Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To celebrate our first birthday, we are handing the mic over to the audience so that anyone who would like to participate will get five minutes to show off their favourite online tool, application or website that makes science online fun. To complement the celebrations, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science where a range of scientists share details about what’s in their online science toolkits. Why not let us know how they compare to the tools that you use in the comment threads?
Derek Hennen is currently an undergrad studying Biology and Spanish at Marietta College, he will be graduating in a few weeks. After he graduates, he will be working with a watershed organization in Marietta, Ohio called Friends of the Lower Muskingum River as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Derek is focused on communicating knowledge about insects to the general public through his blog, Normal Biology and through public talks. He plans to continue his insect research at graduate school in the future.
Imagine that you’re hiking through the forest one day, enjoying the weather, when you spot a gargantuan amber colored wasp on a log. You crouch down and snap a photo, but later when you get home, you realize that you have no idea where to start when trying to identify the wasp.
That’s where Project Noah comes in.
Project Noah is a community of nature lovers, where anyone can join and upload pictures of wildlife they have taken. Pictures are pinned to a map and entered into a database, they are then sorted by categories such as plant, mammal, fish, etc. Anyone can view the photos and if they know the species of organisms in question is, they can suggest an ID. Essentially, Project Noah is about crowdsourcing nature, it’s a tool for exploring and documenting wildlife, providing a platform to utilize the power of citizen science.
People from all walks of life use Project Noah, including amateurs and experts. While no one is an expert on every group of organisms, there are many who specialize on a certain group, like insects or fish, making it a powerful tool that combines many specialties. I’ve met gardeners, wildlife biologists and other students using Project Noah. The community voting system on identifications helps to sort out correct and incorrect identifications. To facilitate using the site in an educational manner, an education section was recently launched for teachers and students. This can help science teachers coordinate science projects and connect their students with nature. The site also contains some sample materials for classrooms, including lesson plans and other resources.
Since anyone can use Project Noah, it can act as a central hub for posting pictures of organisms, forming a foundation of information that can be used for further scientific study. A great example of how Project Noah can be utilised in this way took place last year in Arizona, Saguaro National Park. Here a BioBlitz was held in partnership with National Geographic. A BioBlitz is an event that takes place during a certain period of time to document as many species in an area as possible and as quickly as possible, hence the name. This concept aligns with Project Noah’s goals–people getting together to discover the diversity of an area. Co-ordinating BioBlitzes is a great way to utilize the site, even for small groups of people that visit a park.
The mission of Project Noah is to connect people with nature and the best way to do that is to connect people with their local biota. After all, it’s much easier to care about the animals and plants you can find yourself, rather than those from far-off locales. Project Noah isn’t limited to being only a website, it’s an app available for the iPhone and Android as well. In my experience, as technology improves, people are increasingly taking pictures of wildlife with camera phones – you’re more likely to have that than to carry around a dedicated camera all the times.
Project Noah isn’t the only website like this, others like iNaturalist and SciSpy exist. These sites do some things better than Project Noah, such as more open access to data, however it is the unique community feel of Project Noah that keeps me coming back. After accomplishing certain things (such as identifying a certain number of species or uploading spottings), you can receive badges, akin to Boy Scout patches, to encourage you to stay involved with the site. The structure of the site and app can feel like a field guide, with sections for looking at a map, viewing other spottings near you and the ability to view and contribute to larger site missions.
My own experience of Project Noah has been overwhelmingly positive. I use it to document species I find in my own backyard and at a field station my college owns. This has allowed me to document and database hundreds of species; I have submitted over 600 spottings. Having them all in one place helps me see ecological connections and stimulates further research. For example, I documented an insect known as the scarlet-bordered assassin bug (Rhiginia cruciata) at the field station and later discovered that it is in a subfamily known to specialize on millipedes. I have since focused on documenting millipede species at the field station and hope to research interactions between the assassin bug and millipedes.
As a science communication tool, Project Noah is one of the best I’ve seen. It has great potential for connecting people to nature, helping them to understand not only what the trees around them are called, but how they contribute to the ecology of the area. It’s exciting and empowering to be able to identify organisms that you see every day. Project Noah holds great promise for building a foundation of knowledge of organisms endemic to an area, spurring further scientific research.
You can follow the online conversation on Twitter with the #ToolTales hashtag and you can read Mary Mangan’s Tool Tale here, Dr Peter Etchells’s Tool Tale here, Alan Cann’s here, Jerry Sheehan’s here, Boris Adryan’s here, Anthony Salvagno’s here, Daniel Burgarth and Matt Leifer’s here, Zen Faulkes’s here, Jenn Cable’s here , Mike Biocchi’s here, Susanna Speier’s here, Musa Akbari’s here, Benedict Noel’s here, Chris Surridge’s here and Gerd Moe-Behrens’s here.