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How to visualize bird migration data with QGIS TimeManager

A common use case of the QGIS TimeManager plugin is visualizing tracking data such as animal migration data. This post illustrates the steps necessary to create an animation from bird migration data. I’m using a dataset published on Movebank:

Fraser KC, Shave A, Savage A, Ritchie A, Bell K, Siegrist J, Ray JD, Applegate K, Pearman M (2016) Data from: Determining fine-scale migratory connectivity and habitat selection for a migratory songbird by using new GPS technology. Movebank Data Repository. doi:10.5441/001/1.5q5gn84d.

It’s a CSV file which can be loaded into QGIS using the Add delimited text layer tool. Once loaded, we can get started:

1. Identify time and ID columns

Especially if you are new to the dataset, have a look at the attribute table and identify the attributes containing timestamps and ID of the moving object. In our sample dataset, time is stored in the aptly named timestamp attribute and uses ISO standard formatting %Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S.%f. This format is ideal for TimeManager and we can use it without any changes. The object ID attribute is titled individual-local-identifier.

movebank_data

The dataset contains 128 positions of 14 different birds. This means that there are rather long gaps between consecutive observations. In our animation, we’ll want to fill these gaps with interpolated positions to get uninterrupted movement traces.

2. Configuring TimeManager

To set up the animation, go to the TimeManager panel and click Settings | Add Layer. In the following dialog we can specify the time and ID attributes which we identified in the previous step. We also enable linear interpolation. The interpolation option will create an additional point layer in the QGIS project, which contains the interpolated positions.

timemanager_settings

When using the interpolation option, please note that it currently only works if the point layer is styled with a Single symbol renderer. If a different renderer is configured, it will fail to create the interpolation layer.

Once the layer is configured, the minimum and maximum timestamps will be displayed in the TimeManager dock right bellow the time slider. For this dataset, it makes sense to set the Time frame size, that is the time between animation frames, to one day, so we will see one frame per day:

timemanager_dock

Now you can test the animation by pressing the TimeManager’s play button. Feel free to add more data, such as background maps or other layers, to your project. Besides exploring the animated data in QGIS, you can also create a video to share your results.

3. Creating a video

To export the animation, click the Export video button. If you are using Linux, you can export videos directly from QGIS. On Windows, you first need to export the animation frames as individual pictures, which you can then convert to a video (for example using the free Windows Movie Maker application).

These are the basic steps to set up an animation for migration data. There are many potential extensions to this animation, including adding permanent traces of past movements. While this approach serves us well for visualizing bird migration routes, it is easy to imagine that other movement data would require different interpolation approaches. Vehicle data, for example, would profit from network-constrained interpolation between observed positions.

If you find the TimeManager plugin useful, please consider supporting its development or getting involved. Many features, such as interpolation, are weekend projects that are still in a proof-of-concept stage. In addition, we have the huge upcoming challenge of migrating the plugin to Python 3 and Qt5 to support QGIS3 ahead of us. Happy QGISing!

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