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Mobile computing, citizen science and conservation recording

February 2, 2011

Embracing the potential of smartphones, crowd sourcing and other web-based technologies

Symposium convened by Paul Jepson (University of Oxford, School of Geography and the Environment), Andy Musgrove (British Trust for Ornithology) and Fiona Barclay (BirdGuides) on 13th January 2011 at Merton College, Oxford.

Symposium synopsis by Paul Jepson, University of Oxford:

The 90 year relationship between conservation scientists and citizen observers – bird-watchers and naturalists – has improved understandings of natural systems, guided policy, and enriched and extended public engagement with nature.  This symposium provided an opportunity to place citizen conservation science in the fast developing and hugely exciting arena of what has recently been dubbed ‘citizen cyber science’.  This captures the expanding digital architecture of networked PCs, web-platforms mobile devices and digital apps; as well as the new scientific practices and modes of citizen engagement that these technology assemblages are enabling and inspiring. These practices are currently captured in terms such as:

  • cycle scavenging: utilizing the unused computational power of home computers;
  • crowd sourcing: outsourcing tasks traditionally undertaken by a company or individual to a community of users (see Jeff Howe: 2006);
  • cognitive surplus: making constructive use of people’s free time for citizen science; and
  • human computing: tasks such as pattern recognition where the human brain outperforms computers.

The day was about discussing how new technologies can enhance and extend existing schemes and identifying the new frontiers in citizen conservation recording.

Figure 1: Positioning Conservation Cyber Science

Figure 1 represents an attempt at a framework to both summarize the day and prompt further ideas and discussion.  My suggestion is that conservation citizen recording has until recently focused on a centrally organized model where citizens collect and input data into pre-defined formats and a sub-set, then participate in the cleaning, checking and verification of this data. What we are now seeing is a group of new projects that are integrating ideas of crowding sourcing, cognitive surplus and human computing, and that hold the potential to extend, reinvigorate and maybe transform conservation citizen science (read more…)

Symposium speakers:

Kathy Willis, University of Oxford: Introduction


Conrad Wolfram, Wolfram Alpha: The new era of knowledge

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Wolfram|Alpha is a new form of computational search engine which aims to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. Its goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be replied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries – allowing users to perform complex calculations through a simple query-led interface.

Simon Tokumine, WCMC:

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Through a spatial analysis of 3G data reception coverage in the UK in the context of protected areas I discuss the common smartphone myth of constant connectivity and how this should influence our outdoor mobile app design.  I also discuss 3D camera and screen technology and the opportunities the subject isolation made possible by this technology pose for the field of Artificial Intelligence based species identification and mobile taxonomy.  More information on the 3G data reception analysis can be found online

Hugo Nieuwenhuys and Martijn de Jong, Observado – a vision for a unified  data framework

Download presentation (Netherlands) and (international) are websites where citizens of the world and their organizations can record their nature observations in a publicly accessible database. Since the launch in 2004 we’ve seen continuous strong growth. Currently the database of the Netherlands alone consists of eleven million sightings, and one million are added every three months. About tree quarters of those are of birds, but our system is designed for all species. We work together with most nature organizations in the Netherlands and Belgium. (Read more)

Iain Downie, British Trust for Ornithology: Bird Atlas 2007-11: an instant publication?

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The BTO/BWI/SOC Bird Atlas 2007-11 provides a perfect example of how the web has improved the management and quality of information when running a large scale volunteer based ornithological survey. National and local atlases of bird distribution and abundance provide the ability to gauge how our species are faring under environmental pressures through time, which can help set conservation priorities and policies. Past atlases have relied on collating paper records, a slow and laborious task involving observers, regional experts and national organisers. The web has transformed this by providing data entry and instant feedback to the recorders on their own data, management modules that allow observers and organisers to maximise and target effort, and validation systems that provide several layers of quality control through automated and manual flagging of records. (Read more)

Fiona Barclay, Birdguides: The Birdguides / BTO recording app

Download presentation is Britain and Ireland’s most popular birding website, attracting 3 million hits and upwards of 90,000 unique users a month. It has a long reach within the birding community, with over 6000 paying subscribers, a newsletter which is sent to over 37,000 opt-in readers, and over 200,000 registered customers. is mainly focussed on the gathering and dissemination of rare bird news, but also has a thriving business in desktop software, books and most recently reference apps for mobile devices. (Read more)

Kate Jones, Zoological Society of London: iBats – Using smartphones and citizen networks to globally monitor bats

Here I present progress on developing a global bat monitoring programme that uses innovative tools and technologies to record the ultrasonic calls made by bats collected through a network of volunteers. These data can be then used to develop a biodiversity indicator to track the impact of sustainable development. (Read more)


Jonathan Silvertown, Open University:  iSpot

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Knowing the correct name of an organism is the key to learning about it, to sharing your observations with others and to contributing to the corpus of scientific knowledge. Un-named species are effectively invisible and impossible to conserve. Although putting names to species is fundamental to biodiversity science, conservation and education, it is a skill that is largely absent from formal biological education at all levels. iSpot is designed to remedy this. (Read more)

Arfon Smith, University of Oxford: Zooniverse: The Rise of Citizen Science

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In July 2007 Galaxy Zoo was launched by a small number of academics based at The University of Oxford.  The project asked members of the public to classify the shapes of 1 million galaxy images.  One year later, the site had a community of over 170,000 members who between them had provided over 40 million galaxy classifications creating a rich dataset that has so far allowed the science team to publish over 20 peer-reviewed publications. (Read more)

David Aanensen, Imperial College: The EpiCollect open framework for mobile collection

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EpiCollect is a generic mobile and web tool for smartphone / tablet data collection. Multiple geo-tagged data entries (eg questionnaires), along with other media available from the phone (photos etc), can be stored and synchronised with a central web server allowing multiple individuals to submit data to a project. (Read more)

Richard Grenyer, University of Oxford: Better reception in the ivory tower: academia and the smartphone naturalist

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