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A week of app development for positive change in the ECCE App Challenge

Students participating in the Esri Canada GIS Centres of Excellence annual App Challenge have one week to develop their app to make positive change on a given theme. This year, they built apps about Conservation and Protected Areas. 

This spring, 23 teams from across Canada eagerly awaited the email that would kick-off their week of coding, data science, and design as part of the Esri Canada GIS Centres of Excellence App Challenge. Each team of three had sharpened their skills with the suite of ArcGIS technology and scoured the internet for Canadian open data, waiting for the theme of the App Challenge to be announced.  

The notification of an incoming email acted like a starter pistol for their intense week of creativity and implementation. But what’s this? Two themes! Each team needed to make a choice: Should they choose Conservation and Protected Areas, and focus on protecting our natural environments? Or should they go with the second option of Urban Ecology, and focus on the fragments of nature trying to flourish in our cities? Or should they try to creatively combine the two themes?  


Full of ideas, the teams were off, forging their own paths. Some chose a topic and went hunting for the elusive data they needed to complete their app, while others gathered data first, and used it to define their topic. Both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. One team might have an innovative idea they think will win, but how much time can they spend looking for that one dataset they need to complete their app? In contrast, another team might come up with a simple idea after looking at readily available data, but then have plenty of time to focus on creating a winning user experience. Some teams may combine the strategies into an iterative design approach, constantly modifying and refining the topic and data over the week in an attempt to create a winning submission.  


With topics and data in hand, team members divided up the various roles involved in creating an app and got to work. The programmer, tasked with building the key functions of the app, opened ArcGIS Experience Builder Developer Edition and began developing the tools and methods the team would implement in their app. The designer, in charge of how the app would look and feel, sketched the app’s user interface and started planning the user’s experience. The data scientist, responsible for the data, opened ArcGIS Pro and began analyzing and processing the data into a format that could be used by the programmer. The storyteller, assigned to finding ways to engage the user, opened ArcGIS StoryMaps and ArcGIS Hub and began drafting their app’s narrative. Each role requires input from the others to build a fully integrated app with innovative functionality, smooth user experience, and a story that engages the user. Cooperation and collaboration between team members is essential to complete it all within 7 days! 

After much work, and with only a day left, the apps were (hopefully) complete, but the teams still had work to do. One of the app challenge submission requirements is a pitch video. They needed a script, recordings of their app functionality, stock footage, voice-overs, and potentially even some acting. Then, once all the content was with the person who took on the video editor role, the rest of the team started working on the documentation. While not the most exciting part of the challenge, this is an important component. Teams need the judges to understand who they are, what their app is, and why they made it. The documentation is also used to create the homepage for their submission, making an important first impression on the judges. 

At the end of the last day  the teams double, triple, and quadruple checked their submission to ensure all of the items were complete. An anticlimactic click of the send button and their week was over. The teams were left to sit and wonder: Was their work good enough to win? Had they missed some key component? Only time would tell as they awaited the results. 


Now the teams’ fates were left in the hands of an excellent panel of judges. From Esri Canada, Matt English, Technology Lead in the President's Office.  Matt has 25 years of immersion in ArcGIS technologies with a focus on system integration and developer SDKs. He began his GIS career at Esri Inc.'s headquarters in Redlands, Calif., and now calls Toronto his home. If you’ve ever attended an Esri Canada User Conference, chances are you’ve seen Matt’s excellent technology demonstrations on the main stage. 

From Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Dr. Andrew Davidson, Manager of Earth observation in AAFC’s Agroclimate, Geomatics and Earth Observation (ACGEO) Division. Andrew is responsible for coordinating the research, development, and deployment of operational EO-based and EO-integrated applications for Canada’s national-scale agricultural monitoring. Andrew is also an Adjunct Research Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University and is involved in many international EO programs and committees.  

From Esri UK, Addy Pope, Higher Education Manager. Addy has been a part of the geospatial industry for over 20 years and currently focuses on the use of Esri software in Higher Education. Addy works with researchers and educators from institutions across the UK and Ireland to ensure that they have access to the tools and data that they need for their work.  


After two weeks of deliberation, the judges announced their decision. With so many quality apps, selecting the winners was not an easy task. To all the participating teams, congratulations on your apps. Your made lot of amazing apps! The second runner-up was Team GIS: Gauging Impacted Species from McMaster University with their app on anthropogenic impacts such as land use change, and climate change under different emissions scenarios on protected areas within Canada. The app also recommends locations for new parks or conservation areas based on the susceptibility level, impact scenario, and park size selected by the user. 

An app in a browser with a map of Canada for a selected scenario showing high and low susceptibility to human impacts on a scale of red to green, respectively. Southern parts of Canada are generally more red while northerns parts are more green.

App submitted by Team GIS: Gauging Impacted Species, 2nd runner-up 

The first runner-up was The Tree-o from the University of Waterloo with their app encouraging citizens to engage with the flora and fauna of their urban forest. The Tree-o developed a custom mobile app for data collection along with a web app to display data, and demonstrated impressive development skills. The mobile app allows citizens to learn about the trees around them and submit tree damage reports and wildlife sightings, while the web app allows officials to track reports from citizens and use them to address the needs of their community.  

An app in a browser showing a map of Waterloo, Ontario with green icons representing trees. A ring graph to the left of the map shows the types of damage to trees that have been reported. A photo of a damaged tree from a submitted damage report is displayed to the right of the map, and a table of data from submitted damage reports is displayed below the map.

App submitted by The Tree-o, 1st runner-up

And the moment everyone has been waiting for: the winners were Team GeoJAM from the British Columbia Institute of Technology with their app on evaluating the suitability of BC lands for conservation to help Canada reach our conservation goals. 

An app in a browser showing a map of British Columbia divided into regions coloured to show their conservation suitability. A table of related data is displayed below the map.

App from Team GeoJAM, winners of the ECCE App Challenge 2023 

A big congratulations goes out to Team GeoJAM, but also to British Columbia Institute of Technology for their first win in the App Challenge in only their second year participating! Team GeoJAM created their app Conservation Suitability Explorer and an associated hub site to help Canada meet its goal of conserving 30% of its land by 2030. The app’s complementary site built with ArcGIS Hub allows users to learn about the team’s goals, their methodology, how to use their app, the importance of conservation, and how to learn more about the topic. Users can then access the Conservation Suitability Explorer where they can explore the suitability for conservation in each of the province’s ecosections. The user can filter ecosections by several parameters in order to find the best candidates for their specific interests. Each ecosection also contains a link to a detailed map of conservation suitability scores calculated from 16 datasets and over 3.7 million ecological observations. With 137 ecosystems, they had to create 137 individual maps! Hopefully they were able to automate that process. 

All submissions can be found on the ECCE App Challenge 2023 website. We recommend that you check them out to see what the each team was able to accomplish in just one week!

About the Author

Alex Smith is a Higher Education Specialist at Esri Canada. He focuses on managing the Esri Canada GIS Centres of Excellence, developing spatial data science resources and conducting research projects. He first began working with ArcGIS products in high school, but had a more formal introduction while studying Geomatics at the University of Waterloo. A fourth-year project led to a Master of Science degree focusing on the classification of land use and cover using machine learning techniques. Alex then went on to complete his doctorate at Simon Fraser University, writing his thesis on agent-based modelling and spatial statistics in three-dimensional space plus time. In his free time, Alex likes being outdoors while hiking, climbing and playing ultimate frisbee, as well as being in the kitchen baking.

Profile Photo of Alex Smith