Friday, March 20, 2009

Help Migratory Bird Observations Fly into the Digital Age

The only complete dataset of bird migration patterns in North America is trapped in a basement — and it's going to take the power of crowdsourcing to free it.

Stored on 6 million note cards stretching back to the 1880s, the records of migratory birds were created by a network of thousands of volunteers who recorded birds' comings and goings, then carefully shipped their observations to the government.

All that irreproducible, paper-based data now sits in a basement in Virginia. Short on cash, a group of biologists is taking a page from NASA's citizen-participation playbook. The North American Bird Phenology Program is asking volunteers to transcribe all that paper into a digital database.

Avian migration is an increasingly important source of proxy information about climate change. Migratory species make their move when it gets too cold or too hot, so if they begin to arrive earlier or leave later, you can back out inferences — over long time periods — about changes in temperature. The Patuxent data, because it stretches back so far, can provide scientists with a baseline for their more recent measurements of bird behavior, so they can see how things have changed over the last century.

Jessica Zelt, who is coordinating the three-week-old effort, said that 400 people had already signed up to help. Participants who want to help go through a simple sign up and 15-minute online training, then are loosed upon the millions of cards scanned in the database as image files.

To maintain quality control, their entries don't automatically make it into the database. Each card will have to be transcribed twice — a strategy similar to that of reCAPTCHA. If everything matches, the data will enter permanent storage; Discrepancies will have to be inspected by Zelt. It's too early to tell how accurate the volunteers are going to be, she said.

Cool application of crowdsourcing. Of course if they really want it to work, they should find a way to turn it into a game.

via Wired

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