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Blog Action Day 2012: Using the ‘power of we’ to assess freshwater biodiversity

October 15, 2012

New digital technologies can be used to promote biodiversity and conservation, but it can also be used to track, monitor and assess biodiversity in a much more open, democratic and engaging way then ever before. It can actually allow the public to generate data about biodiversity.

October 15 is Blog Action Day, a day where bloggers from around the world and with different interests are brought together to discuss and share ideas about one important global topic. We’ve participated for last two years, firstly writing about water in 2010, and last year writing about food. This year’s theme is ‘The Power of We’. The issue we’ll be focusing on for this year’s Blog Action Day is the use of new digital and mobile technologies to harness the ‘power of we’ to generate information about freshwater biodiversity. In a sense, we’ll be asking whether it is possible to crowd source freshwater biodiversity informatics.

In recent years there has been an explosion of new technologies and applications providing a range of exciting potential uses for conservation and citizen science. This is a topic that we’ve written about before here and here and last year BioFresh member Paul Jepson (University of Oxford) convened a ssymposium discussing the potential of mobile technologies (such as smart phones) to allow citizens to interact with their natural surroundings and contribute to the recording and generation of biodiversity data. Oxford hosted another symposium highlighting the use of emerging technologies in biodiversity science and conservation earlier this year. Several initiatives and apps already exist that allow any citizen with a smart phone to get involved such as Project Noah, iSpot, and BirdTrack.

These technologies can be used for any group of plant or animal that can be seen (or perhaps in the not-too-distant-future even heard), but have so far been more commonly used for tracking and recording birds. Can we apply it to freshwater biodiversity?

Photo: WWF/Michel Roggo

Think about a sunny day down at the local pond or by the stream. People might be having a picnic, going for a walk, or casting a line and waiting for a fish’s bite. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to identity all the life around you and at the same time help contribute to a growing body of information about freshwater biodiversity with just your phone? It would be great for recreational anglers, divers, water managers, or just about anyone interested in the natural world or enjoying their favourite freshwater spot.

A water strider is able to walk on the surface of the water with ease by spreading it’s already light body weight. Photo: National Geographic/John Moran.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to applying this to freshwater biodiversity is that smart phones don’t particularly like water! This can make it pretty difficult to get a good idea of what’s going on below the surface. But many fish can be spotted in shallow, clear waters, and there is plenty of life on and around the surface of freshwater areas. Of course, once a fish has been caught this also solves the problem! Even divers with underwater digital cameras could take photos and upload them to a site like iSpot.

This approach is not without its problems of course. One is that this possibility is exclusive only to those who can afford this technology. Another that has been raised is the quality of data that will be generated might not always be scientifically useful.

Nevertheless, these technologies really do open the way science and data generation can be conducted and as technology becomes cheaper it will allow the whole process of citizen science to become even more open and democratic. And it’s not always just about the science either. These technologies can be a fantastic way of increasing people’s enjoyment and interaction with the natural in world in which we live.

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