Mobile Observations System
With support from the National Science Foundation, a NatureServe–led team has developed 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 handheld field-data collection and online observation data management, will help increase the effectiveness of conservation action. By supporting a variety of data structures and collection workflows, the 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 other practitioners whose high-powered geospatial analyses drive so much conservation today.
Shaping a System to Support Digital Workflows
Natural heritage inventory is ripe to benefit from advances in mobile technology and computing devices. Not only should handheld units with built-in GPS location systems increase the accuracy of field mapping efforts, but replacing notebooks and clipboards with dedicated mobile devices would also enable scientists to increase the amount of time they spend in the field doing fieldwork, rather than data entry. Capturing observation data digitally can also improve their efficiency upon returning to the office by eliminating the need to re-enter records into their databases.
So why doesn’t every field scientist already use a handheld device?
For starters, accurately representing biodiversity requires large amounts of high-quality data. Programs that conduct field observations and inventories (like the NatureServe network member programs) must choose how—and where—best to collect data with limited resources. Data structures and data collection workflows vary widely, and even observation data themselves are diverse, encompassing a range of different types of records from vegetation plots and transects to confirmed absences, rare species observations, and monitoring and integrity assessments.
More crucially, setting up a system to support the transition from pencil and paper to bytes and bits is hard, and numerous elements of an end-to-end digital infrastructure are not yet in place. Key gaps include:
- Data storage and analysis systems haven’t been upgraded to support new digital workflows
- Those lucky few scientists who don’t lack electronic field forms do work without either common templates or clear processes for moving records from field forms to a database system
- Cleaning up and validating electronic observation data represents a brave new technological world.
Despite the challenges to gathering, maintaining, and distributing this data digitally, one important fact remains: knowing the location and range of plants, animals, and natural communities is essential for making informed environmental decisions. Clear and present threats like habitat loss, fragmentation, and climate change, in turn, increase the urgency and need to share these data more quickly and widely.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DBI–0547630—Improving Geospatial Data Capture of Biological Features: Development of a Handheld Tool for Field Inventory and Mapping. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.