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Published 07/05/17

Can technology improve conservation outcomes and our connectedness with nature? Warren Tomlinson ponders the new age of citizen science and online identification.

TECHNOLOGY is part of our lives like never-before. There are times when we bemoan its presence, but it is a powerful tool which can have great benefits. The development of crowd-sourcing biological data software and apps is one of these benefits. It has catalysed an expansion in biological databases and is an engaging forum for citizen scientists. 

Professional and amateur ecologists alike can now collect and submit species data to a number of websites and apps that identify and record biological data. The power of these tools lies in the combined input of many small contributions. Encouraging the community to identify and collect environmental data using technology has been recently recognised by the Victorian Government through Victoria’s Biodiversity Plan 2037. 

‘Victorians contribute to biodiversity protection through citizen science projects (such as Fungimap, ReefWatch, Birds in Backyards, Bowerbird), which collect important baseline information by assisting with biodiversity monitoring. The ever-growing use of technology such as smartphone apps facilitates the collection of environmental observations by individuals.’ 

Can citizen science replace researchers?

In a time where politics threatens the amount of funding available to undertake environmental monitoring programs. Citizen science has the potential means of filling knowledge gaps on species distributions and populations. However, community collected data will not take the place of monitoring by ecologists or researchers. Especially for specific research programs, needing detailed data that is scientifically rigorous. However, it can be a useful way for governments and scientists to engage with community. The bonus being the collection and availability of data to land managers or scientists. 

Australia’s largest publicly accessible biological database, the Atlas of Living Australia allows the records of any species within Australia to be submitted. Melbourne Water’s Frog Census app is a field guide but also allows the user to record the sound of frogs calls which are then uploaded and verified by Amphibian ecologists. The FeralScan app allows users to map and document the location of 11 pest animal species nationwide, helping land managers and biosecurity agencies to track the spread and numbers of these species. 

New ways to identify species

While opportunities for community to contribute data is growing, also is the way in which we identify species. Field guide apps such as Birds of Australia, Snakes of Australia, Frogs of Australia, Museum Vic Field Guide and IdentiFly allow the user to carry ID guides in their pocket. The amount of information on one app would previously have been within several book volumes and now has the added advantage of audio and video capabilities. 

The Victorian herbarium has created a website for the Flora of Victoria. This allows descriptions and keys for all of Victoria’s flora to be online. Importantly the website is updatable, allowing taxonomic changes or additions to be current. Online communities such as Victorian Botany or Victorian Birders on Facebook or Bowerbird allow people to connect and crowd-identify pictures or descriptions of species. These social media groups encourage persons to connect and interact with others with similar interests. 

Big ecological data

In Victoria, the primary biological database used by government authorities for administrating species record data is the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas (VBA). Historically, data was held across several databases such as the Victorian Faunal Directory and Flora Information System, which users had to pay to access. Now data is available free via an online portal or spatial datasets which can be used as layers within GIS software. 

Data comes from a variety of sources, ecological consultants, researchers, government scientists and community groups. Other biological databases such as the Atlas of Living Australia and BirdLife Australia Birdata Atlas also have data sharing agreements. Importantly data is vetted, to ensure its reliability and accuracy. The VBA allows functions for users to search the distribution of species within Victoria, interrogate threatened species records or develop species lists for a region. 

Currently, the VBA is only available as a desktop application, so field based searching and recording of data is not available. The process for the submission of data is not straightforward and the timeliness of review and posting of records can take a while. Hopefully we will see the VBA transferred to a platform for mobile devices to allow these capabilities and encourage everyone to make contributions. 

So why is collecting and submitting data important?

Data from the VBA has been used to develop habitat importance maps for Victoria’s Native Vegetation Permitted Clearing Regulations. These maps are used to determine whether habitat for a threatened species may occur on a development site and whether offsets are required. While, there is no doubt that the modelling follows best science, it is reliant on accurate species data to inform the modelling tools. Deficiencies in data mean habitat modelling does not cover potential populations on proposed development areas. Or in some instances, inaccurate records mean that habitat modelling covers areas unlikely to support habitat 

With a lack of government funding for monitoring threatened species, data collection by individuals and community groups is growing more important. Community groups are often responsible for filling the gaps in our knowledge of the distribution and abundance of species. Leadbeater’s Possum is an example of a critically endangered species, where the community’s surveys and records have helped to protect the species in logging coupes. The surveys by community groups follow strict survey methods, records are entered into an interactive map with records then vetted and resurveyed by government agencies. 

Will technology improve our connectedness with nature?

In addition to data collection, these technology-based tools offer opportunities for governments or NGOs to connect and educate the community on a range of environmental issues. Apps can be also important from a social perspective, encouraging participation in outdoor activities such as bird watching.

The Aussie Backyard Bird Count saw 1.4 million birds counted by over 60,000 participants in a week, using the app or website to upload data. 

Software which promotes active lifestyles or stimulation may help to increase public health and wellbeing, along with a sense of being ‘connected with nature’. Several editorials looked at whether mobile augmented reality games, similar to the popular ‘Pokemon Go’, could be designed so that technology users would be enticed into playing games that increase environmental knowledge and provide a connection with nature. Potentially these apps could also be used to collect and submit environmental data with opportunities to make discoveries, such as a an example of a new frog species for Colombia. The frog was first described after a member of the public uploaded a photo to the American app iNaturalist and it was reviewed by a frog researcher. 

As technology quickly develops, the way in which we identify species and then collect and manage data will rapidly change and can lead to better conservation outcomes. The challenge will be how we increase and hold the public’s engagement with environmental issues in a fast-paced technology-driven world.