Seed – Flower – Fruit

Alseuosmia macrophylla (Large-leaved Toropapa) from a field notebook. Pen and ink.

Alseuosmia macrophylla (Large-leaved Toropapa) from a field notebook. Pen and ink.

An almost overwhelming number of dialogues underway from government agencies to volunteers are exploring the overlay between community groups, science-based tools and data generation. If the ‘seeds’ are the groups themselves, ‘flowers’ groups’ multiple activities and the ‘fruit’ outcomes, i.e., useable, useful data, then technology might just be the ‘fertiliser’…

The genesis of this blog was a presentation given to the Waikato Botanical Society (Dec 2013). Browsing the findings from a questionnaire to community groups (sent out over Aug/Sept/Oct this year) shows that almost half of the community groups who responded (n=295) are doing grassroots science. They’re using a range of toolkits and protocols, sometimes modifying them to suit their individual needs. The bigger picture is this: with more volunteers collecting data, more opportunities open to fill gaps in our knowledge about the environment. The call is going out to groups:

“If you think of streams and rivers as blood vessels in the body, our regional councils have only enough resources to take samples at a few key arteries… we are quite keen to get community groups monitoring the veins and capillaries as well” – Dr Richard Storey, NIWA

Though some groups house their hard-earned monitoring data in notebooks tucked away in drawers, a huge number are using web-based technologies as part of their projects. Google maps, online ID guides and forums such as Nature Space are well integrated into the community restoration toolbox. A question is how technology might change the way we relate to, and understand our environment. A community group member pauses to reflect:

“…the push to find more efficient means of doing your trapping [e.g., multi-kill traps]… is that you are not going to be… doing your informal monitoring and noticing the [other changes happening]… you don’t have your finger on the pulse, and that’s a real limitation of the way some of the science is going”

There is very strong interest by groups in using apps (Smartphone applications), a proliferation of which save time and energy around data capture and/or species identification. Leafsnap, an example of the latter, is an app that provides detailed images of leaves, flowers, fruit, petiole, seeds, and bark. Automatic algorithms take a ‘snap’ of the plant part for you, and voila, you have your species identified.

Here, the learning component is short-circuited – think about the process of plant identification and it’s a subtle and complex blend of observing details both close-up and from afar, comparing plants of the same and different species. As an iterative process, you are building a visual vocabulary for that plant – its variability, colour, texture, shape, and context – landscape, likely botanical companions. While definitely an exciting process for a plant enthusiast (like me), it’s definitely not for someone with a passing interest in things leafy who simply wants to know what they’re looking at.

Will apps encourage a greater interest in the environment? Many are cheap or free to download and there is the attraction of receiving instant feedback. Might botanical societies see increased membership as a result of accessible tools that encourage and enable non-specialists to identify plant species? A big challenge for botanical societies is to look at how these technologies might grow membership and how the societies themselves could supply data to various end-users. Some tools are already up and running: fruiting and flowering observations can be logged, as can general observations of the nation’s flora and fauna.

To wrap up these musings, technology and science go hand in hand, but like all fertilizer wise and strategic use is recommended for the best results.

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