Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Data Management Platform for Supporting Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships in Citizen Science

A recent publication by the General Administration Office (GAO) (Open Innovation Practice to Engage Citizens and Effectively Implement Federal Initiatives) sends an important message to Citizen Science (CS) organizations: public agencies will soon be knocking at your door, seeking to partner up with your organization, motivated by the need to achieve greater impact by enlisting CS enthusiasm, knowledge and resources.

Such partnering opportunities face significant challenges, driven by differences inorganizational cultures, both technical (e.g., reaching agreements on protocols) and administrative (e.g., project scheduling and reporting). Assuming that a common vision and an action plan are in place would leave the protagonists with worrying about the tools that would make the partnership work. Since the most valuable outcome of the partnership is data (and the knowledge that comes with it), it is obvious that a system for managing data is key for success.  To address this challenge, we at myObservatory offer a solution that combines the myObservatory Environmental Information Management System (EIMS) with an Enterprise Manager (EM), or in short myO/EM.

The vision that guided us at myObservatory (myObservatory.org) in developing myO/EM led to this outcome:  
(1) myO/EM allows the partners to pursue a well-defined set of common-core, coordinated activities, and at the same time, and in addition, allow each of the partners to pursue their particular agenda.  
(2) myO/EM maintains the highest professional standards in all aspects of the data acquisition process, including field data acquisition, documentation and quality assurance, reporting, integrity of the data base and compliance with data management requirements set by relevant public agencies.

myObservatory is documented extensively at myobservatory.org. So I will focus here more on the EM component. myO/EM is designed to face the challenges of a multi-stakeholder collaboration by supporting common-core activities while at the same time enabling each of the partners to pursue their own programs. Using the EM component, the group coordinator can manage projects and members; disseminate instructional material and guidelines; assimilate authorized data from the common core areas and analyze it using statistical and graphical tools; set standards for all common activities starting from field methods all the way to data labeling; create and share forms; monitor compliance of partners with set project guidelines; devise and implement quality assurance measures; generate reports; analyze trends and set alerts; and manage compliance with data management guidelines that could be mandated by funded projects.

myO/EM controls who can do what and when with any subset of the data following user-provided guidelines. It queries questionable data entries. It maintains the integrity of the database (including chain of custody, keeping records of edits and reversing unwarranted changes. And it also makes sure that data does not go out the door as people come and go. It maintains professional backups.

Quality assurance (QA) is at the heart of any project, and particularly so when facing a broad diversity in user skills. There are several types of errors that we cover in myO/EM: grammatical errors, physical plausibility errors, and out of range errors.  Grammatical errors mean, for example, writing 1.a3 instead of 1.03. QA means catching this error and alerting the parties entering the data and those managing it. Errors in physical plausibility means entering values outside of the range of acceptable values for a certain parameter. This could mean, for example, entering 17 for pH or a negative value for rainfall. Identifying data that’s out of range means identifying trends in data and detecting data entries that could be potentially, out of range, but could also be real. When you have multiple organizations involved, a trickle of data entry errors could become an avalanche, so it must be controlled at the source. Questionable data entries must be identified at the source. The myO/EM platform has built-in automated QA analytical tools that would flag questionable data as soon as it is entered. This has significant cost savings: you do not want an army of data checkers poring over data the days before a major report is due, scrambling to come up with corrections.   

myO/EM assists users with implementing new functionality that could be used by the entire community of partners. This could include, for example, selecting technological solutions (on both the software and hardware sides). Technologies, whether developed in-house or imported, could be managed through myO/EM. A technology platform that is commonly used opens the door for negotiating favorable arrangements with external suppliers, anywhere from purchasing sensors to developing solutions for managing legacy data.  

In addition to supporting the common-core activities, the myO/EM tools mentioned above are also available to support the partners’ independent activities residing outside of the common core. For example, there could be a set of forms that could be used by all partners in support of common-core activities, and there could be others that are owned and used by any subset of the partners, one or more, with or without sharing. The independent and common-core work areas are firewalled.
Let us not forget what motivates such partnership: it is the large-scale data acquisition, and this means mobility and diversity of data acquisition modes. myO/EM supports a variety of data entry modes: manually, by sensors, using mobile devices, data files (spreadsheets, pictures, documents) uploads and direct lab feeds.

Finally, there is the issue of customization. No two projects are the same. There is always a need to customize the EIMS for the particular needs of a project. And that could easily be done with myO/EM.  

To summarize, myO/EM is a hybrid information management system that allows the partners to work together in the common core and separately and independently outside of the common core.
myO/EM is now available. Visit our site (myobservatory.org) or send me a note (yoram.rubin@webh2o.net). And, as a reminder, the single organization version of myObservatory is available for free for any non-profit CS. You can sign up on our website. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Challenges with Precision Agriculture: Finding the Balance Between Big Data and Local Conditions

Precision Agriculture (PA) is playing a major role in modernizing agriculture. PA usually means some sort of automated data collection (usually using sensors), often followed by an analysis (usually referred to as data mining) that rely on the historical data from multiple sites/farms. This analysis serves two goals: it provides manufacturers with better insight into their products, and it is also translated into recommendations. There is increasing need for farms to be as productive as possible, while also minimizing and mitigating any environmental impact of operations. Data mining, however, usually implies averages and correlations. Can these serve the goals stated above? There is a long history to prove the value of large-scale data mining, but it comes with a challenge. Although intended to do so, PA does not meet all the data needs of individual farms. There is a gap between multi-site data mining, on one hand, and local (farm-scale) data needs, on the other. Farming is much more than large-scale averages and correlations. Experienced farmers often have a “feel” for their land, which is difficult to translate into hard data that’s specific to a local site. It is said that “all politics is local”, and so is farming. Thus, data must be acquired and recommendations must be made based off of local farm scale data. Ideally, PA and local data can be coupled and complement each other in order to produce site-specific recommendations.

The global trends identified from data mining are important and helpful, but they neither intend nor are capable of addressing all the farm-scale challenges.  This is a well-known challenge in all large-sample statistics (from studies of human populations to spatial and environmental data): large-scale trends do not provide local-scale answers. For example in medicine, large scale pharmaceutical trials are obviously very important when considering population health, but they won’t tell you about the response of a particular individual to the proposed treatment. As a patient, you obviously care about the local-scale response, not just population averages.  Similarly, fish do not die of large-scale averages.

There is more to farming than a sensor in some soil. Farmers have their own ideas about what data to collect, where to collect it, and how to figure out which data is most useful.  This is true in many branches of agriculture. We can find an example for this challenge in an article by Noel Magnin, an agriculture expert, who commented on a well-known behavior in vineyards (LinkedIn, February 9, 2016): “Quality in wine grapes is due to some water constraint during the last steps of fruit maturation associated among other things with secondary metabolites production. Grape quality leads to wine quality and the best vintages occurred when water constraint is present and obviously when the maturation stages just before fruit collection have seen little to no rain. However, there are within vineyards locations where fruit quality never reaches a level high enough to result in high quality wine”. So, one can look at average crop quality parameters, trying to provide some general fixes, but it is the problem locations, where the soil becomes saturated at critical times, that would make the difference between poor, medium, and high quality grapes. You need to know where the trouble spots are, and large-scale averages won’t tell you that.   

Similarly, when managing cattle grazing operations, one can use some industry-based averages about grazing times and non-grazing intervals, but it would be more beneficial to modify these averages to reflect local conditions. Data mining provides good prior knowledge, but that prior knowledge must be updated by local conditions. This means reconciling between prior knowledge (the averages) on one hand, and site-specific evidence on the other. To do that, farmers need to explore the history of their farming operations in pictures, notes, sensor data, lab data and more, all dated and geo-referenced - and they should be able to explore that data with ease. This is, of course, not a new idea. What’s missing, however, are the tools that will allow farmers to do that.  
Let’s take a look at a few examples.

1. Data at your fingertips

What we have here is an example on how data could be organized in myObservatory, a web-based information management and analysis systems. The blue areas are hand-drawn shapes representing parcels/blocks/paddocks of particular interest. Each of these shapes acts as a container for all related data. This could include pictures, reports, notes, sensor data, lab reports, etc.   This system provides seamless connectivity between desktop and smartphones. So, for example, pictures can be taken using smartphones, and these pictures are automatically uploaded onto the myObservatory platform and automatically linked to the coordinate where it was taken. Data could be imported from external data providers for added insight, or data can be fed in by third parties (e.g. from partnered labs offering soil analysis lab services). Once data has been loaded or collected, it may be analyzed with statistical analysis and charting tools, geospatial analysis tools, or shared with selected stakeholders.

All Data are access-controlled. The project or site admin can assign users an appropriate level of access, anywhere from public view to adding data only, all the way to read/write privileges for any or all data and adding new users.  


This example (courtesy Peter Traverse, Innisfree Farms, and myObservatory) shows time lapse photos showing one of the grazing areas in the farm. Want to know how long your herd grazed here? And how long it took for recovery to occur? Here it is, ready and available at your fingertips. Want to add notes? Want to link these images with lab data or with data from your groundwater wells or rainfall data? You can do it with a click of a button     

3. Story Viewer

The third example (courtesy Peter Traverse, Innisfree Farms, and myObservatory) tracks the movements of the herd. Each of the pictures was taken using a smartphone, which automatically geo-tagged and dated them. Once within transmission range, the picture is uploaded and stored in the farm’s database, ready and available for analysis. Notes can be added and auxiliary files may be attached.  You do not need a full-time photographer to take these pictures. You can have all your staff taking pictures with their smartphones, and then all these pictures would be automatically assembled and organized by myObservatory. All these pictures could be easily accessible and searchable by date and location.

In conclusion, farming is local, and farmers need a platform that will allow them to collect and explore their data with ease.  With Story Viewer, Timeline, and with easy access to data, you are ready to explore your data and make the decisions most suitable for your farm. For morre information, visit our website at my-observatory.com   

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Environmental Sustainability is a Multi-Stakeholder Effort Driven by Common Goals, by Information, and by Analysis. How Do We Make it All Work together?

There is a science that defines sustainability. At times there may also be a legal framework to define the effort. To make sustainability happen, both the scientific foundation as well as the legal framework must be accompanied with a community effort. Community can be defined in many different ways, but what all definitions have in common is the need to secure diverse modes of participation, to provide a flexible organizational structure, and to provide a collaborative data environment that bring all elements together. Without a community behind it, any goal is difficult to achieve, despite legal or scientific support. In this short article I will summarize some of our experiences gained from developing a collaborative data environment called myObservatory (or in short, mO; see myobservatory.org), and from dialogues with our partners and users.       
            Let’s start with community.  Communities could vary in membership. A community may include a few cattle farmers in Argentina, or it could scale up all the way to national organizations of citizen scientists, like the ASPEA organization in Portugal (as discussed here), which monitors the health of the national river network with tens of thousands of kilometers and thousands of volunteers. Community can even be a global organization that supports sustainable agriculture like Savory Global. Communities both large and small need advanced collaboration tools. The level of sophistication should not depend on the scale of the institute. This is what guided our thinking in designing our collaborative data environment.           
How do we make communities, small or large, work together? There may be different factors to consider. Obviously, a compelling vision is needed in order to attract participation and to maintain enthusiasm.   To translate this into action, a collaborative data environment is needed, one that would allow the community to translate motivation into tangible products, and to do so, (1) it must provide the organization with flexibility in defining and accommodating user roles; (2) it must accommodate multiple and diverse modes of data entry, and (3) it should be able to maintain the credibility and integrity of the data collected, and (4) it should allow users to generate meaningful and exciting content. It must also be easy and pleasant to use, otherwise the tools themselves serve as a barrier to achieving the goal. Let’s take a look at some of these elements.  

User Roles. A collaborative data environment needs to accommodate a wide range of roles, such as administrators, technicians, consultants, citizen scientists, analysts, observers, and possibly others. A user role is not just a title. A user is defined by data access privileges, and by the options to create content and provide guidelines.   
Occasional users, outside of the core group of committed users, should also be accommodated. We would like to have a core group of professionals and volunteers, providing support on a regular basis. But we should also appreciate the occasional visitors who may want to inspect our work or make occasional contributions.  This is especially true when reports on hazards or special events are welcome and encouraged. People with smartphones could provide a huge source of actionable information, especially when immediate action is warranted. Imagine a user taking a picture of some environmental hazard using a smartphone, which, geotagged and dated, is then immediately wired to immediately become a part of the database and a GIS display, and generating some sort of response. This accessibility empowers communities to take charge over their environment, and could keep the entire group fired up and motivated.
Collaborative efforts in support of environmental sustainability operate in a multi-stakeholder environment. This requires careful planning. I mentioned already the strict user access controls intended, among other things, to protect privacy of data. Operating of the data environment by a private entity which is not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) could be very important, as many stakeholders may be willing to share data under limiting conditions that cannot be met by government agencies, thus preventing the fear of bad publicity from deterring remediation efforts.   
We also realized that not all of those who wish to use data as participants are equally motivated. What we found, however, is that in some cases users could be enticed to participate and become full-fledged contributors by being able to benefit from the collaborative data environment in ways that may be indirectly related to sustainability.  Drawing from our experience in a project focused on sustainable management of a groundwater basin in California, for example: here the list of stakeholders included state and local water agencies, as well as private well-owners and volunteers.  Private well owners proved to be a challenge, as they are not required, by California law, to provide data on their wells. However, we managed to make some progress here by providing benefits that are directly related to groundwater such as updates and alerts related to regional and local trends in groundwater levels. Additionally, we provided access to agriculture related functions that are indirectly related to groundwater (e.g., degree-days needed for pesticide management, tools for analysis of pumping tests). For this, we implemented a wide range of analytical and scientific tools, all mounted on a GIS platform. For example, consider this image which provides a snapshot of groundwater levels and flow directions at the Sonoma Creek Groundwater aquifer in California.  This map is generated in real-time from data provided by all the stakeholders. The green dots represent groundwater state-owned monitoring wells. The blue lines represent groundwater levels and the red arrows mark flow directions. Looking at consecutive snapshots like this, one could draw conclusions about trends. Well owners are particularly worried about the water level falling below critical elevations required by their pumps. Addressing this and similar concerns could be very useful in attracting participation.  

Multiple Data Entry Modes. Flexibility in defining metrics for sustainability requires having multiple modes of data entry. This could include manual data entry into specially designed forms, file uploads and sensor feeds. All data should be geo-tagged and dated. Editors should be allowed to fill in the blanks with any data that is not geo-tagged.
Smartphones are particularly useful for connecting with a large number of users in real-time. In mO, we view the smartphone as a vital component, and to accommodate it, we created seamless connectivity between smartphones and desktops. Our smartphone technology allows quick and seamless assimilation of data. Data transmitted via smartphones includes pictures, notes, and filled-in forms, and it becomes actionable as soon as it is being transmitted and displayed, which could take a fraction of a second. For example, in our Natuf Project in the Middle East, users record information on new environmental hazards by filling in specially-designated forms and taking notes and pictures. This information is transmitted and as soon as received it is used to update a hazard map in real-time. This map is then processed together with a vulnerability map using a built-in algorithm, producing an updated risk map. This process is demonstrated in the Figure below. The vulnerability map represents local conditions (soil, vegetation, water resources, land use, depth to groundwater, and others). The map at the center represents recorded hazards. The multicolored icons mark where risk were reported. These icons are clickable, to reveal all the relevant information. Each icon point contains a description of the pollution hazard and perhaps even a picture, which can be viewed on top of the risk map to understand what is causing risk in an area.

The left and center figures above represent intermediate output maps, generated by interpolation from point sources of hazard and risk data. These two maps are then processed to produce the risk map, shown on the right. The risk map updates daily. It is a vital tool for maintaining the sustainability of the underlying aquifer. This entire process is executed using scientific modules embedded in mO. The complete user-smartphone-desktop process is shown and discussed here

            Maintaining Data Integrity. I am not talking here about data quality. This is a separate issue, which can be addressed in different ways, e.g., by training and verification. What integrity means is adhering to well-known practices of data custody. That requires maintaining strict user access controls and maintenance of a chain of custody.  Site administrators should be given the necessary tools to maintain the integrity of the data, and required to follow strict data protocols governing data and what can be done with it.

Content and Analytics: Making Sense of Data. This is the most rewarding component of the myObservatory collaborative data platform. Ideally one should just be able to analyze the data as it flows in, identify trends, generate or receive alerts, communicate with stakeholders, compare results across regions, identify data needs, and manage volunteers, all by clicking on an icon (preferably on a map). To make this happen, we implemented analytical tools that are used universally. We also realize that different organizations have different needs, and so we have the option to implement project-specific or even proprietary tools.
Summary. What I presented here is a short summary of an environmental information management system, tailored for the need of sustainability. It was developed by a group of engineers, programmers and sustainability experts. It evolved over many years of experience and user interaction. Give it a try and let me know what you think so that we could improve our technology. Get in touch with myObservatory if you need any assistance getting started, or want to discuss using it as a potential solution to a problem. Or, just post a comment or a question here!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

myObservatory goes to school

Last week I went and met with eight classes of eighth graders at the Sandwich STEM Academy to introduce them to myObservatory.  Later this week and again next week I will be accompanying them on field trips to collect data at two different beaches.  Our in-class lesson focused on how to orient yourself with a map and how to interpret photo data.

Students were really interested in the map activities.  I had them try to locate a landmark on a zoomed in map of our region.  I was amazed that more students could not identify their school or the nearby waterway of Scortons Creek.  I look forward to using this experience to design a map orientation activity for future students.

Another myObservatory tool that we used is the newly added "Story Viewer" feature.  The story viewer allows you to see a photo on one side and the map location of that photo on the other side.  It was especially fun to talk with students about tide using these images.  In the example below notice that the map view shows the marsh at low tide.  Students observed the empty drainage ditches and sand bars in the creek.  And the photo on the left shows the location at high tide where ditches are barely visible.  What a fun way to connect ideas!

The eighth graders were all signed up for a myObservatory account.  When we are in the field they will be able to use their own login account to record data from the trip.  I am looking forward to spending a few data days at the beach!

Friday, May 6, 2016

David Vs. Goliath

In the world of GIS-based data management systems myObservatory is the David. There is a Goliath out there. And they are very good at what they do. 
The other day I was strolling among the booths in a major international conference. I saw Goliath’s booth. There were about 5 sales people there. They were very nice and informative and helpful. But it made me think: who is paying for all this? Obviously, it is the client who pays for this. When you buy Goliath’s product, you pay for a lot of very expensive overhead. We do not have a fancy headquarters. We do not have a network of offices all over the world. We rarely participate in conferences. 

Goliath is extraordinary powerful equipment with a lot of tools in their arsenal. It struck me that many of the tools will only be used by the giants: major corporations, government agencies, etc.  We have many of the tools that Goliath has, but not all. The question is, when you purchase from Goliath, do you need to pay for the tools the giants use? For example, when is the last time you used a geostatistical package? In fact, why should you pay for it when there are many geostatistics packages out there that are free (e.g., R has a wonderful geostatistics package).  Do you need to pay for the development of expensive, basin-scale hydrological response models that, in all likelihood, you will never use? When you do, will you will need consultants who are already paying for all this or have in-house, proprietary tools?) As an hydrologist, I can assure you, there is no standard, plug-and-play, hydrological model. There is an appropriate time to turn to Goliath, but for a large number of casual GIS users and professionals who work in a specific subject area, Goliath is an overkill. 
So, a few questions to you, our reader:

If you are a professional (teacher, environmentalist, architect, engineer, park ranger, or citizen scientist), and not part of a mega-organization: do you need to pay for Goliath? Desktop users have a variety of free or low-cost tools to choose from for desktop-based data creation, and myObservatory could serve you well for your data sharing, management, and web access needs. myObservatory Mobile could serve you well for in-field data collection.

If you are a traveler or an explorer, wishing to document your travel with a nice, very well organized set of GPS-tagged and dated pictures with notes, do you need to pay for Goliath? We could do that for you, for a monthly price of a coffee and doughnut. 

If you wish to visualize your data, see a timeline, or generate charts of your data, do you need Goliath? This is easy to do on myObservatory. 

If you are a farmer, wanting to document your activities, to archive pictures of your fields so that you can remind yourself how your field looked before and after and over as many years as you have data, do you need to pay for sales offices all over the world? 

Want to have a seamless mobile-web connectivity? We have it. Why pay for sending sales people to conferences?  

Need to share data with all your stakeholders with differentiated access privileges? We can do it for you. No need to pay the salary of a CEO and c-suite officers, and of dozens of thought leaders. 
My suggestion: myObservatory is tailored for your world. Pay for the tools you need, at the price you can afford. Really. Check out here: http://www.my-observatory.com/single-project-plans
Write to me at yoram.rubin@webh2o.net, and I will convince you we can do all that.. and more. 
And if you managed to read all the way to here: you deserve a shot at our free myObservatory Mobile. Download it and have fun

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sensor Makers at the Faire

This Saturday I accompanied two students, Cam and Michael, from Sandwich STEM Academy to the Cape Cod Mini Maker Faire at Mashpee High School.  It was my first time at the event, now in its third year.  I was thoroughly impressed by the number of Makers present and the breadth of their makings.  It was great to see our students represent STEM Academy and myObservatory with their Arduino based weather sensors that they are building for the Scortons Creek Project.

myObservatory purchased the parts for students to build their own sensors.  We are using the experience of our first students to create a teaching and learning module on sensors and data collection.  I visited STEM Academy four times over the last two months to work with students during engineering class.  The two students chosen for this special assignment, Cam and Michael, have thrown themselves into the project whole-heartedly.  They work hard during our visits and are interested in how they can help teach other students how to solder and build sensors.  They both spent their recent April school vacation soldering and coding to prepare for this Faire.

Attending Saturday's event was a milestone for the team.  The boys brought two built sensors with some minor sketch issues to the Maker Faire.  They fixed the original prototype and got it working while they were there.  They shared their experience with visitors stopping by their table.  They even got to look at code with a fellow Arduino fan.  More than anything it was nice to see them blend with all of the other student and adult makers present at the event.

Over the next few weeks the sensors will be installed out at Scortons Creek where they will start collecting weather data.  This data will be uploaded into myObservatory.  It will become a part of the shellfish feasibility study that is being done in collaboration with the Sandwich Department of Natural Resources and the STEM Academy.  I look forward to sharing myObservatory with the entire 8th grade later in May.  Hopefully by then we will have some data collected by sensors built by the students' classmates.

It is great to watch the process of Michael and Cam's build.  Listening to them work together and watching their constructive learning experience is a teachers dream!  I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work with such talented and motivated students.  I have learned so much from watching them...I almost feel like I could build a sensor myself (*almost*). This is community-based, project-based, inquiry-based learning at its best!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Observations of myself: Writer's Block

I have been trying and meaning to blog for the last 20 days...WOW!  That really got away from me!  For someone with so many thoughts, who regularly manages to post silly photos of her kids and dogs on Facebook, it is amazing to experience writers block.  And with each passing day I get farther and farther away from the ideas I meant to blog about.  Today is the day to end all that and get back to business.

It's not that I haven't made any observations.  I have.  I have been feeling the warmth of spring sunshine on my skin and smelling the first scents of flowering trees and hearing the peals of laughter from two wild boys unrestricted by winter layers.  I have been watching the slow march of buds that signals the end of a long a dark winter and the beginning of another summer.

It's not that I haven't used myObservatory.  I have.  I collected some great new photo vantage points of Scortons Creek from the middle of the marsh.  I worked with students to build Arduino based sensors to install out at Scortons Creek.  I contacted several interesting people with interesting projects from all over the country that I met in Nashville.  And I continue to collect my own personal data of my yard and my adventures with the aforementioned wild boys.  

So what's my deal?!  

I have been making excuses for 20 days.  I am too busy with other work.  I want to spend more time with my kids.  I hurt my back.  My husband had surgery.  I need to clean my house.

But the observations of myself that seem most true are just this: It's spring!  It's getting too nice to be stuck inside writing on my computer.  I needed a break to read a book for fun (yup, that's right I did!) and lay out sunning myself reptilian-style.  I have been grinding away the bad weather and cold by working myself harder than ever; I am tired of working.  I am not motivated; I am too distracted by the lengthening days and warmer nights.  I feel change in the air and could not reconcile what this change means in my own life.

But now I have come clean.  I have admitted to myself that my observations of me are just as important as my observations of the world around me.  I'm glad this is over with and I can start writing again!  I wanted to feel like coming back to writing was natural and not forced.  I needed to give myself a break and let my brain come back around.  I did all that.  

Here I am, BEWARE of random data stories and exciting new progress for myObservatory!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

myObservations from Nashville

The myObservatory mapping and data collection capabilities are great for documenting travel.  While traveling to and from Nashville I used the myObservatory app to collect photo data at different locations.  Now that I am back home I can view my photo data by location to show my husband and friends the places I've been.  Looking at the map view on the desktop version it really hits me how far from home I traveled!  It certainly felt like it took a long time to get there and back.  It took a whole days travel and a timezone jump to get from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Nashville, Tennessee. On the way down I drove my car, took a ferry, two flights, and a bus to get to my hotel.  On the way back I took a shuttle bus, two flights, a commuter bus, a ride from a friend and drove to get back to my house.

Some of my favorite data photos from my trip include the views of the Washington monument on the way into Regan International, the sun shining on Ryman Auditorium, my hotel office, and my time spent at the honkey tonk in the District.  myObservatory was a great way to organize my travel photos.  I will definitely use it again on my next trip!

Friday, April 1, 2016

#NSTA16 and all the buzz


Being surrounded by thousands of like minded science lovers and fellow observers is empowering.  I have been trying to take time to process all that I am learning and all that I am sharing with others, but there just aren't enough hours in the day.

I am so extremely excited about some of the projects that I have made connections with here at #NSTA16.  I anticipate lots of great extensions for myObservatory based on the contacts I have made and will continue to pursue.  I feel more informed about the current offerings in science education data experiences.  Overall it has been an amazing experience.

But what I haven't been able to do much of is observe.  Other than my observations of whose presentation is better or which hotel has the best food, I haven't really been collecting any data.  I have never been to Nashville before and thought I would have more time to really explore the area and make observations (see paragraph 1!)

So here is my last Nashville goal.  I will walk the city and record my observations using the myObservatory app.  I will experience some of what Nashville has to offer outside of the conference room.  Tune back soon for myObservations of Nashville!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cows behaving badly

Taking a "vacation" to my father's farm in Virginia I certainly expected to do some work.  Life on a farm is work every day, sometimes with projects that were planned but often with unexpected chores that need doing.  The start of our visit was all tractor rides and playing in the hay.  Then just before we sat down to eat supper one night four cars, including two sheriffs, pulled into the driveway.  Word got out as quickly as the cattle.

Apparently this happens often; cows get out and someone calls the sheriffs department and the sheriff calls the farmer they suspect is missing some animals.  But being new to the neighborhood no one had my dad's number so they dropped by instead.  After a long southern conversation that included football, food and cattle breeds we went back inside to grab a bite of our own cold supper before heading out.  I drew kid duty for the night mission so my husband went with my parents out to walk the fence and try to find the missing beasts.  They came back with clarification that the cows had in fact walked right up a gully and under the fence, where the stream had washed out the fence posts.  The ladies were nowhere to be found that night.

When they returned from the reconnaissance mission we spent about an hour discussing strategies and looking at maps of the property.  Had I had more time I would have uploaded an elevation map and parcel map to myObservatory desktop.  How nice it would have been to know whose yards were possibly being consumed overnight!  The plan for the next day was made. Dad was going to buy some electric poly wire, fiberglass stakes, and a solar powered electric fence charger to close in the cows once they were retrieved.  Until he returned it was decided that I would stand guard by the gap in the fence to make sure that none of the cows got too far away from their reentry point.

What a morning it was with the fog rolling in and out all around me and the anticipation of seeing the beasts at any moment.  I reveled in the solitude of playing sentry.  After walking back and forth by the road looking for tracks (of which I only found deer tracks thankfully) I pressed deeper away from the road and into the brush beyond.  As I neared the first backyard I looked up from my tracking efforts and saw the black back of one of the escapees.  Around her I could see at least three more backs and could hear the contented munching of cows feeding where the grass is greener.  Since I was alone and could not see all of them I didn't want to take the chance of spooking them toward the road or away from the fence.  I fell back into position in the field and set myself up to be able to see if they left the poor neighbors yard.  And I waited for reinforcements.

Help arrived.  My step-mom and I pushed the cows through two different back yards.  We waited for dad to come back with the fencing and made sure the gals didn't do any more damage to the neighbors property.  The cows must have been anxious to get back to the herd for as soon as dad cut a hole in the fence they went right into the pasture.  Fencing projects ensued for the rest of the day to keep them out of the gully.  Head counts were completed and all 88 cattle were accounted for.  And nothing that was originally on the docket for the day got done.  Such is the life of a farmer, and his daughter on vacation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

myObservatory is headed to Nashville! #NSTA16

I am excited to announce that I will be going to the National Science Teachers Association National Conference in Nashville in one month.  I think this will be a great opportunity to show off what myObservatory can do and to find some educators interested in partnering to develop education modules.  Over 10,000 K-16 science educators from all over the world participate in this national conference each year.  I attended a conference in Boston 8 years ago and am excited to go again.  I will be looking at what other education products are offering and talking with teachers about what they want in a teaching and learning tool.  But I will also be using our NEW and IMPROVED mobile app to document my journey!

We are hard at work preparing for this journey...and mobile app testing is number 1!  By the end of March (and the start of my conference experience) we will have a new version of the mobile app available in the App Store.  We are working to beta test this new app with all of the latest features.  I am particularly excited about the map view landing page. Here is a sneak peak.

I will be traveling from scenic Cape Cod (this is a view of the surrounding area of Cape Cod Community College, where I have my other job!) to historic Nashville.  I know very little about Nashville other than some vague notions about the music connections.  But instead of going to Nashville to "make it" in country music I am going to Nashville to "make it" in educational product development and marketing.  I'm sure someone could write a country song about that.  Maybe I'll ask while I'm there.

If you are a regular follower of this blog you know that I have two small children...who will NOT be coming with me to Nashville.  With all the free time I will be plotting my way around Nashville and collecting data about my journey.  The mobile app will allow me to organize my trip photos on the map so that I can come back and show the boys all the fun things I saw where I saw them.

If you want to come along on my journey in real time, follow me on Twitter @KateTCondon
I will also make regular posts to our myObservatory Facebook page.

Nashville, here we come, with our new app to show the world (or at least the world of science teachers!)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Simple functions sometimes have the most value: An interview with Peter Traverse

“Sometimes the simple functions have the most value”. If you ask Peter Traverse, a mO power user, what he does he says, "I'm just a farmer.” In talking with him and watching how easily he navigates through the myObservatory environment you quickly realize that he is far more than “just” anything. Peter Traverse is a regenerative agriculture practitioner and entrepreneur. Clients hire him to do agricultural planning for their farms. They rely on his understanding of the complexities of farming paired with his experience in business planning and management. He grew up on a farm in Vermont and integrates that knowledge with modern technology and innovative agricultural practices. He has been working with myObservatory since the beginning and is still involved in product development. For this interview we focused on one question:

“What features do you use most in myObservatory for agricultural planning?”

As Peter describes, myObservatory is a powerful platform for experiencing and learning about geospatial data. Here is a typical working stream of how Peter uses mO. First, he navigates to a county GIS website and selects layers to download i.e. parcel data. This parcel data comes as a shapefile with metadata and attributes attached to each parcel polygon. Information in these parcels differs by county but most often includes tax ID number, assessment value, owner name and address, and ALWAYS land area (in acres).

Peter uses this information to help him create land management plans. Once he downloads the layers from the county he uploads them into myObservatory using the Upload tool. Then he uses Manage myObservatory Data to organize the data layers in the map legend into folders. Other layers he commonly uses for land planning are four foot elevation maps. These maps, created using Lidar (http://lidar.cr.usgs.gov/), have a high level of accuracy. He uses the contour lines on the elevation map to draw out keylines. A keyline is a line segment that follows the contour line from an inflection point in a valley out to the side of a slope. The concept behind keyline plowing is based on the cohesion and adhesion properties of water. By subsurface plowing up and downhill parallel to a keyline the water moves from the valleys to the ridges. This is especially useful in areas that have low precipitation and/or soil types that do not absorb water well. The hot dry summers and red clay of Virginia are a perfect match for keyline plowing.

Once Peter draws the keyline in myObservatory he then creates a geospatial pdf file to export. This file can be read by a third party app that uses it as a georeferenced base map. With very few steps, Peter is able to take a drawing from myObservatory out into the field and walk or plow the exact keyline that he made. Another feature that Peter uses frequently is the Hand Drawn Shapes tool. He uses this tool to draw line and polygon layers right into myObservatory. This is useful for planning in many ways. It helps provide land area for rotational grazing matrices. It even helps quickly determine how much material to order for fencing projects. Instead of having to go out into the pasture to walk the entire length of the fence Peter is able to use the Measuring tool to gauge the length of fence to be created or repaired. The grazing polygons are also a useful place to store data about that specific place i.e. soil data. The Field Photo Journal function allows Peter to track herd movements, grazing conditions and browse observations and store this data with the field polygon. The power of being able to draw in myObservatory exactly where cattle will be pastured is a compelling reason for any land manager to use myObservatory.

When I asked Peter what his most important message was for readers he responded as an educator might. “I want people to be able to explore public data, explore their place.” We agree that by providing the public with a means to examine their own data that the possibilities are endless.
 If you are a landowner interested in what myObservatory has to offer for you and your land please visit our website and check us out! myObservatory

Friday, February 19, 2016

Open Source Based Monitoring of Urban Areas

Robert Schima1, Tobias Goblirsch2, Christoph Salbach3, Bogdan Francyk2, Jan Bumberger1 and Peter Dietrich1
1 UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department Monitoring and Exploration Technologies, robert.schima@ufz.de
2 University of Leipzig, Faculty of Economics and Management, Information Systems Institute, tobias.goblirsch@uni-leipzig.de

3UFZ - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Computational Landscape Ecology, Leipzig, Germany, christoph.salbach@ufz.de


The impact of global change, urbanization and complex interactions between humans and the environment show different effects on different scales. However, the desire to obtain a better understanding of ecosystems and process dynamics in nature accentuates the need for observing these processes in higher temporal and spatial resolutions. Especially with regard to the process dynamics and heterogeneity of urban areas, a comprehensive monitoring of these effects remains to be a challenging issue in the field of environmental research.

Mobile Sensor Integration Platform

Open source based electronics and cost-effective sensors are offering a promising approach to explore new possibilities of mobile data acquisition and innovative strategies and thereby support a comprehensive ad-hoc monitoring and the capturing of environmental processes close to real time. Accordingly, our project aims the development of new strategies for mobile data acquisition and real-time processing of user-specific environmental data, based on a holistic and integrated process. To this end, the concept of our monitoring system covers the data collection, data processing and data integration as well as the data provision within one infrastructure. This ensures a consistent data stream and a rapid data processing. However, the overarching goal is the provision of an integrated service instead of lengthy and arduous data acquisition by hand. Therefore, the system also serves as a data acquisition assistant and gives guidance during the measurements.

Figure 1: Basic idea of an holistic monitoring of urban areas leading into an interactive service oriented data store of gathered information.

Hands-on Approach

In technical terms, our monitoring system consists of mobile sensor devices, which can be controlled and managed by a smart phone app (Android). At the moment, the system is able to acquire temperature and humidity in space (GPS) and time (real-time clock) as a built in function. In addition, larger system functionality can be accomplished by adding further sensors for the detection of e.g. fine dust, methane or dissolved organic compounds. From the IT point of view, the system includes a smart phone app for initial data processing, data provision and data visualization. Furthermore, the smart phone app provides an interface to the powerful engine of myObservatory. Here, the user has full access to all the data managing and analysis tools provided by myObservatory. Environmental monitoring and data evaluation have never been more exiting. Feel free to contact us for more information or additional notes.

Figure 2: The whole system is constructed in a modular way. Little adjustments can be done easily and even under field conditions.

Initial Field Experiments

In September 2015, an initial city monitoring based on the mobile monitoring platform was performed by five independently driving cyclists through the city center of Leipzig (Germany). 

Figure 3: The figure shows the prototype of the sensor integration platform fixed to a bike rack, ready for an ad-hoc urban monitoring.

As a result we were able to instantly show a heat and humidity map of the inner city center as well as an exposure map for each cyclist. This emphasizes the feasibility and high potential of open source based monitoring approaches for future investigation in the field of urban area monitoring, environmental research, citizen science or the validation of remote sensing data. Below you can see an example of the data gathered by the mobile sensor integration platform presented and analyzed by using the tools of myObservatory. Thanks to myObservatory, environmental data acquisition and evaluation - easy as pie.

Figure 4: Urban Monitoring by bike. Sampling points of temperature and humidity measurement based on the mobile sensor integration platform.

Figure 5: Urban Monitoring by bike. Evaluation of urban heat conditions based on the mobile sensor integration platform.

To sum-up:

Figure 6: Overview of the mobile open source based sensor platform.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Projeto Rios, a partner project of myObservatory

Citizen science is increasingly being recognized as an important new component of environmental monitoring and Projeto Rios (www.projectorios.org) is a project that aims to respond to the lack of an effective involvement of citizens in the problems concerning the deterioration of rivers water bodies ecological status.

The project results from Projecte Rius, launched in Catalonia by "Associació Habitat for Projecte RIUS Catalunya" in 1997 and, through a protocol established between the Portuguese Association of Environmental Education (www.aspea.org) and the "Associació Hàbitats for Projecte RIUS Catalunya", was extended to the Portuguese territory in 2006. All interested in being volunteers and actively participate in the national network of Projeto Rios must fill an application form identifying the responsible for the group and the river stretch to adopt. All stakeholders can sign up and participate actively in Projeto Rios: schools, associations, private and public companies, municipalities, scouts groups, third age homes, NGO’s, groups of friends and families.

Using an experimental scientific method to collect and record environmental data, the groups of Projeto Rios implement an adoption plan of a river stretch of 500 meters that include monitoring activities. Thus, the project pretends to promote a scientific curiosity and an affection for river ecosystems that would lead to a conscious change in the citizens behavior and, consequently, contribute to enrich the knowledge about the river bed and embankments and to eventually support decision making processes with the objective to improve the overall river ecologic status.

The project provides kits financed by the patrons, which contain files and tools to facilitate the interpretation of fauna, flora and field forms for recording the data of the river ecosystem. These field forms were, so far, available only on paper and did not allow, for that reason, the application of a mechanism to collect and centralize digital data generated by field trips.

The first field visit marks the start of the group activity and, being the first contact with the river stretch, aims to take stock of its main dysfunctions and status, taking into account accessibility and security issues, the monitoring points where, in all future field trips, the monitoring measures will be carried out. During this first approach, the group fills the first field visit form to systematize the knowledge and the needs assessment and thus prepare the subsequent field trips.

After a diagnosis, field visits start to take a much more detailed approach incorporating the analysis of biological, physical-chemical, hydromorphological parameters, biodiversity and data on land use, traditions and cultural and built heritage. Groups should make a minimum of two annual field visits (preferably in spring and autumn).

The key for a continued citizen involvement is the availability of detailed, relevant and understandable information. Therefore, having myObservatory as a partner, Projeto Rios has managed the developing of the “mO4Rivers” Web Mobile App in order to support a simple and quick data submission process conducting to an easy share of the information and of the knowledge obtained from data analytics processes. The need to develop “mO4Rivers” arises from the difficulties to collect and submit the data and processing it. The centralization of data using the App and myObservatory features will allow the volunteers and managers of the project disseminating the knowledge acquired and to encourage the adoption of more rivers. This will also allow the use of these datasets by researchers, teachers and authorities in an easy, georeferenced and documented way. More about the "mO4Rivers" Web Mobile App in a next post.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

myObservatory (mO) for Empowering Communities – Part I (Natuf, near Ramallah, Palestinian Authority)

Providing tools for communities is an important part of our vision for mO.  Information is power, and it can be used in useful and creative ways to improve life quality, including reporting environmental hazards, documenting (and reporting in real-time) violations of environmental regulations, or monitoring of environmental resources. In this and in subsequent blogs, I will provide some insights into projects that tapped into such capabilities.

The Natuf Experience
How did mO get to Natuf? Well, we provided pro-bono support for a UC Berkeley project, a collaborative effort with Bir-Zeit University. The project is documented here: http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/newsletter/977

Jon Sege from UC Berkeley was the prime mover in this project. He travelled several times to the region, and established a network of contacts. I traveled there “by proxy”, meaning, looking around through Jon’s eyes and listening to his stories. To prove my point, here’s a funny story I heard from him (I cannot vouch for its accuracy). So one day a local branch of Starbucks was opened in Ramallah, much to the delight of local residents and ex-pats. People were queuing to get their fill of latte’ and other types of designer coffees. Then it turned out that this outlet was not an officially-sanctioned Starbucks, much to the chagrin of the local aficionados.. who decided to boycott the Starbucks wannabees.. How was this crisis in a cup of coffee resolved? The coffee outlet changed its name to Stars and Bucks.. and everyone’s happy again. I hope we have similarly quick resolutions of the other pending issues in that troubled area.

OK, back to empowering communities. So there is a detailed report developed by the joint Bir-Zeit UC Berkeley team. Take a look at it, it is pretty good (it would be provided upon request, write to me at yoram.rubin at webh2o.net). My favorite part is this figure (see below) that shows how an environmental hazard is recorded in the field, reported on a mobile app using simple-to-use forms, and then, with one press on the “Save” button, find its way to the Natuf web site where it is nicely displayed (geo-tagged, geo-dated, with pictures and notes)

Now, let’s extrapolate a bit. Imagine now dozens of reported being filed on a given hazard, or a water leak, or a traffic hazard... and a flag showing how long that hazard has been reported using some sort of a color code to denote the persistence of the hazard (like green for one day, yellow for up to one week, and red above that). Now this could translate into some timely response, right? This approach was not implemented in Natuf, so it is just an idea, for now.  We are waiting for someone to raise the flag, so to speak (just let us know if you want to give it a try).  

In the field, users can collect information on pollution hazards using a smartphone and upload it directly to the site. The information will be geotagged using coordinates from the smartphone’s GPS, and will instantly appear on the map in the location where the user gathered the information. The images above demonstrate the pollution hazard collection form for the Natuv risk map. While at the pollution site, the user fills in prescribed data entry fields to collect all necessary information, and can include notes and pictures taken at the site. The user then submits these data directly to the map, where the information appears as a clickable icon.