Stop, look, and listen

A recent column by David Alan Grier gives a mixed review to citizen science and related activities. He speaks well of the CubeSat, at standardized design for experiment packages to be designed by students and launches into space; he also likes the BOINC framework for harnessing household computers to solve computationally intense problems. But his praise for generalized crowdsourcing of research is tempered:

Citizen science may not be able to make major changes to scientific institutions, but it should be able to occupy some niche in scientific practice. As we have seen in other activities that attempt to coordinate the contributions of the general public with the Internet, these efforts have a way of disciplining work and overcoming gross inefficiencies associated with mass labor.

Mass labor, especially when it is a volunteer effort, can prove to be remarkably resistant to discipline. Volunteers are prone to follow their own inclinations no matter how much guidance a professional scientist might offer. One of the major citizen projects devoted to recording biodiversity claims to offer a global perspective on flora and fauna, but its volunteers have shown a remarkable propensity for collecting images from the world’s wealthy shopping districts and resorts. Pictures of Yellowstone can be of great interest, but they are of little use when you hoped to see images of plants found in Yaoundé.

I’m inclined to agree. Doing science is not the same thing as snapping a photo with a smartphone or checking in at foursquare. Perhaps the sweet spot for this approach is the application of what we might call semi-skilled knowledge work: trained observation and transcription. As examples, consider eBird and the related projects from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Distributed Proofreaders component of Project Gutenberg, or my own new volunteer project, the North American Bird Phenology Program.

Bird Phenology Program

Consistent with another of my volunteer gigs (with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic), I seem to have positioned myself as a wetware information transcriber. A couple of months ago I started working about an hour a week as a data entry volunteer for the North American Bird Phenology Program, based out of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Phenology is the study of comings and goings in the natural world—what day of the year the swallows return to Capistrano, the lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, that sort of thing. Decade-to-decade trends in a particular location can provide additional evidence to researchers studying climate patterns, among other things.

There are a number of phenology programs active under the umbrella of the USA National Phenology Network. One of the broadest-scoped citizen science initiatives was organized in 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, and was later expanded by C. Hart Merriam of the newly-formed American Ornithologists’ Union. For 90 years, up to 3,000 field researchers submitted data on the arrivals and departures of migratory birds in North America, in sort of an ornithological Mass Observation Project. Data was collected on 2×5-inch slips; when the project was wound down in 1970 (as other means of collecting similar data evolved), the records base comprised 6 million of them. In 2003, Sam Droege began efforts to safeguard and digitize the slips.

Many of the records are on a GPO-issued form, designated 3-801 or Bi-801; this form was redesigned a couple of times to collect different data. But many more are simply hand-written slips in a particularly compact shorthand that identifies the species (often simply by a three-digit AOU number), the location and observer, and the dates that the bird was first seen in the course of the year; seen again; seen commonly; and last seen during the breeding or migration season.

As you would expect, the transcription of this data from scanned document images into a web form is not an automatable process. Enter the volunteer scribes. It takes me 30 seconds or more to copy out a card—up to several minutes if I have to puzzle out a location name (Google Maps is my BFF) written in faded fountain pen ink in a cursive handwriting style more suited to wedding invitations. The data collection protocol also provides for observer’s notes on whether the bird breeds in the area, is a winter resident, and assessment of abundance (one point on the scale is the quaintly labelled “tolerably common”)—all that, along with any other notes made by the observer, is to be transcribed into fixed fields or free text. Each observer seems to have a different approach to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. The opportunity for transcription errors is therefore high, so each card is copied into the database twice, then compared.

There’s lots more to be done: the number of digitized cards only numbers in the few hundred thousands, so if you’re into birds or just have some spare cycles, I would encourage you to sign up for the program. You can request to transcribe cards only for a particular location or a particular species, or you can do what I do and just pull cards at random. I’ve copied slips filed from tiny, obscure places like Hadlyme, Connecticut and Rhoma, Texas; I’ve worked with a card prepared by A. W. Schorger, author of the definitive book on the Passenger Pigeon. No particular knowledge of birds is required; in fact, the procedures we follow call for a literal transcription of the record, no interpretation or corrections allowed. So even if I “know” that the common name of a bird has been changed in the past hundred years, my instructions are to copy what the observer wrote, and to let the researchers clean up the data later.

And that turns out to be a learning experience for me, too. Before I started transcribing, I wasn’t aware that Purple Martin (Progne subis) and Eastern Phoebe (Sayronis phoebe) once had simpler names in common use (Martin, Phoebe). And I had never heard of Holboell’s Grebe, which we know now as Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena).

Droege and his team have already begun to draft papers from the data, especially looking at patterns of Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) migrations. The San Francisco-area ABC affiliate put together a rather fine story on the program.

Upcoming: 14

The editors of Nature put in a good word for the Christmas Bird Count as an exemplar of citizen science.

Volunteer science is a win–win situation for all concerned. Scientists get to take on projects that would not be feasible for even the largest research group, while helping to increase the public’s understanding of, and support for, science.

But let’s not forget the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place in the more focused time period of Presidents’ Day weekend, and about which I posted last year. This year the looking and counting happens February 13 through 16.

Upcoming: 6

I really don’t spend as much time out in the field actively birding as I would like to, but I like to make time for Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count, which is held each February over the Presidents’ Day weekend. I’ve done a couple of Christmas Bird Counts, but the GBBC has some advantages. I’m in control of the when and the where—I can bird anywhere I like, for as little as 15 minutes at a time, any time in the course of the weekend. The Christmas counts have an air of friendly competition, and that’s fine, but the GBBC is more about reconnecting with your local habitat.

There is a half-mile stretch of blacktop trail along The Glade (a tributary of Angelico Branch) that I like to work for the GBBC. It’s mixed hardwoods with some open patches, so it’s usually good for the area’s common winter birds of the suburbs, including (most years) a Red-Shouldered Hawk. I can take a side trip to Lake Audubon to count geese and hope for some ducks. And this is all just a five-minute drive from my house.

Another thing that I like about the GBBC is that it provides a clearer picture of wintering populations. The Christmas counts always pick up a few stray migrants—indeed, that seems to be the big attraction, for some people.

So look for me in the field on the weekend of 15 to 18 Februrary, doing my little sliver of citizen science.

More than a cappucino

Starbucks is making strides in areas beyond finding creative, entertaining ways to separate you from your cash in its stores. Continuing to deepen its involvement with the agricultural sources of its drinks, the company is in the middle of a three-year partnership with the Earthwatch Institute supporting research into aspects of sustainable coffee production. The current project sends volunteers to member fincas of Coope Tarrazú, a co-op in Costa Rica. Using GIS technology, field workers are establishing baseline maps of resources (soil condition, water quality, etc.).

The volunteer effort supports the research of Karen Holl of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Holl’s research interests in Costa Rica include strategies for re-establishing forests in land that has been cleared for pasture.

…we have established 16, 1-ha sites in southern Costa Rica. We are testing questions about “applied nucleation” by planting islands of native tree seedlings to facilitate recovery and studying the effect of the amount of surrounding forest cover on ecosystem recovery. We are collecting extensive data on seed dispersal, seed fate, vegetation establishment, and seedling dynamics.

Also involved in the Costa Rica projects is Catherine Lindell of Michigan State University, who has published studies of habitat use by various bird species in Costa Rica.


Via Botany Photo of the Day comes word of the First Annual Blogger Bioblitz. In honor of National Wildlife Week, April 21 – 29, participants

… from across the country will choose a wild or not-so-wild area and find how many of each different species—plant, animal, fungi and anything in between—live in a certain area within a certain time.

Backpacker citizen science

Plans are underway to establish the Applalachian Trail Mega-Transect, “a long-term collaborative project to comprehensively monitor changes in the mountain and valley environments” the the famous trail from Maine to Georgia traverses.

“The Appalachian Trail’s 2,174 miles are the spine of the world’s longest publicly owned greenway, a protected home for thousands of special species and for the legacies of the eastern mountains. Downwind and downstream is perhaps one-third of the U.S. population. What happens to the Trail environment soon will happen to that environment,” notes [David N.] Startzell…. “We have a long history of engaging citizens for public benefit, and this seems an ideal way to provide many more opportunities to a broader spectrum of the public.”