Scientists' newest way to gather data? Enlist hikers

It's a match made in the outdoors. With a new site, scientists find it cheaper and less time-consuming to get data they need from far-flung places.
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

If a scientist wanted to find out how whales find their food, she would likely have to hire a research vessel to take her around as she observed, filmed and recorded data on each whale sighting.

Doesn't sound too difficult, until you hear that the boat would cost $50,000 ... for one day.

A new organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is making it possible for scientists to get the data they need much more cheaply and with less time investment by matching them with outdoor enthusiasts who are already out in the wilderness and can collect data for them.

So, for example, the site connected Dr. Julie Hagelin, a scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology, who is studying how whales find the zooplankton that they eat, with Paul Ridley, a 28-year-old Chicagoan, who plans, this summer, to row 1,100 miles across the Arctic Ocean in a 29-foot boat.

For each whale sighting, Ridley and his three companions will not only film the whale, but also note the species, direction of travel, wind direction and wave direction.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation was founded last year by 30-year-old outdoorsman Gregg Treinish who was named a 2008 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for trekking the length of the Andes Mountains. He told The New York Times:

"Every single day there are tens of thousands of people who are outside getting after it. They’re going to these places that researchers wish that they could get to.”

So far, the site has helped with findings such as the discovery of the highest-altitude plant life ever recorded, a moss that has not yet been named. Currently, hikers on the West Coast's Pacific Crest Trail are gathering data on the pika, a species whose behaviors indicate the impact of climate change in that environment, and glacier trekkers are searching for ice worms for an Alaskan researchers.

But, even though each citizen data gatherer is trained, the data are not always exactly the way the scientists would like them gathered -- or the way they need to be gathered to be presented to a peer-reviewed journal. For instance, April Craighead, a wildlife biologist at the conservation research group, the Craighead Institute, used the site to gather data on the pika. But of the 40 volunteers she used, only a few gave her data she could use. Still, she plans to keep using the site, but improve her process.

The idea of citizens gathering data is not new. The Audubon Society has, for decades, encouraged birders to gather data. And as science budgets get slashed even further, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation will fill an ever-growing need.

Related on SmartPlanet:

photo: screenshot, Arctic Row video

via: The New York Times

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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