Big Landscapes, Little Gadgets
With support from the National Science Foundation, NatureServe is developing a mobile observations system to gather, collect, manage, and share up-to-date information on plants, animals, and habitats more efficiently. This system, which will aid both field-data collection and online data management, holds the promise of increasing the effectiveness of conservation action.
“NatureServe is developing a system with input from a diverse array of scientists and database experts and that reflects their extensive experience,” says DJ Evans, director of the New York Natural Heritage Program. “The two most important aspects of a mobile observation system are to streamline data collection for field biologists and to be able to feed these data into higher-level database systems. NatureServe has risen to the challenge.”
The new system centers around the use of handheld devices with built-in GPS location systems. Not only will these units increase the accuracy of field mapping efforts, but replacing notebooks and clipboards with dedicated mobile devices will also enable scientists to more readily access and apply standard information while recording data in the field. Capturing observation data digitally will also increase their efficiency upon returning to the office by eliminating the need to re-enter records into their databases.
But data collection workflows vary widely, and setting up a system to support the transition from pencil and paper to bits and bytes requires an end-to-end digital infrastructure, common templates, and a lot of testing and coordination. The project team includes staff from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Natural Heritage New Mexico, the New York Natural Heritage Program, the Washington Natural Heritage Program, and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.
The project team demonstrated a prototype system during a workshop at the recent Biodiversity Without Boundaries conference. The workshop showed how this system can support major research objectives such as species distribution modeling, monitoring responses to climate change, collecting ecological data, and other existing and emerging needs for large-scale ecological observation data. The session also included interactive, hands-on data collection by participants.
By supporting a variety of data structures and workflows, this new mobile observations system will boost not just the precision and efficiency of scientists recording data, but also the pace of sharing data with biologists, ecologists, researchers, and others whose high-powered geospatial analyses drive so much conservation today.