Memorial-founded website encouraging citizen scientists to get involved

Oct 14th, 2013

Kelly Foss

Memorial-founded website encouraging citizen scientists to get involved

What kind of research can bring the faculties of Science and Business Administration together? How about a website that gets citizen scientists to contribute to conservation, monitoring and education efforts while creating benefits for local economy and tourism in communities all across Newfoundland and Labrador?

Dr. Yolanda Wiersma, a landscape ecologist with the Department of Biology, collaborates with Dr. Jeffrey Parsons, a business professor, and Roman Lukyanenko, a business PhD in management candidate, on The website project asks residents and tourists to post their sightings of plants, animals and other interesting features of the province’s landscape.

“The data collected on the nature tracker site can potentially be used to monitor local wildlife, inform conservation policy, protect endangered species, educate students and public about local history as well as develop innovative approaches to information modeling, information management and information systems development,” said Dr. Wiersma.

The team has recently made some major updates to the site to make it more user-friendly and Mr. Lukyanenko toured the west coast of the province over the summer speaking to tourism and hospitality groups about the project, with funding from the Harris Centre.

“What really got me excited was the reception I got from people and the ideas they gave us for this project,” he said. “They believe this project is really great for tourists of course, which we knew, but they validated that idea.”

One particular idea that came up on Mr. Lukyanenko’s tour was a way to involve tourist accommodations to promote the site.

“We could have bed and breakfasts print out local observations, as they do now with weather forecasts, to let tourists know what has been sighted recently in that area,” he said.

By sharing that info with tourists, it might encourage them to stay and explore an area more, adding economic benefits to the community, and providing more data for the researchers.

“That idea was suggested on the second day of my trip, so as I continued on I pitched it to B&Bs and motels along my way and they loved it,” he said. “This connection with local economy wasn't even our idea, but everyone I pitched it to could see the benefit to them, to their bottom line.”

The team believes it could even be useful for tour operators.

“There are so many iceberg, whale and bird watching tours in the province and they could benefit as well,” said Mr. Lukyanenko. “If people going on the tours report their sightings, I think there’s no better advertising for tour operators.”

In addition, Dr. Wiersma says the project could also document other values of the community.

“It’s not possible for a biologist like myself to sample the whole island systematically year after year, but if we are recording and documenting this information in one database, and if wildlife, flowers or birds in an area ever become threatened or change, then we have a record and might have a better chance at detecting changes.

“So there’s potential for long term monitoring if there is consistency in the observations,” she added. “We are hoping that we can start to encourage some systematic observations once we work out some of the issues on data quality, which is the current focus of the research.”

Their next experiment is going to involve taking sightings that are mainly attributes – like ‘I saw a red flower’ or ‘I saw a blue bird’, and getting local natural history experts to see how closely they can positively identify it with and without a photograph to demonstrate the utility of the data.

In the future, the group would like to get funding to improve their app, to make it easier for those who wish to post their findings via smartphones and mobile devices.