Crowd-sourced Data Fuels Ecoforecasts

07-06-2018

What do right whales, deer ticks, and jellyfish have in common? They are all animals for which Senior Research Scientist Nick Record can “forecast” encounters with humans — with a little help from Mainers.

Record believes that it is possible to forecast ecosystems just like meteorologists forecast the weather. A mathematician, he writes algorithms that combine weather data with animal sightings and calculates the likelihood of more sightings.

“Ecosystem forecasting is a transformative way to understand ecosystems and engage people in science,” Record said. “And the forecasts it creates are enormously valuable.”

The bulk of his data comes from citizen science, an approach in which members of the general public collect data about the natural world in collaboration with professional scientists. Citizen science has been an effective tool in efforts as varied as bird censuses with the Audubon Society to a NASA project identifying interstellar dust particles.

“There is incredible value in having people distributed throughout the ecosystem making all these observations,” Record said. “We could actually never capture this detail with a typical survey.”

The first time Record fused citizen science and ecosystem forecasting was in the summer of 2015. He heard news reports of beachgoers noticing dense aggregations of jellyfish along the coast of Maine, but realized that no formal surveys were being conducted.

Record saw an opportunity to engage with the public’s curiosity about jellyfish. He set up an email account for people to send him their sightings — and quickly received hundreds of emails. Record compiled all reported jellyfish sightings, and he used the data to develop an algorithm predicting where in the Gulf of Maine people are most likely to encounter lion’s mane, white cross, and moon jellyfish on a given day.

“I really like connecting with people who are out observing the environment,” Record said. “They have new insights, interesting hypotheses and questions, and funny stories.”

Much of the power of citizen science lies in the capacity for the general public to help conduct science — but this process also impacts the participants. Record wants to explore how his forecasting tools affect the way people make reports and interact with their environment. He will use this additional layer of data to adjust his models as needed, and he believes this process can also help shape the field of ecosystem forecasting.

“Citizen reports create a full loop in terms of the generation of science, its communication, and the movement of knowledge and information,” Record said. “I think the human element is something major that has been missing from ecosystem forecasting.”

Record sees an opportunity to tap into the broader knowledge that citizen reporters have and capitalize on the expertise that arises from group efforts. Studies show that when groups work collectively on a problem, they often perform better than experts.

“There’s something deeper that we could get out of this information,” he said. “I’d like to figure out a way that working with citizen reporters could allow us to tap into unusual things that are happening in real time, like rapid changes to an ecosystem.”

Record has continued to search for opportunities to engage with citizen scientists. After creating the jellyfish forecast, his attention was drawn to a much peskier invertebrate — deer ticks.

“I was inspired to start that project because my wife and I were constantly finding them on our kids,” he said.

Just as with his jellyfish project, Record solicits tick sightings from the public and creates a forecast for the East Coast region, from New York to Atlantic Canada. These forecasts also take the form of a “heat map,” and spawned another type of communication as well — an audio podcast.

Record cohosts “Ecocast” with the persona he created for the computer that generates his forecasts. "Kraken" delivers a holistic ecosystem report, telling listeners what they can expect for weather, jellyfish patterns, and deer tick encounters in the coming week. Kraken always ends the forecasts with a polite, “Back to you, Dr. Record.”

Currently, Record is working to forecast deer-car interactions. He envisions that, one day, drivers could input deer sightings into a smartphone application. Just as the application

Waze generates navigation suggestions based on traffic data submitted by drivers, aggregating deer sightings along a route would create real-time recommendations.

Armed with the hammer of citizen science, everything looks like a nail. Record sees the potential for forecasts fueled by citizen reports to inform people about garden pests, bumblebees, mosquitoes, and much more.

Citizen science could even play a major role in understanding global climate change. The impacts of these changes are often clearest in phenology, the seasonal changes in plants and animals. Phenology covers everything from bird migration patterns to the timing of iris blooms — phenomena often observed at broad scales by birders, gardeners, and other people engaging with nature around them. As changes to global climate progress, reports by citizen scientists would comprise a powerful tool to help scientists understand and anticipate these shifts.

“Ecosystems are incredibly complex,” Record said. “A researcher or research team naturally has a somewhat narrow view, which could be enriched by aggregating all of these other perspectives on the ecosystem.”

To submit your jellyfish and tick sightings and become part of this research, visit jellyfish.bigelow.org and tick.bigelow.org.