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Symposium synopsis

Mobile computing, citizen science and conservation recording: embracing the potential of smartphones, crowd-sourcing and other web based technologies

Dr Paul Jepson – Oxford University School for Geography and the Environment

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.

How conservation is integrating citizen e-science

Iain Downie’s presentation on the BTO’s Atlas and BirdTrack illustrated how a new generation of web-based data input and management interfaces are enabling a range of scientific and engagement benefits. These include cutting out paper entry, streamlining and accelerating data verification and allowing near real time trend analysis: it is no longer necessary to wait ten years for the next atlas of breeding birds to appear.  Fiona Barclay of BirdGuides demonstrated the potential to add value to established biodiversity datasets by creating standards that enable incorporation of casual observations. She announced the imminent migration of nearly 1 million rare bird records from the bird alert services to Birdtrack.

At the core of the platform, introduced by Martijn de Jong and Hugo Niewenhuys, is the facility for citizens to upload and share observational data.   However, this has been extended with several elements that mirror the new generation of social networking platforms. One is the integration of Google maps and the facility to post images and comments into the data entry interface. A second is the ability for citizens to upload long-term personal data sets stored in older digital forms or manually from notes books. A third is a set of tools that allow users to run various forms of analysis.  The platform incorporates a forum facility that allows the community of users to scrutinize records and discuss issues of interest.

Arfon Smith described the hugely impressive Zooniverse initiative –a response from Oxford astronomers to the ‘data bonanza’ produced by increasingly sophisticated automated telescopes. They have developed a system of online projects that invite citizens to classify images of galaxies, track sunspot explosions and look for new planets. The citizen response has been stupendous. Data images have been reviewed and classified at unprecedented rates by nearly 360,000 volunteers. The ‘fresh’ brainpower of a community of enthusiasts engaging with the data and communicating online led to the discovery of a new type of object  galaxy –called a Hanny’s Voorwerp after the school teacher volunteer who found it. Natural history lacks the same ‘deluge’ of data in need of analysis (currently at least) but the Zooniverse Old Weather project illustrates the potential of ‘crowd sourcing’ for conservation recording. The project involves volunteers entering weather date from WWI Royal Navy ships logs to create a historic climate benchmark: imagine the data that could be captured in this way from old scientific, expedition and amateur naturalist notebooks! is the clearest example to date of a conservation crowd sourcing initiative. Presented by Simon Tokumine, this platform is designed to refine and enrich the rather basic data stored in the World Database on Protected Areas.  It comprises a wiki-style environment where stakeholders and other interested parties can refine and modify protected area boundaries and add image and text material to the site description.

The iSpot project takes a different tack and includes some wonderfully innovative features. Developed by Jonathan Silvertown and colleagues at the Open University, iSpot aims to engage people who have an interest in natural history, but limited knowledge or training. It helps develop identification expertise and confidence by creating the facility for people to upload photos and suggest their species identification. Other users than confirm or correct this identification.  Users who correctly identify species accrue ‘badges’ in particular groups and each taxa has ‘badged authorities’ who support and monitor the forums – a system reminiscent of earning scout badges.  The platform includes on-line identification keys to help users progress to the next level of identification and also links to specialist natural history groups.  With a geolocation for every observation and verified ID’s for the majority of tens of thousands of observations, iSpot is now beginning to contribute valuable biodiversity data to national records.

What constitutes citizen science?

There is on-going debate about what constitutes citizen science. Some argue that real citizen science involves citizens asking the questions and designing the project.  David Aanensen’s Epicollect platform supports this idea by creating an application that enables anyone to design a data recording form, collect and upload various forms of data from their smartphone, and then view spatial and statistical analysis of that data on a PC or mobile device. It has huge potential for tailored wildlife and plant surveys, questionnaires and so forth.

Kate Jones from ZSL gave sight of one of the exciting new frontiers in conservation recording – namely to add sound to the current triumvirate of specimen, observation, and image data. Her iBat project enables citizens to conduct bat monitoring transects and upload sound files to a web-platform. The identification and analysis of the sound files is conducted using crowd souring approaches already described.

Kate’s work illustrates two exciting future directions. One is the use of neural networks to analyse and categorize 3-D sound files. This creates the possibility to design algorithms for mobile apps that could automatically identify (or at least give an identification probability) to natural sounds. The second in the design of an app which enables an iPhone sound card to interface with a bat dectector.

One insight from the day was that the future progress of conservation recording using mobile devices would benefit from the development of hardware add-ons (e.g. better microphones).  Similarly, limited battery power and mobile network coverage mean that apps should develop to enable off-network capabilities – e.g. caching maps and forms – and then uploading/downloading data when back within a network range.

This overview is undoubtedly incomplete and I have mentioned little about thought-provoking presentations by Conrad Wolfram on dispersed computing and Richard Grenyer on the use of citizen e-science and smartphone technology in academia.  Nonetheless I hope it conveys a sense of what was covered in the symposium and the exciting new frontiers that advances in mobile computing and web technologies are opening-up.  Please amplify and/or correct this initial account of the current state of play and future directions by adding a comment.

Paul Jepson


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