Filling in the GAPs: Citizen Scientists Monitor Local Biodiversity

NatureMapping software. Credit: Naturemapping Foundation

NatureMapping software. Credit: Naturemapping Foundation

Like the web of species within the habitats it monitors, the NatureMapping program is all about inter-connections. Fostering these connections – between groups as diverse as city planners, Audubon Society members, landowners, and schoolchildren – is a big part of NatureMapping co-founder Karen Dvornich’s job. She testifies at land use hearings, collaborates with educators, and corresponds with people as far flung as Norway and South Africa who want to know how they can start a similar program.


NatureMapping began in 1992 as an outreach component of the Gap Analysis Program (GAP), an effort of the US Geological Survey to “keep common species common” through collection of data on land cover, species distribution, and protected areas in order to identify conservation “gaps.” This differs from previous biodiversity monitoring, which had its focus on specific rare or endangered species.

To map land cover and model species distribution GAP uses data from the LANDSAT Earth observation satellite, along with data of species’ historical presence. While this data can predict where species may be found, there is often little evidence verifying whether those species actually are there, which is where NatureMapping comes in, said Dvornich, continuing education coordinator at the University of Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

Scientists rarely have the funding or numbers necessary to survey all species, but if community members, Audubon groups, and even schoolchildren go outside and record the species they see, they can fill in a lot of holes in the data, Dvornich explained. The program trains and coordinates these “citizen scientists” to collect data in their area, which can then be compared with the GAP maps. When data is laid over the GAP species range maps its overlay accuracy is 80%, validating the accuracy of the GAP maps by proving that these species are mostly located where the maps say they should be, said Dvornich.

By asking two simple questions – what do you see and where do you see it? – NatureMapping offers a model for local biodiversity data collection that can then be applied to myriad scientific and policy questions depending on the individual community’s needs, said Dvornich. With interest in many other states, NatureMapping became its own national organization in 1998. The program developed a model of local NatureMapping centers to facilitate collection and use of data, while contributing to a national database. This model is more accessible to many states that do not have the funding or capacity available to run a statewide project. Information about all of the centers can be found on the Washington NatureMapping website. These centers are also the sites of training workshops to teach the public the skills they need for fieldwork.

Data Collection Training

During “bioblitzes,” a method used to collect a lot of data in a short period of time, scientists with expertise in mammals, birds, reptiles, and other members of the animal kingdom, join members of the public to record every species they can find in one geographic area over the course of 24 hours. This is usually done on private land, which would otherwise go unmonitored due to lack of access. Beforehand the volunteers receive training in protocols of data recording and often the use of GPS. If they have access to PDAs or Pocket PCs they can even record their data using the software developed by the program. The software, purchased through the NatureMapping program, guides the user in recording all pertinent data using simple icons. For example on one screen, the user can even select the type of evidence seen – scat, tracks, nests, animal sighting, etc.

Through her work with the public, Dvornich has learned not to assume that people know how to use a compass, topographic map, or binoculars, let alone how to use a GPS device. While people find the technology attractive, they need to really understand how it works, as well as its limitations, she said. “If we really want to have an active populace involved in our environment they have to learn, they can’t just be told stuff.”

K-12 Education

For schoolchildren these skills can be integrated into a curriculum. The use of GIS requires skills in math, mapping, geography and graphing, Dvornich pointed out. In many rural Washington schools, NatureMapping has been popular with students and teachers alike. Every May, fifth graders on Bainbridge Island report the species they see from their homes and schoolyard. They can then map where the greatest number of species can be found, and chart which species have been seen over multiple years. Dvornich has seen students who feel they are making a difference become more involved in their communities. Earlier this year, students from the Waterville School District spoke at a public meeting to advocate for the protection of an area that the school has been monitoring with the NatureMapping program for the past 17 years.

In the larger, urban school districts like Seattle, Dvornich has found it more challenging to get NatureMapping into the schools. She attributes this in part to a general culture of keeping the kids inside, as well as pressure on teachers to “teach to the test.” Rather than expressing frustration over these hurdles though, Dvornich keeps focused on making it work. She would like to see greater classroom support for teachers to gain the knowledge and confidence necessary to teach these skills. This could take the form of a GIS expert teaching a lesson on mapping, for example.
Mountain lion

Mountain lion

Dvornich is also excited about the soon to be published guide called Awakening Inquiry she helped produce to help school teachers incorporate the skills of field observation into their curricula. Awakening Inquiry draws from a publication of one of NatureMapping’s partners, the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, WA. They teach an experiential approach to environmental education that coordinates well with NatureMapping’s efforts. (Read a previous Earthzine profile of the Wilderness Awareness School).

Data for Decision Makers

Land use decisions are another strand in NatureMapping’s web of connections. Katherine Brooks, senior planner for Washington State’s Pierce County, was initially introduced to NatureMapping by chance. In the early 90s, just as NatureMapping was getting started, Brooks was working on a county open space plan for the state’s Growth Management Act. She heard about a meeting happening in her building concerning open space mapping and decided to attend. There she met Dvornich and realized that GAP and NatureMapping could help with the open space plan. They kicked off with a “bioblitz,” and identified biodiversity management areas to be incorporated into the open space map. These areas have the “best remaining habitat to provide species richness and representation,” Brooks said.

Once ecologically important habitat is identified, Brooks said, Pierce County can purchase areas of land, or protect it with zoning laws. They have non-regulatory options as well. The county can give private land owners an incentive to preserve the habitat on their land with tax reductions – up to 80 or 90 percent – based on their current use of the land and its level of biodiversity, Brooks explained.

Brooks has also found that once the community gets involved and knows the species on their land, they often want to protect it. “People like to live in Crescent Valley because they like it, they know it’s kind of special … You hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw a cougar down there by the creek,'” she said of one Pierce County community. This community formed the Crescent Valley Alliance and developed its own stewardship plan to not only stop habitat degradation, but also to take positive actions to bring species back. Landowners may not realize the negative impact they’re having by planting invasive species or cutting down vegetation, Brooks explained, but once they learn what they can do, they want to help to prevent the diversity of species from disappearing from their area.

A Role in Scientific Research

With added data, the science can improve, and so the process goes full circle. Every ten years the GAP maps are updated. In Washington State, NatureMapping contributed tens of thousands of species records, or about 20 percent of the total for this “reGAP,” according to John Fleckenstein, zoologist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. That’s data scientists would not have had without the help of trained citizens and students
Citizen scientists at work. Credit: Naturemapping Foundation

Citizen scientists at work. Credit: Naturemapping Foundation

As is common with citizen science, the validity of NatureMapping data has sometimes been called into question. NatureMapping has various quality control measures, however, including a record of the individual who recorded the data, giving scientists the possibility of following up with them. Moreover, the data has value due to its sheer quantity, said Dvornich – an individual sighting could be in error, but 50 erroneous sightings are unlikely. GAP rejected only a few of the NatureMapping records that fell far outside the expected range for the species, because it was impractical to follow up on individual sighting.

On a local scale, decision makers may be voting on zoning laws for pieces of land whose habitat and species have not been thoroughly studied by scientists and probably won’t be. For these areas, argues Dvornich, at least having NatureMapping data allows for more informed decisions. “Here’s our big reality check: we have to take our best (expert) knowledge, the data that we have there, and we have to use it because decisions are being made on time frames that science does not match,” she said.

It remains to be seen though, whether citizen science will be accepted on a greater scientific scale. While GAP’s other layers – land cover and protected areas – have contributed to worldwide efforts, the species distribution layer, which NatureMapping contributes to, has not. GAP has contributed to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC)’s efforts to create a world database of protected areas, said Kevin Gergely, GAP coordinator. The WCMC is a contributor to GEO BON, the Group on Earth Observation’s Biodiversity Observation Network, as part of GEO’s biodiversity societal benefit area. Gergely said that what’s being learned from and done with species data “is an area we should explore more.”

Next year the IEEE’s International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium will have a plenary devoted to community remote sensing. This is an emerging field exploring how to integrate citizen science and social networking with traditional data sources. The organizing committee is currently identifying relevant programs to highlight, and Karen Dvornich received an invitation for the NatureMapping program. Perhaps global science will become the newest strand in NatureMapping’s web of connections.

Julia Cechvala has a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where she studied science and environmental communication. She is a freelance writer in Seattle, WA.