Sudden Oak Death has taken down tens of thousands of trees in fourteen counties statewide, from Monterey to Humboldt. But how can researchers predict where else it will spread? “Hopefully, it’ll be limited to the coast, but still, that’s the entire West Coast,” said Katie Palmieri of the California Oak Mortality Task Force. “And there are susceptible areas on the East Coast, too.”
There aren’t enough scientists and funding available to comb every inch of every forest in search of P. ramorum, the pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death. But some researchers hope that with the help of new technology, they’ll be able to harness the power of citizen science to fill in the gaps and map the spread of the disease.
OakMapper.org launched in 2001 with a relatively small but devoted following. The site, created by Maggi Kelly, a geographer at UC Berkeley, allows people to report trees that appear infected with P. ramorum. In the beginning, some users actually faxed maps with their approximate location to the Kelly lab. The entry would then pop up on a map, marked as a citizen report, differentiating it from an official report.
About a year ago, Oakmapper released a smart-phone application that allows hikers to immediately report the disease. They don’t have to bother with coordinates; GPS tracking takes care of that. Kelly said the application is catching on faster than the site did, with a few new downloads every day. “The data on the site [along with official data] is used to forecast where the disease will spread,” Kelly said.
Inspired in part by the US Geological Survey web site that allows people to report minor earthquakes, Kelly thought that by lightly training a concerned citizenry, scientists could rapidly increase data collection. “What we really needed was a pair of eyes and a camera,” Kelly explained. “I thought there would be lots of people out there hiking and biking and finding the disease.”
Kelly estimates that Oakmapper has about one hundred dedicated users, in addition to the more official data the site also collects. According to Palmieri, even though Oakmapper doesn’t offer a complete snapshot of the infestation, the information does help homeowners learn how to contain the disease and protect their property. “Some of the citizen science stuff is pretty darn good,” Palmieri said. “We can’t be out there in every part of the forest.”
The citizen science approach to gathering data takes advantage of the moderately trained, willing masses. Perhaps the best example is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which attracts thousands of devoted hobbyists every year. The data collected by the count is used by biologists to track fluctuating bird populations. Then there’s eBird, a web site created by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology with the Audubon Society. The site allows people to log on and report bird sightings; it conveys easy-to-read data about myriad species in counties nationwide.
Other, newer groups that take advantage of citizen labor include What’s Invasive Community Data Collection, a web site and smart-phone app that allows people to report weeds; The California Roadkill Observation System, which allows drivers to report roadkill — an important indicator of migrating patterns, as well as a serious driving hazard; and iNaturalist, a site that allows nature lovers to report things like their favorite bird-watching spot.
“One of the things we discovered, before we created the site, was that no one really knew what was happening” with roadkill, said Jim Quinn, co-creator of WildLifeCrossing.net. “It was all anecdotal.” Quinn also directs the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis. He said the site, which launched in 2009, has between five hundred and six hundred regular contributors, plus thousands of one-time or anonymous users. The information collected through the site is used by Caltrans to build better fences, or in some cases, to plan larger-scale overpasses or tunnels for animals migrating across highways.
Still, the citizen-science approach has its drawbacks. WildLifeCrossing.net grapples with identification errors; the site asks contributors to include a photo of reported roadkill, though for obvious reasons, this doesn’t always happen. “If we get something interesting, like a dead mountain lion, or something rarer, we might alert biologists or experts in the area — someone we trust 100 percent to validate the sighting,” Quinn said.
Data collection errors are also problematic for Oakmapper. Though the site provides easy ways to detect infected trees, Kelly admits she cannot vouch for the quality of the data.
Another potential pitfall is the inexactness of GPS technology in smart phones. Users of WhatsInvasive.com can download an app to report invasive weeds in parks — the GPS coordinates, time of day, and type of weed are immediately uploaded to the server and can be viewed by visitors to the site. But depending on the terrain and the time of day, the coordinates can be up to thirty feet off, according to Eric Graham, the associate development engineer at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing.
Still, the site affords park rangers and environmentalists a relatively accurate map of invasive species. The first park to test the technology was the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. After spending thousands of dollars and a lot of time tracking invasive plants, the park teamed up with WhatsInvasive.com to get hikers and visitors to report weeds. All a hiker needed was a list of plants to watch out for and a smart phone. “They had spent a crazy amount of money hiring people to walk the park and find weeds,” said Graham. “It took two years to get the data, and by then it was out of date anyway.”
Ken-ichi Ueda developed iNaturalist with a couple of classmates while getting his master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He sees his site as a tool for a movement that has existed forever. INaturalist is also coming out with a smart-phone application. He said citizen science web sites will play a vital role. “There aren’t enough scientists in the world to collect all the data we need, to track species loss and invasive species. … And there are so many amateur conservationists in the world recording these observations anyway.”