Edgewood graduate wins major mapping contest with gopher turtle maps

Yuliang Huang sees something in the cards that others miss: he sees stories and relationships and a way to answer questions.

His passion sparked a project that landed 17-year-old Edgewood Jr./Sr. High graduated first prize in an international mapping competition this summer.

Huang mapped the locations of gopher tortoise burrows in a habitat in the Suntree area maintained by Hundred Acre Hollows Inc., a grassroots nonprofit organization that creates green spaces for educational use. The data, collected over two years, counted the number of gopher tortoise burrows in the area and collected metadata at each of the burrows to assess the health of the population.

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Huang’s map titled “Gopher Tortoise Burrow Inventory 2022” won first place in the Spatial Analysis ArcGIS StoryMaps category hosted by the Environmental Systems Research Institute at a conference in San Diego.

“I like how the maps are easy to understand, but they can give you so much information at once,” Huang said. “I heard someone say once that a map is concise but has a whole story behind it. It goes with the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. I think it the same goes for maps.

According to the competition rules, projects in the Huang category had to state the problem and its relevance, then show the analysis and results and draw conclusions based on the analysis.

In a way, the award was the culmination of all the work Huang put into learning the software package and the concepts surrounding geographic information systems as a tool for spatial analysis.

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Huang became fascinated with maps as a tool for conveying information by flipping through travel brochures and flipping through old maps, but he began to learn the software through the encouragement of his father, Lixin.

“I have to thank my father for that,” Huang said.

Detailed color-coded map of the Hundred Acre Hollows showing gopher turtle burrows by turtle age and burrow condition.

Lixin saw geographic information systems as a skill that could serve her son well in a career.

“I want him to think spatially,” Lixin said. “Most of the time (people) see numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, but not how those numbers are distributed in space. Location means something.

It also teaches patience and resilience. The actual creation of the map is one of the last stages of a project. The hardest part is gathering and compiling the data and then analyzing the numbers.

“If you think about it, if you don’t have the right data, there’s nothing you can do,” Lixin said. “You have to manipulate the data and make sure the data coming in is of high quality to get the map that makes sense.”

This first project marked map landmarks at Joshua Tree National Park and sparked Huang’s interest in creating digital maps. From there, Huang began to develop his skills.

Yuliang Huang's project measured the health of the gopher tortoise population at Hundred Acre Hollows.

For his next project, he made a map identifying bald eagle nests when he was 11 years old.

“We had just finished a unit on conservation in elementary school and I wanted to try and do a project that would make a difference to the environment,” he said.

He found data on bald eagle nests all over Florida and decided to map them. When he was 12, he created another map displaying the distribution of students on the free and reduced meals program.

The Free and Reduced Meals Program is a proxy for identifying children who live in low-to-moderate income households. According to his analysis, the poor areas of Brevard are concentrated near Palm Bay, Cocoa and places just south of Titusville.

These efforts provided him with the knowledge to complete the award-winning project.

Using techniques in a book, Huang and a team of rangers began inspecting turtle burrows in 2020 that were located at the Hundred Acre Hollows site and collecting data, such as the size and activity of different burrows.

Yuliang Huang will soon be attending the University of Florida as a freshman.  He will specialize in computer science.

The survey was repeated two years later to determine if any changes had taken place. He measured changes that included the size of the turtles, their number and the direction of their burrows. Its results helped answer questions related to the health of the turtle population.

“The number of turtles has probably increased, indicating that the turtle population is as healthy as before,” Huang said.

His study will be used as part of the Hundred Acre Hollows offer to the Commissioners to enable them to continue to lease the property and maintain the habitat.

For Huang, this award marks only the beginning of his adventure in technology. He will attend the University of Florida and plans to major in computer science.

Ralph Chapoco is a government and political watchdog journalist. You can reach Chapoco at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @rchapoco.

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