects via other mapping platforms and websites.
I was at some of your earliest presentations on this, and have watched the Global Action Atlas come together over the past year. From the outset, you’ve been a passionate champion of the concept.
I know. I’m incredibly excited. My hope and basic motivation is this: I feel that there are huge challenges all over the world right now. We’re in a neck-and-neck battle for sustainability. We aren’t going to win that battle unless a large number of people get personally involved. This is a way of helping to make that happen.
One day, I want my kids to be able to say, “My dad did what he could.”
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Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.