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Data Visualization for Conservation

Status:Applications closed
When:2022 dates coming soon
Where:Online Course
Duration:2 weeks
Tuition:$550 (scholarships available)
Credits:Certificate of completion
Program Guide:Upon registration
SKU: G-CR-FESSB-2019-1-1-3

Course Overview

This online R course is one of a series of courses offered by OTS that explore emerging skills in biodiversity science and conservation biology. With recent and ongoing advances in the technology underpinning global data-sharing, the visual representation of quantitative data in a schematic form is fast becoming a niche field of specialization. Clear communication of research findings in an efficient, accessible, and high-quality visualization is, therefore, becoming a valuable skillset for researchers in the life-sciences, environmental fields, and for biodiversity professionals. Making information accessible in graphical format to visually convey a message is a much more powerful form of communication than using tables or paragraphs of text. The tools available to generate graphs and charts, or to map data over space and time to help communicate trends and patterns in the world around us all fall into the realm of data visualization, or dataviz 

The grammar of graphics

Data visualization for ecologists is essentially the art of presenting research findings to the target audience in a digestible format, whether in a peer-reviewed paper, conference presentation or online. Open-source scripting tools, such as R, offer powerful functionality for data visualization in the form of packages such as ggpot2, which is based on the framework of a “grammar of graphics”.  The framework is so powerful that many extensions to ggplot2 have been written to provide users with an even greater range of data visualization options. This diversity of tools is especially useful for biodiversity studies because ecological datasets are typically comprised of a complex mix of environmental, biological, and derived variables that can be difficult to represent visually and interpret using simple graphics 


The course will equip participants with a solid understanding of the dataviz field and the knowledge to produce visualizations based on different types of data in the R coding language. This course is designed for students, researchers, and practitioners in conservation science who wish to learn the extensive data visualisation tools of R 

Specifically, the course will focus on familiarizing participants with the powerful ggplot2 package and demonstrate use cases for the following packages: gganimate, ggmapsand leaflet. The course will cover the following: 

  • Important online resources for data visualization 
  • Data wrangling and the Tidyverse workflow 
  • The Grammar of Graphics and ggplot2 
  • Customising and exporting visualisations in R 

 Learning outcomes  

  • Understand the history and growth of the field of data visualization 
  • Become familiar with the various different families/types of quantitative messages e.g. time-series, ranking, correlation, part-to-whole, correlation, nominal comparisons and geographical or geospatial 
  • Understand the power and flexibility of the “grammar of graphics” used in the ggplot2 package in R 
  • Be able to design and produce custom, high-quality data visualizations in Base R and various packages and extensions in R 
  • Improved coding workflow with tidy data principles 
  • Gain experience in utilizing data visualization resources online 


Basic familiarity with coding in R. You will be provided with all the code you need as we work through exercises in class, but it will be easier to keep up if you have a basic understanding of the syntax and functionality of R e.g., how to create objects, call functions, etc. A background in biological sciences will be beneficial for practical examples and case studies. However, this is not essential.   

Further details of how to prepare for the course will be sent directly to registered applicants. 


Course Dates:  coming soon 

Sessions: 2-hour daily sessions (Monday – Friday) 

Session times: 4pm-6pm (Standard South African Time) (10am-12pm EDT)

Sessions will consist of a combination of theoretical introduction, demonstration of code, and learning by application. Recordings of the live sessions will be made available to course participants.  

Ten Sessions

Session 1 – Welcome: Introduction to the principles of data visualization and its strategic role in ecology and conservation

Session 2 – Introduction to ggplot2: The grammar of graphics and building plots step by step

Session 3 – “Tidy up first!”: ‘Tidy’ data principles and why it matters


Session 4 – The Basics: Building the basic plot types – line, histogram etc. – with ggplot2

Session 5 – Getting Fancy: Customizing basic plots e.g., faceting, themes, annotations, highlights

Session 6 – ggplot2 in Action (1): Participants create their own plot visualizations for sharing with the group for discussion and collaborative learning

Session 7 – Adventures in Space: Visualizing spatial data

Session 8 – ggplot2 extensions – a discussion/demo (basics) of html-based interactive extensions e.g., leaflet/plotly


Session 9 – ggplot2 in Action (2): Participants try their hand at visualising spatial/network data for sharing, feedback and collaborative learning

Session 10 – Time for Fun: Animating plots with gganimate. Course Wrap-Up and ideas for how to take the next steps with ggplot2


Tuition is $550 for all ten online sessions. Limited partial scholarships are available for individuals with demonstrated financial need.

If you are interested in applying for a partial scholarship from OTS, please make sure to include a letter of motivation in your application. Applicants will be individually assessed to determine scholarship eligibility. 

Please note, we enroll on a rolling basis. Seats are limited to ensure each participant receives individual mentorship.


Gavin Masterson

I like asking questions and finding answers. I am particularly interested in animal ecology, species conservation, conservation policy, economic development, and science communication. I have a PhD in ecology, four years’ experience as a specialist conservation scientist in the Gauteng Provincial government of South Africa. Visit if you want to read more about me or my research. I have in-depth experience of drafting conservation legislation and excellent communication skills in a variety of mediums. I have coded in R for 16 years, and I use these skills to consult on data science projects (industry or government) requiring data analysis and visualization. When I’m not working, I like to play games, guitar and experiment in R.


Lisa Nupen

I am based in Kruger National Park, at the OTS field station in Skukuza. My interests span Conservation Biology and Molecular Ecology, with strong emphasis on the various ways genetic techniques can be used to help solve conservation problems. I have worked on projects investigating various aspects of marine ecology, mammalian diversity, avian biology, frog and reptile population dynamics, and the floral and faunal rehabilitation of disturbed areas. My work currently focuses on conservation breeding, wildlife diseases in birds and mammals, and avian phylogeography. At OTS I have the opportunity to teach and participate in a wide range of courses, while training future conservation leaders. I find it deeply rewarding to help students build an authentic appreciation of the complexity of African ecosystems and the tools we use to understand them.

Donovan Tye

I am the Field Station and Research Manager for OTS in Skukuza, South Africa. I have spent several years teaching multiple courses for OTS, primarily focusing on invasion biology and freshwater ecology. My research interests are based in the field of savanna ecology, with a specific interest in understanding the determinants of species and trait assemblages in disturbance-prone ecosystems.