By Michael Bedingfield July 2017
The purpose of this page is to explain how the main things work on the Canberra Nature Map website. Aaron Clausen, Michael Mulvaney and myself (michaelb) are the administrators for this website. For an historical perspective look at "A Short History".
This is the most important aspect of the website, and we try to make it as easy and self-explanatory as possible so that anyone can do it without instruction. All you need to report a sighting is a photograph from a GPS-enabled camera or mobile phone (iPhone or Android). If you don’t have GPS available to you, then you can request an upgrade to your membership so that you can set the location manually. Combining with other features of Canberra Nature Map (CNM), we aim to have reporting of sightings as easy and enjoyable as possible.
GPS means Global Positioning System and uses interaction with satellites to give accurate location data. Cameras and mobile phones embed the location data in digital photos and allow us to position any photo we receive at CNM. My camera tells me how many satellites are linked in for each photo. The more satellites that are involved the greater the accuracy. If there are only a few then the location may be out by several hundred metres or more, but if there are about 10 linked in then it can be as accurate as only a few metres.
One of the great features of CNM is the provision of Location Maps for our nature reserves. These maps are created by getting the GPS points along the reserve boundaries and joining the dots to create giant many-sided polygons. We have also included areas other than nature reserves, such as Commonwealth land, urban lakes or wetlands and other natural open spaces. These are all placed in the grouping called Canberra Nature Parks & Reserves. As people put in sightings for a defined location, CNM builds up a visual gallery of the flora and fauna represented on it and also automatically adds to the species list for that location. I’ve made a special effort to do this with Tuggeranong Hill, see Tuggeranong Hill sightings and Tuggeranong Hill species guide. Effectively what happens is that a small database is built up for that location, contained within the much larger database of CNM.
At the beginning, nature reserves were our main focus because we were mainly interested in rare plants. Any sightings that fell outside the reserves were given the place description ‘Undefined’. As time went on this became a major shortcoming because people were adding sightings from the suburbs or farmland, etc. So IT specialist Aaron Clausen worked out a way to use Google Maps to create a new layer of maps that cover all areas that we have not defined ourselves. These we call Places. They are automatically generated by Google Maps whenever a sighting falls outside of any pre-existing map. This has been a great addition and these maps act as a sort of background layer behind our own defined maps. Because they are automatically generated we don’t have much control over them, but they do allow us to do a location report and species list for suburbs and country districts, such as O’Connor and Gundaroo.
The boundaries of CNM were not defined at the time I joined in May 2014. This was ok until we started receiving sightings from other continents! So we made a simple adjustment to restrict our sightings to a circle within a radius of 300 km from Canberra’s Parliament House in order to cover the Canberra region in general. After a while the radius was reduced to 200 km. During Michael Mulvaney’s negotiations about the Atlas of Life Coastal Wilderness website (ALCW) the boundaries finally solidified. The two websites now share a common boundary along the coastal escarpment. The area covered by CNM is roughly ACT and the Southern Tablelands but also includes the alpine areas and some of the South Western Slopes, see Project boundaries.
The GPS technology lends itself to a variety of tools that are used on CNM. The first is the Nearby Sightings utility. For any sighting we receive we show all sightings that occur within 100 m of its location. It is quite valuable for getting a picture of the flora and fauna near where the sighting was made and is actually quite precise.
One of the things I have done while helping develop this website is to test Aaron Clauson’s work. To test the Nearby Sightings utility I temporarily placed a sighting at the start of the 100 m athletics track at the Australian Institute of Sport. Then I placed another at the other end. At 99 m the second sighting was shown in the ‘Nearby’ list, but at 101 m it was not! So you can be sure about the accuracy of this tool (and others).
Another feature we have is the TimeLine. If a species is reported at the same location at different times then the system sets up a time link for the two or more records. A tiny clock icon is displayed next to the species name on the sighting. If you click on the clock icon then you see the history of all observations of the species at that location, see Timeline example. Just by submitting a series of photo reports you can create a historical record of a species over time. This is valuable for those managing or monitoring a nature reserve or other land and following the progress of rare species, new plantings or weed removal.
are also provided from several viewpoints. For example you can see the distribution of a particular species across our region. Or you can see the spread of your own sightings across our region. You can also look at the distribution of all sightings in a given Nature Park or Other District. But you can also break this down into categories, such as mammals or moths, or particular years, or one or more species. It is a very powerful tool, see Distribution map example.
We also have the Radar Search tool that is excellent value. You choose the particular spot that is of interest to you and a report is generated about the sightings that occur within a certain radius of that point. Security arrangements are in place to protect sensitive species such as orchids. This tool is valuable for survey work but you need to be logged in to see it. (This tool is currently disabled - will return soon.)
In the spring of 2016 we began an experiment using a remote automatic camera set up in the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. It had a movement sensor and took colour photos in daylight and infrared ones at night. If anything moved within its field of vision it would take a photo and immediately upload it onto CNM as a sighting. It was largely successful. But we found that to properly handle that form of data would require major organisation and software changes, and too much work would be required at this stage. It was decided not to continue beyond the experiment, but it is another option that we may pursue in the future.
CNM is run almost entirely by volunteers who love nature and want to help. So there is naturally a good feeling among the people involved. To foster the feeling of friendly participation Aaron has created a string of tools to enhance this.
The first was Comments on sightings. This is very valuable for moderators, allowing us to talk directly to a person who has put in a sighting. Comments create a small but public conversation on the Sighting page. The people linked into the conversation are the reporter, anyone suggesting a species ID, the moderator confirming the ID, and anyone else who adds a comment to the sighting. All these members are notified by email if someone adds another comment.
Later Aaron added an internal mail service within the website, so you can write a personal note to anyone who is a member. This is extremely useful (since members’ email addresses are kept secret), and can be done through the member’s profile page.
We have the ‘Featured’ section on the front page, and when someone puts in a particularly good photo the sighting may be placed in there. There is also the concept of ‘Favourite’. When you click on a tiny star on a sighting it is added to your personal list of favourites and the person who put in the sighting is notified.
You can also use the ‘Follow’ option and if you’re interested in another person’s contributions you will receive a report on his/her sightings. Most recently Aaron added the ‘Like’ option. Instead of commenting on a sighting when you think highly of it, you can click on the Like icon and the author is notified.
The Community page gives a list of all the Local Moderators, who take responsibility for the website content of the various Nature Parks, and the Category Moderators, wholook after the accuracy of data for certain flora or fauna groups. For example, Waltraud Pix is a Local Moderator for Mount Majura, and Chris Davey from Canberra Ornithologists Group is one of our two Category Moderators for birds. We have over 60 Local and Category Moderators.
We like to have good communication with members and the general public. So if anyone chooses to contact CNM the resulting email query is sent to Aaron, Michael Mulvaney, Rohan Thomas and myself.
An important part of this project is to provide information and education on the flora and fauna of our region, as well as promote their value. To this end we provide species lists for all categories of flora and fauna, for example see Species list for Lilies and Irises. These lists include photos of each species, and the ability to look at all sightings of any particular species. Species notes and Internet references are also given for more information. There are also species lists for our nature reserves and other defined locations. All of the species lists mentioned can be downloaded in PDF format for your convenience.
If you are interested in learning about a particular species or group of species, or a particular location, you can use the ‘Follow’ option, and receive reports on all relevant sightings. The Distribution maps are also very useful for studying particular species or locations.
The design of CNM is very flexible. You can click on many things and they will open other pages. For example, if you click on someone’s username anywhere it will open the person’s profile page. Similarly, if you see a species name anywhere and click on that, you will see either the relevant sighting or the Species page. There are also a number of small icons which you can click on to open the associated page.
There is much more to this website than can be explained in a few pages, and some features have not been mentioned. It is worth experimenting and exploring in this way.
The technology used by CNM has been adopted by other people with similar intentions, and more will follow. It is worthwhile looking at BowerBird which is based in Melbourne and run by Museums Victoria, and iNaturalist which is an international website belonging to the California Academy of Sciences. The Atlas of Living Australia is owned and run by the CSIRO and has been around for some time. By comparison you will be pleasantly surprised at what CNM offers.
The building of CNM is a remarkable feat of cooperative effort, given the number of people involved, the volume of photos and other data, and the number of species it caters for. As citizen science in action, it shows the value of a volunteer local website run by local people with local knowledge as part of a strong interactive community.
(The words of this essay have been adapted from those I wrote for an article in the Friends of Grasslands newsletter for July-August 2017.)