From whales to waste: Costa Rica’s community residents apply geospatial technologies to solve local problems

By Amy Work, Anne Haywood

What can we do that will change our world, not only for today, but for future generations?

GIS educators Anita and Roger Palmer have been living the answers to these questions for years, as they trained teachers and students worldwide on the community applications of geotechnologies. Through their work in Costa Rica, they found a place to seed a new idea: helping entire communities envision sustainable development. With the help of several innovators from the business community in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica, they created the nonprofit organization, Geoporter, in 2012.

Through Geoporter, which stands for Geospatial Educators’ Opportunities for Partnership Outreach Research and Training, professional geospatial educators work hand-in-hand with communities to tackle local challenges with the help of geospatial technologies.

“This all started out as a few GPS workshops for ecotourism safety and use of GIS lessons in the schools. It has grown over the last 2.5 years into five independent community organized projects,” Anita said.

The first community director, Amy Work, brought her skills as a geospatial educator in U.S. high schools, community colleges and universities to Bahia Ballena, where she educates and trains business owners, community leaders, teachers and youth in the small coastal community. Together, the residents are learning and applying geospatial technologies to map and investigate their community. 

The Whale’s Tale is a natural formation pointing back to Bahia Ballena. (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Orozco, local guide in Bahia Ballena and a Geoporter member)

Bahia Ballena is a unique community — the gateway to Marino Ballena National Park, one of the first marine protected areas in Latin America. Tourism related to marine life in the park is the primary income generator for the area. In this community of 3,000 residents, more than 200 individuals have participated in a Geoporter activity or event using GPS and GIS to map and analyze data. Support for the use of these platforms comes from Geotecnologias S.A, in San Jose, Costa Rica.

The resulting maps from the various community projects have been presented to community organizations and local government agencies to assist decision makers in the process of making not just smart decisions, but informed ones. Through the use of geospatial technologies and analysis of their data, the community has been able to take action in a new way, and implement new, better decisions for its future.

Start somewhere

If one isn’t sure what power geospatial technologies can unleash, where does one begin? Geoporter started small, with issues of interest:  humpback whales, the Clean Streets, Clean Waters initiative, and the coastal schools.

Aye aye Captain, humpback whale ahead!

Tourists from around the world come to Bahia Ballena in hopes of seeing humpback whales, which migrate to these ocean waters 10 months of the year from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Boat captains and tour guides, who take tourists out daily to spot the humpback whales, have learned how to use GPS to map the sightings.

Back on land, they map and analyze their collected data with the assistance of a local Geoporter staff member hired by the project. With six seasons of data collection, guides and captains are examining and exploring seasonal variations in the number of whales, the timing of their arrival and departure, the number of sightings inside the park and ancillary datasets such as sea surface temperature. 

This map shows the total whale, dolphin and turtle sightings collected during humpback whale seasons by Bahia Ballena boat captains and guides starting in August 2012. The two humpback whales seasons correspond to the northern and southern humpback whale pods. The southern pod visits the coastal waters of Costa Rica from the months of June to September. The northern pod visits from the months of November to April. (Geoporter Photo)

Changing attitudes about waste

Residents of Bahia Ballena have seen first-hand the impact of street litter making its way into the ocean, the habitat and home of not only humpback whales but various species of dolphins and turtles, and thousands of species of fish that inhabit the corals. In order to protect the marine habitats, residents wanted to better understand the source of the trash, to prevent it from traveling less than 2 kilometers from the community into the oceans. With an average annual rainfall of 150 inches, when it rains, it pours, making the journey to the ocean quick.

Using a mapping methodology developed by residents, trash along the streets is collected and sorted into one of 16 categories — candy wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic bottles, etc. — every 24 meters.

The result, over years, has been a trash map of the community that highlights existing and shifting areas with the greatest concentrations of trash, with specific actions needed to solve the problems having been identified. For example in ten days, 1,100 candy and food wrappers were collected in front of the elementary school and between two super markets. Eight hundred fifty cigarette butts, equivalent to 42.5 packs, were found in a 48 meter segment in front of bars and restaurants. 


Through work with the local government and schools, new trash and recycling centers have been placed at strategically identified locations, and educational campaigns using stickers and signs stating “Yo No Tiro Basura” – “I don’t litter” —have helped to change attitudes about waste management. A video using local photographs to highlight the beauty of Bahía Ballena, and how it is affected by the trash that is left behind, was showcased in front of 5,000 tourists during the Annual Festival of Whales and Dolphins.

“I don’t litter” signs are posted around town to raise awareness among locals and tourists. (Geoporter Photo)

Coastal schools

Youth hold the key to the future, and the adults in Bahia understand this. Engaging youth to explore their community with geospatial technologies empowers them to make a difference now and in the future. 

From the start, Geoporter has worked with two K-6 schools, Escuela Verde and Escuela La Flor de Bahia, integrating GIS into classroom content and participating in the Clean Streets, Clean Waters initiative around their school. This year Geoporter is expanding into the neighboring town of Uvita to work and collaborate with Forjando Alas, a before- and after-school program for youth at the Escuela de Uvita.

Working towards a goal of building ocean guardians, individuals who take action to help protect the ocean, youth at Forjando Alas have decided to map the trash in their town of Uvita in order to analyze and decide where to place new public trash cans, similar to those in Bahia Ballena. In recognition of the youths’ efforts, Bodhi Surf, a local surf school, is volunteering their time to teach the youth to surf.  

Next, Geoporter volunteers plan to work with local restaurants and residents on effective trash disposal. They will survey restaurants and businesses regarding their willingness to reduce their use of Styrofoam and plastic. 

Geoporter Assistant Luz Badilla Cordero and Director Amy Work talk to youth after a GPS trash collection.(Photo courtesy of  Mellisa Rejeb, photographer)

Next steps

With experience using geospatial technologies in the initial Geoporter projects, community members have expanded their wish list of future community projects, including two new projects that seek to address the need for clean water and protection from coastal erosion.

Other communities in the Peninsula de Osa

An expansion of Geoporter’s work into neighboring communities has already started, with guides inviting other guides to join workshops, with support from organizations with similar community development goals. The Osa and Golfito Initiative and the Caminos de Liderazgo Project, under the supervision of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, have supported workshops for the communities of Rancho Quemado, El Progreso and Bahía Drake. These communities are currently identifying methodologies for community monitoring using geospatial technologies.

Contaminated water

In one of the newest projects, Geoporter volunteers are identifying locations where gray or black water from homes and businesses is entering directly into the natural environment. Residents know that after a heavy rain, or during the rainy season, these contaminated waters travel from the community to the ocean.

Working with the local water authority, ASADA, Geoporter helped with an initial project to map two key locations where smells coming from the culverts led residents to suspect contamination. This isn't the first time these locations have had problems with contaminated water. In 2014, a small group of Geoporter volunteers mapped the streams in town so that data would be available for emergency purposes, and did exploratory work on potential pollution spots. 

This Aguas Contaminadas Map highlights water routes and contaminated water sites.(Geoporter Photo)

Urbanization plans and recent development on unoccupied land in town are driving residents to take action now, before it is too late. Leaders from ASADA, the Ministry of Health, the Ebais, a local health clinic, and the Development Association are organizing and identifying solutions to monitor gray water in the community using GPS and GIS.


Strong ocean swells have changed the shorelines in town and development is modifying wildlife habitats. Seeing these changes, some community members are joining existing Geoporter volunteers to collaborate with other local and national organizations to use geospatial technologies in a reforestation project in Bahia Ballena. They will identify the locations where seeds are collected and determine locations that need reforestation. They will also assess the space requirement for materials and trees, so that volunteer time and resources are not wasted by planting trees too closely together. Finally, the community will map where the new trees are planted.  

Teach a person to fish, feed them for a lifetime

“I think what we have accomplished so far has been helping a vibrant community take action with information generated using geotechnologies. Citizens are working together in new ways, to help each other succeed in making their community sustainable for future generations," Roger explained. “I hope we are finding ways to enhance a community of leaders that won't really need us in time. Our goal is that they will continue gathering and analyzing data to make sustainable long-term choices for their amazing home. I think that Geoporter is well on the way to achieving that goal.”


To learn more about Geoporter and how you can get involved, go to

Whale Maps:

Clean Streets, Clean Waters:

Published Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Written by Amy Work, Anne Haywood

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