Google Earth Tour: Monarch Butterflies

Atlantic Public Media keeps experimenting with Google Earth as a storytelling tool. This time we picked the Monarch Butterfly Migration as the story. Transom asked the creative team of Ari Daniel Shapiro, Eduardo Garcia Milagros, and Josh Kurz to describe their process—the challenges and opportunities of mapping narrative. The team will be around to take your questions. Jay A

About Google Earth Tour: Monarch Butterflies

How was being involved with this particular collaboration similar to and different from the way you’re used to working?

Ari Daniel Shapiro: I’m accustomed to writing radio scripts, and using audio as my primary medium. This collaboration required me to think visually about how the audio could work in relation to the map. I had to work out which audio elements would best serve and be enhanced by the map interface. For instance, I received audio submissions from many citizen scientists across the country. I selected which ones to use in the story based both on what they had to say and their geographic diversity, since pivoting the map between places that are far apart is more interesting to watch. In addition, as I wrote my script, I added a set of accompanying stage directions – visual notes about what photos to include and what part of the map to view, and musical notes about the kind of scoring that might work in different sections.

Josh Kurz: Creating graphics for a Google Earth tour presented me with constraints I usually don’t think about. For one, there is no video so whatever motion you want to include has to be done using a sequence of images. It also meant thinking strategically about how to layer these image sequences on top of one another in order to achieve the smallest possible project size. (Note: When you watch the tour, check out the sequences of flying butterflies. Those sections were implemented by layering the visuals on the screen frame by frame.)

screen shot of google earth tour

Eduardo Garcia Milagros: The most exciting part for me was to figure out how to design the animations to match what was described in the script. It was really fun and challenging. The more I work with the programming language to create these tours, the more I like it. When I’m able to transform an idea into a Google Earth animation, it makes me really happy. For instance, animating Josh’s graphics was a healthy challenge for me, and I think those visual elements added a special touch to the tour and improved the viewer’s experience.

What did you enjoy about the process of making this tour? What could have been better?

Ari: I enjoyed fusing the academic science and the citizen science in this tour, and thinking about the best way to depict that fusion on the map. Before I started writing the script, I wasn’t sure the best way to tell the story of both the butterflies and the people. Eventually, I realized it made sense to start the story in Mexico and flesh out most of their migration journey in the first half of the tour. I concluded the tour with their return trip after showcasing a handful of citizen scientists and their projects.

I also enjoyed watching the audio come to life on the map, through iterative editorial rounds with Eduardo. I sent him the audio mix, and he would develop a section of the tour in Google Earth, and send me a file to view it. We went back and forth at least a dozen times with each section to get everything just right.

Why bother with Google Earth tours? What did this medium allow you to do (narratively, creatively) that you couldn’t have done in other multimedia formats? How did it enhance the kind of work you usually do?

Ari: Describing where monarch butterflies fly, when they do so, and the challenges they face along the way using only words and no images or maps is a challenge. The medium of a Google Earth tour works especially well here because the story is so intrinsically visual and geographic. I can also imagine a story like this dovetailing nicely with a separate set of interactive geo-data layers with information about monarch butterflies, conservation programs, and citizen scientists that users could explore on their own time.

Eduardo: I agree that Google Earth is a powerful communication and education tool. It’s important to show and explain concepts that have a geographic element. And I think we haven’t reached its limits yet.

Josh: The use of animated maps to explain concepts or tell stories is nothing new. What Google Earth offers is a set of interactive maps that tap into a vast database of information. When utilized well, I think Google Earth offers an economical way to create complex visualizations that incorporate a lot of information in a clear and presentable way.

Do you have a wish list for things you hope this storytelling tool will do in the future? Ways it will become easier to use? Ways it could become even more robust?

Josh: This tool has incredible potential to become an even stronger storytelling tool than it already is, but I think imposing limits forces you to be creative.

Eduardo: I envision more interactivity from the user side. I think that the next step is a tour that asks questions of the viewer, so the viewer can actively answer these questions and engage the interface rather than simply watch the tour.

Ari: I agree with Eduardo. At the moment, these tours are fairly passive experiences. In Google Earth, it’s possible to pause the tour or move the landscape around as the tour is unfolding, but there’s no deep interactivity that’s allowed within the tour. Going forward, I’d love to see ways for users to actually interact with the datasets.

Any final thoughts?

Ari: We set out to push this Google Earth tour to its aesthetic and narrative limits, and I’m really proud of what we’ve done. Now we’re trying to figure out how to do our next one.

About the Creators

Josh Kurz is a regular contributor to NPR as a science reporter for the shows: “Morning Edition,” “Day to Day,” and “Radiolab.” His reporting has led him on adventures exploring the science behind: bioengineering, why lobsters never age, the mystery of B-flat, and why some people hate cilantro. In addition to his radio work, he has directed television segments and offbeat science reports for ABC’s “Nightline,” Comedy Central, Fox, and Noggin. He can whistle in German and lives by the motto, “Always smell your food before you eat it.”

Eduardo Garcia Milagros is from Spain. In 2001, he finished his B.S. in Biology at the University of Murcia. In 2006, his wife received a Research Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (USA) and they moved to Washington D.C. He started to collaborate with the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) as a volunteer. In 2007, he was hired by the Botany Department after showing them an idea about how they could use Google Earth to display information from the US National Herbarium. In 2010, he and his wife returned to Spain. He has been collaborating with the Encyclopedia of Life on a variety of projects, including a handful of Google Earth tours, since 2007.

Ari Daniel Shapiro has always been enchanted by the natural world. As a kid, he packed his green Wildlife Treasury box full of species cards. As a graduate student, Ari trained gray seal pups (Halichoerus grypus) and helped tag wild Norwegian killer whales (Orcinus orca). These days, Ari is a science reporter, and he records a species he’s better equipped to understand – Homo sapiens. He uses radio and multimedia to tell stories about science and the environment on public radio and online. In the fifth grade, Ari won the “Most Contagious Smile” award.

Jay Allison, Editor and Executive Producer.

11 Comments on “Google Earth Tour: Monarch Butterflies”

  • Great site and information. Some real potential here for bringing the audience one step closer to experiencing the story.

    Hello to Ari from Kerry at Utah Public Radio

    • aridanielshapiro says:

      Thank you very much, Kerry, for your note. Yes, we’re hoping that this storytelling format helps the audience feel all the more immersed in the experience of monarch butterfly migration and observation.


  • Flawn Williams says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by the multi-stage migration of monarchs, the incredible coding that lets four or five generations comprise one round trip from Michoacan to North America and back. This Google Earth animation is the next best thing to flying along with them!

    • aridanielshapiro says:

      Thank you, Flawn! Yes, I think that’s one of the most stunning aspects of their migration — that it takes multiple generations to complete a single migratory circuit. I’m glad you were able to take the aerial journey with us!


  • Beautifully done; was this done with Google Earth Pro as opposed to the free version and if so, was it needed to produce your show at that quality level. Thanks for sharing

    • eduardo says:

      Hi, Kenneth,

      The tour was fully developed using the free version of Google Earth. Some of the geographic features were created and/or modified using a couple of GIS programs: gvSIG and Quantum GIS (both are free too). Photoshop was also used to create some graphics.
      Josh’s graphics were animated using the KML programming capabilities in Google Earth.

      Thanks for your message.


  • John says:

    This is brilliant. I intend to copy the idea for bird migrations ASAP.

  • Wow! That was so very well done – all of the graphics illustrated the discussion perfectly – and the use of Google Earth was perfect! I’m inspired (so I’m hoping that others with more skills than myself will also be inspired!) to think of how to apply the idea with a whole slew of stories in Hawaii!

    • aridanielshapiro says:

      Thank you, Michael! We’re glad that the integration of story and visuals worked so well for you. And we’d love to see what you come up with!


  • This is wonderful! Very creative and well-done. Would love to work on a similar project with my students.

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