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Speaker synopses

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

The key to our success is the focus on the volunteers that submit their sightings. We provide an easy and fast system to submit sightings, direct feedback, quality assurance, open and publicly accessible data, safe storage and tools to view and manage that data. The users remain in control of their own data. This is essential for a community effort like this. Without the 50.000 volunteers it would be impossible to build such a large database with diverse and current data.

Mobile applications make it tremendously faster and easier to collect biodiversity data. A large share of the sightings is already submitted to us with smart phones, and this is rapidly rising. We have a great Windows mobile app but this platform is in decline. To cater to the needs of other smartphone users we have an HTML5 app. HTML5 enables web applications to be used offline and use the GPS. A big advantage is that these apps are platform independent. However, they can’t record or store sounds, use the camera, or store maps offline. Use outside of 3G coverage is limited. There are native applications in development for both Android and iOS, who have the largest smartphone market share by far. These apps won’t have the limitations of HTML5 and will provide a better user experience and help to reach a wider audience.


Iain Downie, BTO: Bird Atlas 2007-11: an instant publication?

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. All this while still providing lower overall operating costs. The validation systems allow up to the minute records to be converted into data for provisional mapping and analyses, further helping to target effort and providing the observers with tangible, and rewarding, evidence of their work within a national context, as well as most likely speeding up the final publication process. The positives far outweigh the negatives, but it should be noted that typically providing an online system of this magnitude results in higher start up costs, a longer lead-in time (of a more IT nature too) and also the need to be ‘enterprise capable and scalable’ to cope with the volume of users and data. Mobile devices have not yet been utilised in the Bird Atlas 2007-11 or other BTO organised surveys, but it is likely that they will provide options in the future, since they are becoming more common place, in particular smartphones with GPS and database connectivity features. However, their utilisation will be additional to existing normal web applications. The fast moving and volatile smartphone market-place does make it difficult to commit resources, and any platform that is selected will more than likely need an organisation to expand its IT portfolio in some way. Excessive development (e.g. covering two phone platforms: iPhone, Android) may well negate savings in other areas with minimal ‘value’ (e.g. data of a useful nature) coming from these add-on tools. Still, there are clearly opportunities that can be grasped if the development is affordable: casual sightings can be easily collected using phones that top-up more structured surveying techniques, location data can help identify where to survey, training tools and identification guides/maps can assist with recording quality, voice recognition can speed up and make recording easier, and perhaps in the future, call and photo recognition will confirm species presence/absence. In summary, mobile technologies can assist with recording and engage observers, but it may be some time before they can replace traditional and structured surveying.


Fiona Barclay, BirdGuides: The BirdGuides / BTO recording app 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.

BirdGuides has recently formed a partnership with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to ensure that the large amount of bird news it gathers and moderates is used in the most appropriate scientific way. All BirdGuides data are freely given to the BTO, including news that we might otherwise suppress (eg rare breeding birds), photographic records and news that we consider too common for broadcast through our channels. This has added a significant amount of data to the BTO’s records.

Recently BirdGuides has been working on a new iPhone app that will effectively interface with BirdGuides existing site to deliver news in a slick and attractive way, as well as allowing people to record the birds they see and share that data simply with BirdGuides and the BTO. This app will be constantly evolving with the technology, to allow ever-simpler collection of data, and a range of tailored survey techniques to be carried out with the aid of the device. It is hoped that this app will be enlarged to cater not only for birds, but also a range of other taxa commonly encountered by BirdGuides’ customer base, such as odonates and lepidoptera.


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

Concern about the global decline in biodiversity, the degradation of ecosystem services, and the combined impact on people gave rise in 1992 to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and a target ‘to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national levels as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth’. The global community’s spectacular failure to meet this target in less than 3 months time is partly due to lack of knowledge about the effects of global change on ecosystems and services and how to mitigate this. There is a lack of measurable indicators of global change at all levels. Looking forward from the 2010 target, it is now essential for both the scientific and development community to develop joint targets that are specific, time-limited, and achievable and that can be quantifiably measured. Currently, quantifiable biodiversity monitoring data result from programs that vary in geographic coverage, methodology, length and species coverage. Previous effort has been focused on monitoring populations of a few taxa (e.g., birds and butterflies), due in part to the availability of data and lack of suitable monitoring tools. Here I present progress on developing a global 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.


Jonathan Silvertown, Open University.  iSpot

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. It is pioneering in its approach to supporting learning across the boundary between the informal and formal, using a combination of social networking, informal access to expertise, and accredited learning opportunities. Users share their observations and get help with identifying what they’ve seen, building up reputation as they learn and make good identifications. An enthusiastic and helpful group of experts from more than 40 natural history societies and organisations help people turn a casual interest in to a lifelong learning journey. Anyone can browse iSpot, but you have to register (free) to contribute. Users upload a photo of an organism they’ve seen and record its geographic location using a Google map. They give the organism a name if they can.  (Names are validated using the UK species dictionary curated by the Natural History Museum.) The photo is then displayed on the iSpot home page where other users can agree with the identification, attach a comment, or add a revised identification. This typically happens within minutes to hours. Currently we have 8,500 registered users who have between them made 35,000 observations of about 3,500 species, including two that have not been recorded in the UK before. Apps for mobile phones are being developed to enable iSpot to be accessed in the field.

A key feature of iSpot is its unique reputation system, which is both sophisticated and simple to use. Every user has a reputation score for each of eight major groups of organisms (e.g. birds, mammals, plants, etc) plus a social score. Users’ names are displayed showing only the dimension of their reputation that is relevant in the current context (e.g. bird reputation when commenting on a bird observation, or fungus reputation when agreeing with a fungus identification). Experts in one group of organisms (say, birds) can easily be beginners in other groups (say, amphibians) and thus everyone is a learner. Reputation points are gained by making an identification that is agreed with by another user, weighted by that person’s own reputation. Known experts have been seeded with high reputations. This reputation system helps recognise, motivate and reward learning.

iSpot also provides keys for the identification of a range of taxa that are available from the website and from web-enabled mobile phones. iSpot keys use a Bayesian algorithm to attach probabilities to a list of species that might be seen.  The location of an observation may be cross-referenced with distribution maps in the National Biodiversity Network’s database to weight the list of species likely to be encountered by a user, thus making it easier for beginners to arrive at the right determination. New keys can be created using images in iSpot’s ever-growing library, combined with data matrices of traits X species. We are keen to hear from experts and enthusiasts who would like to create their own iSpot keys.

iSpot is supported by the Big Lottery Fund for England as part of the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project.


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

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.

A motivations survey of 20,000 of the Galaxy Zoo community showed that the primary motivation of the community was to provide a contribution to real research.  With this in mind the Galaxy Zoo team have gone on to create ‘The Zooniverse’, a home for web-based citizen science research.

With a community heading towards 400,000 strong and with 8 live projects The Zooniverse community of ‘citizen scientists’ are classifying craters on the Moon, spotting solar storms, finding extra-solar planets and helping to understand how the Earth’s climate is changing.

With web-based citizen science still in its infancy, researchers are only just beginning to understand how to best utilise the unique abilities of the human brain.  It is clear however that in the future a combination of human and machine classifiers will need to deployed to tackle the largest datasets.  In this talk I review the successes of The Zooniverse and speculate on the future of citizen science.


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

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.

The website allows anyone to setup a project, specify the type of form fields they would like to collect (ie text / dropdown lists / check boxes etc), load their project onto multiple phones (Android and iPhones) and start collecting data.  At the project homepage all data can be viewed and downloaded using Google Maps/Earth along with charting of variables and filtering. Data connectivity is only required when loading a project or synchronising data meaning collection can be undertaken in remote areas. Furthermore, data can be sent to any server, not just that located at, allowing existing web-based databases to accept entries collected via smartphones.

EpiCollect is being used for projects ranging in diversity from cataloguing archaeological dig sites, biodiversity surveys, recording of street art and animal and human disease surveillance.

I will demonstrate setting up and starting a project using and show some real world use cases focussed on crowdsourcing and the potential for further engagement in biodiversity data collection.  I shall also detail a newer version of EpiCollect which allows more complex projects to be undertaken using linked forms, enhanced validation and skip-patterns along with access to other media on the phone such as video, sound clips and barcode scanning.

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