Anecdata: Collecting observations of a changing world
MDIBL’s Community Environmental Health Lab (CEHL) rolled out its new crowd-sourced mapping tool and nature journal, Andecdata, at the Acadia National Park Science Symposium April 16. The website at www.anecdata.org is a repository for students, citizen scientists and community members to report observations of our changing environment. These reports are displayed on an interactive map and can help reveal trends, inform restoration and resource management efforts, and give users a broader understanding of their environment and the changes that are occurring due to climate change and other factors.
The idea grew out of CEHL’s project at eelgrassinmaine.org, developed in summer 2013 as a way to enlist the broader public in documenting loss of eelgrass in upper Frenchman Bay and elsewhere in Maine. People up and down the coast reported — and continue to report — sightings of eelgrass and places where the plant was lost. During that time, the lab was also receiving reports from the public about changes in organisms and habitats other than eelgrass. A place to put that information was needed, and a grant from Long Cove Foundation allowed Bailey to spend the winter building a larger, more robust data portal where emerging trends could be documented.
He received input from various Frenchman Bay Partners about the type of data the site should support and features they would like to see included. Now the site is equipped with user profiles, picture uploads, organism tags, and advanced search and data filters; and more features are being added each day. The data from eelgrassinmaine.org has been migrated to the site, and new users are signing up and submitting observations.
The idea behind Anecdata is that anecdotal information, the observations made by you or me, has value. It is not official scientific data and is not necessarily collected according to a protocol or quality standards by trained scientists – those data can be found in scientific journals or on government websites. The observations presented on Anecdata do not have a place in those forums, but still contain very useful information for scientists, state agencies, students and the community.
Many of our community members have first-hand, day-to-day access to information that scientists and students do not. Fishermen, divers, Maine Guides, loggers, hunters, farmers and even the gardeners who have expert knowledge of their own back yards, have information that could be useful in answering questions, revealing patterns, and informing resource management decisions. Not all of those people make it to relevant public hearings to provide testimony based on their observations. Anecdata will give them a place to record this information so it can be referred to again and again.
The value of anecdotal information is based on the authority of the average citizen to participate in building on the knowledge of our environment through sharing his or her own experiences and observations. A public that is engaged in building our knowledge of the environment is more likely to be stewards of it. A democratic forum for sharing observations will bring about an improvement in collective understanding of our environment and has the potential to enhance communication between scientists and the public.