Thumbnail image: Doug Beach/Macaulay Library
[Leo] Welcome to today’s webinar on Uncovering Historical Data with Nest Quest Go!. Thank you all so much for joining us today. I want to start by mentioning closed captioning is available. If you’d like to see subtitles please click on the closed caption button at the bottom of your screen.
This is the third in a series of webinars for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s virtual visitor center programs. This summer we are highlighting a bunch of the various mobile apps, citizen science programs and other digital tools and resources created by the Cornell Lab. Each app program or resource gets its own webinar where we can chat with panelists who are experts on that topic. Now today’s topic is a little different than usual.
Most of the resources we have been covering in the series are tools to help you get outside and observe birds for yourself in the field. Our first webinar was about how to monitor bird nests with the citizen science project NestWatch, and also collecting that data in the field with the NestWatch mobile app.
Today we’re going to talk about a different kind of project for crowd-sourcing data on bird nests, but instead of going outside and watching nests ourselves we’re going to explore a huge treasure trove of historic data that was gathered decades ago. And we need your help, from inside the comfort of your own home, to process that data with an online project called Nest Quest Go!. So let’s do introductions.
There are five of us on today’s panel, so I’m going to suggest that we all go around the circle and take turns briefly introducing ourselves. Tell us your name, something about your background, and your role in Nest Quest Go!, and then tag in the next person.
I’ll start. My name is Leo Sack, I’m the Public Programs Assistant on the Lab’s Visitor Center team, which means my job is to help the public learn about all these different amazing resources. And I have the honor of facilitating today’s conversation. So Becca would you like to introduce yourself next?
[Becca] Sure, my name is Rebecca Rodomsky-Bish and I work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as the Project Leader for Nest Quest Go!. Sophie, would you like to introduce yourself?
[Sophia] Sure. Hi, I’m Sophia Matthews, a fellowship student and a rising junior at Cornell, studying communication and Spanish, and I have been researching the historic observers. And I’ll pass it on to Jewel.
[Jewel] Thanks Sophia. My name is Jewel Alston, and I’m also a summer fellow here at the Lab of Ornithology, and I am a rising senior studying biology and communication, and I’m also researching the historic nest records. Nick?
[Nick] Thanks Jewel. My name is Nick Thomas, I’m the Student Administrative Assistant for the Nest Quest Go! project. I am a rising sophomore and an electrical and computer engineer.
[Leo] Awesome. Thank you all so much for joining us today. Before we get too far, I want to explain how today’s webinar will work. So in just a moment I’ll ask a few questions to get the conversation started and get everyone on the same page about what Nest Quest Go! is all about, and give each of you a chance to tell us about the work you’ve been doing on it. Then we have some questions lined up from audience members who submitted their questions ahead of time. And then for our audience watching live, please type your own questions into the chat window and we will queue those up for discussion as well.
Now if you’re here in our Zoom call, let me show you how to do this. You want to click the chat button at the very bottom of your Zoom screen to open this chat window on the right. And then in the chat window, right above where you type in your text, make sure you use this drop down menu to select “to all panelists and attendees” because that’s the only way we’ll be able to see your message. Okay. So jumping into some of these questions.
Becca, since you’re the project leader, maybe you can start us off with a big picture overview of Nest Quest Go!. I understand it’s based around historic data from something called the Nest Card Record Project. What was that project, what are these record cards you have from it, and why do you need help from the general public to do something with that data that now? And why should we care? What’s the value in amassing this large historic dataset?
[Becca] Nest Quest Go! emerged last year. We have this massive collection, as Leo just articulated, from a project that existed in the 1960’s – it started in the early 1960’s and ran through to the early 2000’s, which is when our digital online data collection started at the Lab – called the Nest Record Card Project. So this 30-plus year span of time, citizen scientists who were very committed to the Lab’s mission of protecting and understanding birds, were collecting data for us. And submitted this data on 4×6 cards and I meant to bring one today but we’ll be doing a screen share and you can see one here in a little while. But 4×6 cards with information about locality, the bird’s nesting behavior, how high off the ground the nest was.
Whether the nest was parasitized by cowbirds. Lots of data on these cards, and they would mail them in to the Lab. And the Lab was under utilizing this set of data. As many viewers can probably understand, data needs to be analyzed, and we need it in a computerized form to be able do that. So if we have all these hard copy cards that have never been digitized, it required people coming to the Lab to utilize the cards, which given the current day that we live in, we really need that digitized so people can look at that data from a larger scale. So they approached me and asked me if I was interested in taking on this project, because we have a really fabulous tool called Zooniverse.
Where researchers, like us at the Lab, who want to be able to do something with old historic datasets that are in hardcopy, we can digitize it, we can engage everyday people in helping us pull that data off of these cards, and then we can actually put it into a database and do some powerful analysis. So that’s really the value. When we have all this said and done we’ll have over 300,000 thousand nest records in our database that we can merge with the other data that we have been collecting for the last 25-30 years. And we’re going to have probably the largest and most impressive collection of nest record information in North America. So it’s very exciting.
We anticipate many, many researchers to want to use this data. I’ve actually had over 40 requests already from researchers who can’t wait to be able to get their hands on this data.
[Leo] Very cool. Okay. So that is fascinating, thank you Becca. Can one of you clarify something for me, maybe Jewel you can help me with this. What’s the difference between citizen science and crowdsourcing? Would you call the original Nest Record Card Project a citizen science project and what about Nest Quest Go!, what would you call that?
[Jewel] Great question. I wouldn’t have been able to answer that before I started my fellowship this summer. So I would say that citizen science is more focused on the individual level. Doing things like data collection and data analysis and maybe asking research questions. Those are all things you can do to participate in citizen science. And I’m sure a lot of our viewers or audience members today are citizen scientists.
If you’re participating in Project FeederWatch or NestWatch you’re definitely participating in citizen science. And crowdsourcing is more of a group effort. It takes a lot of people and teams them up and says, hey, let’s achieve this common goal. And that’s what we’re doing with Nest Quest Go!. We’re having all our volunteers or transcribers help us get through and process these nest record cards. Without them we wouldn’t really be able to get through them all. nd we’re using Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing tool, to do that.
[Leo] Excellent. So you’re basically taking the data that was gathered by a citizen science project, and then crowdsourcing the processing of that data.
[Leo] Okay. So Jewel you just mentioned Zooniverse and Becca mentioned it a minute a go. Jewel, can you elaborate on that? What is Zooniverse and why is that your choice of platform for Nest Quest Go?
[Jewel] For sure. So I’m going to screen share the Zooniverse web page. And this is what you see when you first go on. Basically, Zooniverse is an online platform designed to host a variety of projects. Some are citizen science, which are focused on data collection. And others are crowdsourcing, focused on processing large datasets amassed by researchers. This is what you first see when you first go on and you want to click see all projects. These are the ones highlighted right here. They have projects across all different types of disciplines, you can see anything you’re interested in, you can probably find a project. And look, what we have right here. Nest Quest Go!. So Zooniverse is a pretty nifty tool.
[Leo] Awesome. Thank you Jewel. Now let’s see. Nick, I want to move on to Nick because I think you said that you have been actually helping to build the Nest Quest Go! projects and get them into Zooniverse. So Nick can you tell us more about that. Is building a project on Zooniverse easier or more efficient than creating your own website or platform, and what’s your process like for getting these nest record cards into the Zooniverse platform?
[Nick] Of course. So the interesting part about Zooniverse that separates it from, say, building our own website, is the user base that is already present. The actual back end coding aspect of the website and it’s functionality isn’t anything next generation. It’s just built well for what we need to do. By using Zooniverse and being able to create multiple projects for multiple species, and then release them to a 2.1 million person user base, we know that we can reach a potential of 2.1 million users.
We actually have over 4 thousand independent users that have utilized our projects and came on and helped and transcribed to date. So that’s one of the main factors that allow Zooniverse to be such a help to us. When it comes to the actual creation, there are multiple tools in place. What we call work flows. That allows us to actually pull the exact information we need from the card instead of just giving an entire card and asking all of that information. There’s multiple algorithms and data analysis tools that allow us to pull the specific information that we need.
[Leo] Okay. So what does that actually look like? Nick, would you be able to share your screen and demonstrate Nest Quest Go! for us on Zooniverse? So if I’m a participant, where do I go? What do I do? And what’s it going to look like?
[Nick] Of course. So this is the Zooniverse home page for user that’s not signed in. If you’d like to create an account for Zooniverse that’s wonderful. It will keep track of how many cards you classify to date and what projects you participated in and some user stats about what you’ve done in Zooniverse. But if you’re a guest and you don’t want to create an account that’s fine you can still access or projects. Again, this is the home page. There’s multiple ways to find our projects but probably the easiest one would be to go to the projects tab. Since we are ornithologists we are located under the Biology and Nature tabs. So if we go to the Biology tab you can see that the Nest Quest Go! Orioles project comes up. This is our only active project at the moment.
But Nest Quest Go! Raptors will be releasing in the next day or two and you’ll be able to see it then. If you go to the project itself you can see it’s for a specific species. So you can go through our species list and find one that you would be interested in. Again, Orioles is the only one active right now. So these are what we call our work flows. Right now we have lat-long, locality, nest attempt, and comments. These are specific data elements we want to draw from the record cards. Probably the easiest one to demonstrate would be a numeric one, so we’re going to go to the lat-long.
This is one of the 4×6 cards that Becca was mentioning before. It has been digitized into a .JPEG and uploaded to Zooniverse. What we want to do here is type the lat-long and draw that from the information. We know that it’s here and we know the latitude is going to be 44°05′ and our longitude 103°15′. And that’s great. If it provides us with additional locality that would be helpful. And we can see that South Dakota is the locality which is another data point that helps us in the data processing after the project is done. So all you do is hit “done.” And it gives you a new card. And it’s the same process again but with different information. It’s not that difficult. Pretty interesting to see some of the locations and information that you can see. It’s definitely a time killer but it’s an intriguing process that is pleasurable to do.
[Leo] Excellent. Thank you. Okay. So I want to point out that there is also a Zooniverse mobile app. I can actually put my phone up on the screen here and maybe I can ask my team behind the scenes to spotlight my video so this is big enough for people to see. So you are just showing us, Nick, you were showing us the Zooniverse website, but if I wanted to do this while I’m out and about I can also do it on my phone through the Zooniverse mobile app. And I want to clarify for everyone this is not an app produced by the Lab of Ornithology. This is again the Zooniverse platform which has projects from many organizations but including ours. So Nick while I’m showing this I’m not as familiar with this I’m willing to try it but would you walk me through how to do it on my phone?
[Nick] That would be easy enough. Yeah.
[Le] What’s the first thing I want to do here?
[Nick] So I can see you’re logged into your user, so yours might look a little different than someone who does not have a user account. But the actual process of finding the project and transcribing data is exactly the same. So the first thing you’re going to want to do is go to one of our tagged categories. So again, that is going to be Biology or Nature. So Biology is probably the quickest one. Now I do have to disclose to everybody that since we only have one active project right now, which is the Orioles project, it’s moving at such a fast pace that our mobile app-friendly data sets are not currently available. So Leo, I can see you’re scrolling through, these are all our projects they sadly do not have any more mobile data available. But the Raptors project will be live soon and then we’ll be able to transcribe on the cell phone.
[Leo] So this would be, if we did have data available, this would be just like what you were just demonstrating on the website, where I would click one of these work flows like “nest site” or “outcome.” And then it would show me a card, and I would put in the information just as you were just demonstrating?
[Nick] Yes. It is the exact same. However some work flows do not have the capability to run on the mobile app. So there is a limited set that we can provide to the public and they’re usually the fastest to go because so many people use the mobile app to transcribe data.
[Leo] Fantastic. So this is a good problem to have, I guess. You’re putting this stuff on Zooniverse as fast as you can. And people are transcribing it almost as fast as you can put it up there.
[Leo] Awesome. Okay. So let’s see. Thank you Nick for that. So Zooniverse allows us to transcribe these cards into a format that’s useful for scientific research. That’s great. But as you were showing us some of those hand written cards, on the website, there’s all these people’s names on them, there’s hand-written notes in the margin. Clearly there’s human history here too. Sophia and Jewel both mentioned something about working on historic observer research. So maybe Sophia, could you tell me about this historic observer research you’ve been doing. What made you want to study the people behind the cards? How did you go about it? Did you have challenges in finding re sources? Tell us about that.
[Sophia] Sure. So I think something really unique about Zooniverse is that every user can kind of choose their own adventure in terms of work flows but also in terms of how much commitment they want to put into it. So one person may decide to go on to Zooniverse and transcribe for 5 minutes or so. Whereas we’ve had other transcribers who have really gone above and beyond with their interest in this project. So there’s one transcriber in particular who started to notice these names on the nest record cards and especially notice the ones that keep coming up time and time again.
So this one transcriber did some preliminary research and then Jewel’s and my fellowship was born and we have been spending this whole summer doing more research on these really interesting people who have dedicated so much time to sending the Lab of Ornithology these nest record cards. So for example, the name L.H. Walkinshaw kept coming up over and over on these cards. So when we did some research we found out that that person is Larry Walkinshaw and he submitted around 70 years’ worth of nest record data. Larry Walkinshaw actually has a Wikipedia page, so that’s a little tip. It’s helpful to look people up when they have their own Wikipedia page. That just goes to show he’s very well-known in Ornithology. So he was a dentist by trade. But he was a crane conservationist by “hobby,” I guess.
That’s a loose term, because if your hobby includes writing 3 books about the topic, then I’d say that’s pretty cool. And also some of his correspondences are in the Smithsonian right now. It’s really awesome to have that connection with such a well-known person. And so he was born in 1904 and unfortunately Larry Walkinshaw is no longer around but we were able to connect with two of his grandsons and talked about his personal family stories.
So I think that’s what’s been super, super-interesting about this project. When you look at it, it’s all this scientific data, numbers, bird species, but it really brought us to think about the humans behind the data. The human stories and the connection between people’s lives and Ornithology. So basically we looked at some of these names, did some research, and kind of thought about who can we track down, what family members can we talk to? And that’s how our research went.
[Leo] Fantastic, thank you Sophia. Now I know you guys are starting to produce some things out of this historic research. I want to jump over to Jewel for a moment. Because Jewel, I understand you’re writing some memoirs about these observers. Where can people read that and what can you share with us?
[Jewel] Right, thanks. I am writing memoirs. I’m going to share my screen so that I can show you where to find them. So right now they’re living on the NestWatch blog site. And they’re all going to be titled “Stories from the Archives.” And so I’m going to click on this one and show you guys. The first one I wrote is about Dan Smiley, which was not the guy that Sophia just briefed you guys on. But Larry Walkinshaw will be the next post. They look a little like this, and they have been really fun to write. The interview process has been interesting as well as Sophia mentioned. That’s where they live and they’ll be rolling out maybe once a month, and maybe you will find them in the Lab eNews too.
[Leo] Excellent. Again they’re on the NestWatch website, NestWatch.org . Because Nest Quest Go! is very closely affiliated with NestWatch, which is where our current digital new citizen science on monitoring nests is. Excellent. So thank you Jewel. So let’s jump back to Sophia. You’re making some videos about these historic nest observers too, right? Do you have a short example video you could show us?
[Becca] Yes, absolutely. So for some background, Jewel just mentioned Dan Smiley. So one transcriber noticed his name, brought it to our attention through the talk channel on Zooniverse, and from there we were able to have these interviews with Dan Smiley’s daughter and his research assistant, on Zoom like this conversation. So I’ll show a little teaser video which shows the process of our work.
[Video] So I’m always just sort of looking, because you never know, I could come across a name that I recognize. And so I noticed when I looked at the location for this card, I noticed that it was Mohonk. And I had vacationed a couple of times – a long time ago, like 20 years ago – for a couple of years we would take a weekend and spend it at Mohonk. The predecessor of all of the naturalist activities at Mohonk had been this guy Dan Smiley. He lived there, his family owned the resort and he lived there all his life except when he went to college. He became a naturalist and developed the nature center there.
[Becca] Dan was excited about educating people about what he had found. What he was discovering, the trends, the different things he was finding. He was excited about, and wanted to tell somebody. So he always had a great audience, through the guests at the mountain house, through preserve and public programs, and also through talks with the John Borroughs Natural History Society and Ulster County Garden Clubs, all kinds of organizations.
[Becca] You come into where he’s working and say, “I’m bored. I don’t have anything to do.” He’d say, “I guess you’re going to have to get curious about something, interested enough in something to go find something to do. Aren’t you?” So I didn’t know of course consciously what that meant. But the onus was on you to find it in yourself.
[Leo] Very nice. Thank you for sharing that video with us.
[Sophia] Sure. Thanks so much.
[Leo] Awesome. Sophia or Jewel, would either of you like to tell us anything about your experience, just what it’s been like to find this history and make these videos and blogs.
[Sophia] Sure. So talking to people’s family members online has been really interesting, a little intimidating at first because we had done so much research on these observers, so talking to their family members I felt weirdly star struck. And then hearing all of their family stories, seeing their photos, it’s really amazing. Being able to connect the dots between this nest record data and just the people who really dedicated a big portion of their lives to helping the Lab of Ornithology.
[Leo] Excellent. Jewel, anything you want to add?
[Jewel] Yeah, I learned that when you’re going to write a story about someone, you have to know their story better than you know your own. And I’ve gotten very well acquainted with all of the people that I’ve been writing about through interviews, looking them up online. I found for half of the people I’ve written about there were plenty of articles already published about them. In their local newspapers or even in TIME magazine there were articles. so I do feel like I developed a connection with our historic nest observers even though a lot of them aren’t here.
[Leo] Awesome. Sounds like a great experience. Excellent. Let’s see. Let’s go back to Becca for a moment. Becca, how close is this whole project to completion? You said you got about 300,000 thousand or so nest record cards total. How much of that is already on Zooniverse? How much is already transcribed? What’s left?
[Becca] That is a million dollar question right there and a good one. Well first I want to acknowledge that this work would not be possible without these three wonderful students that you see here today. Really the student power behind this project is what has allowed it to really start to take off this year. So I’m so grateful to them and their commitment to this work. In terms of completion, Nick is going to show you a visual that lays it out well. But I’ll give you a brief summary.
So we have digitized, that means have scanned copies of more than half of our records to date. So we have been working quickly behind the scenes to try to get cards up and ready. We won’t bore you with that process but it is a time-consuming process. That’s sort of our first filter for data quality. So we are manually touching these cards, looking at them and deciding what we’re keeping and what we’re going to put aside – that we won’t be getting rid of but isn’t the kind of data we need to date. That’s the first level. That whole process we have about 152,000 done and digitized. We have half to go. Within Zooniverse Nick will give you nice beautifuls that lays out how much we have transcribed in the tool to date.
[Leo] Awesome. Go for it Nick.
[Nick] Sure thing. So this is actually our progress to date. As you can see, there’s still a lot to be done. We have a diverse species set so far. Actually 18 projects total, 17 have been finished and then obviously orioles is still active. As you can see, there is a wide variety of project densities. The American Robin is our largest to date, at over 18,000 nest records alone, while the smallest one is the Bushtits with 175. So you can clearly see from the pie chart the array that is these projects. But also how minuscule it is. We’re roughly 20% done. But 20% in a year is not terrible. So we are proud of those numbers, we would like to see them move a little bit faster, but we need you guys at home to do that. We need the users, we need the manpower to really get this progressing foward even more. We’re seeing unprecedented growth rates because of the people at home going on and transcribing that data.
[Leo] Fantastic. So Nick, you mentioned some of those groups of birds are completely finished, and some of those are projects that are paused, I guess? Because you have had people transcribe all of the data that is up on Zooniverse so far but there are more cards from those species or families of birds that are yet to come, correct?
[Nick] Yeah, so we have active projects, paused projects, and finished projects. Active projects are open to the public, we have data for them to transcribe. Paused projects can be paused for multiple reasons. One of them being either consensus or just lack of data. We know there’s going to be more data on that project, but we just don’t have it available to put in yet for transcribing. And finished projects are completely finished, probably the best example is one of our first projects would be the Mountain Bluebird species.
[Leo] Okay. Awesome. Thank you. I’ve got one more question that I want to throw out there to any of you guys, whoever wants to tackle this one. So we’re still in the process of getting this data transcribed so it’s not all in a format that computers can analyze yet. But Becca did mention having a lot of requests from people who are eager to start studying this data. So has the data set actually been used in any scientific research yet? Or are you going to wait until everything is completely transcribed? And have there been any interesting discoveries from the data or are there specific research proposals or plans? Where are we at with this?
[Becca] I was going to have Nick share a little bit of data crunching we started, in just a second. But I did think about this when you were talking Leo, we had one researcher in Seattle, who the Bushtits project, that really small project, she was working on research with her undergraduate students and she wanted to see our cards. I said, how about we create a Zooniverse project just for you guys, all the Bushtit cards and she got on with her students before I launched it to the project and she was able to pull the data off with her students to get the data she needed and she was able to incorporate that into her studies, and we launched it to the public to finish completely.
That kind of interaction is already starting. In terms of actually having the data into the NestWatch database – which is where as you articulated, NestWatch is our current citizen scientist project where we’re collecting this – we are working very aggressively on our first analysis of the Mountain Bluebird data. So we’re mid-process with that. Nick is going to share with you, some “nobody else has seen or previewed” analysis from that data set.
[Nick] Yes, we have a sneak peek. This is the first clean data we have. That’s one of the issues we run into is, obviously transciption is a beautiful thing, but we have to clean this information into a way that either a human or a computer can understand. I have been running some preliminary numbers and we do have some initial data. This is the first Mountain Bluebird dataset that has been overlaid onto Google Earth. And you can see all of these red markers throughout the Rockies and the nearby areas. Every single little marker is a nest site. So that is drawn from the Lat-Long that the transcribers pull from the card. I clean the data and put it over this map and we can see where we are. This by itself isn’t very scientifically helpful.
We then have to run it through what is called a heat map, and that provides us with this. So this is actually the nesting population density over the United States and southern Canada as you can see a lot of areas throughout and around the Rockies are sparse. However the most interesting part that came up in this entire process is we have a massive spike in nesting in southern Montana. It’s very interesting to see where that place is and what it actually means. Because I didn’t know, I’m just a numbers guy. But Jewel and Sophia were able to explain to me a little bit more thoroughly what that place is, and who might have done it. So I’ll send that over to them.
[Jewel] Yeah. So that dense area right there is courtesy of the wonderful Mary Geis who established the Rocky Mountain Bluebird Trail and submitted over 30 years of data. Yes. And I have the pleasure of interviewing her tomorrow, which is the only interview I’ve been able to conduct with the original observer themselves.
[Leo] That sounds exciting. Good luck with that interview. So just to clarify, so that map is not necessarily where Mountain Bluebirds actually have the largest population so much as where you have the most nest records from?
[Nick] Yes. Yes. So of a set of roughly 4,000 records, then running that through Zooniverse and running it through the algorithms to clean it up, I got a roughly 2,500 points that I was able to then graph on the map and show some type of nesting density throughout North America.
[Leo] Wow. Thank you all for sharing all of that. I want to start jumping into some of the questions we are getting from our audience. And one question that we got when people were registering for the webinar ahead of time, and I’m seeing some very related questions coming up live in the chat, is about how you achieve quality control in the transcriptions being done by all of these every day people through Zooniverse. So if somebody makes a mistake, are there multiple people — is there a second pass on each of these cards? Either by someone on your team or by a second volunteer? Either knowingly or unknowingly? Is there a random sampling to confirm that it’s being transcribed accurately? Or what if somebody knows they accidentally hit the wrong button in Zooniverse and they made a mistake?
[Becca] That’s a really good question. It came up in the chat as well so I’m glad we’re addressing it here. Quality control is a real issue. One of the beautiful things about Zooniverse is it’s designed for that. And so when you pull your data out of Zooniverse, your your ultimate goal is to know that what was on that document or in that video that you uploaded to be analyzed was what was there. So that’s really important. We’re not having transcribers ask us to validate or invalidate the data that’s on the cards, we’re just asking them to tell us exactly what’s on the cards. And within Zooniverse there’s a really neat feature where you can identify how many times that field of data needs to be transcribed to know for sure that that’s what’s there. And for each of those data points we’re looking for a 60% consensus or better. So for example, our most critical data fields, such as year, such as the actual nest attempt data, such as the location.
We need to be crystal clear sure that that data is what the transcribers are telling us it is. So we have 9 people transcribe that data and of that 9 we need at least 6 people to say what it is. And your viewers might be surprised by this but we have incredible, incredible consensus on this data. We are usually well above 60% on our analysis on the data out. So we actually are hoping, perhaps in the future as we continue to analyze the data like we have started to with Mountain Bluebirds, we’ll be able to lower the amount of transcriptions that are required but still be able to hit that 60% or better.
[Leo] Excellent. Wow. That’s a much higher threshold than I had realized. That’s awesome. So if one person makes a mistake, accidently hits the wrong button, that’s okay because there’s 8 other people checking their work.
[Becca] That’s right.
[Leo] Very cool. Here’s another question for you guys. Becca, who decides what data transcription project is next in the queue? How do you decide which species and what chunk of that species goes next, and how do you make that decision?
[Becca] Great question. I’m going to have Nick round us out with the look forward to the answer to that question. But the look backward to the answer to that question is, when I came on to this project I was a lone soldier so to speak. I was doing all these steps by myself and it quickly became apparent if I wanted to get this done I couldn’t do it alone. So with the help of students, as are presenting today, and volunteers I have been able to get a lot of support in order to move this forward. So as you can imagine when you’re kind of do ing something very quickly you just sort of do it. There’s not a lot of logic. You’re like, “I got to get this done,” and not thinking about why. As the project has flown what we’re trying to do is pay attention to what’s working and not working, and Nick has started to crunch some data to answer that question. But to date, most of the project releases have been really experimental.
So we know people love bluebirds. So very early on we launched two bluebird projects because they’re a very well-loved species and we thought that would get people interested and engaged in the project. Then we realized maybe we should lump species together and do projects that have some diversity of species, not just because people enjoy joy that, which they do, but because some species we only have 4 or 5 cards for, so we need to put them with other cards to make sense for a new project to release. Honestly it’s been trial and error up to this point. And with the help of Nick and my other students we’re hoping to maybe do some more strategy in the future. So Nick can speak to that a little bit more.
[Nick] Thanks Becca. Look ing at the 17 projects we’ve had and the user engagement on those projects, the release dates, the run time on how long the projects actually took us to complete, I mean there’s two numbers that are very important to us. And it’s] how long did a project take to complete? And then take into account the size of the project also. So when we’re looking at those trends, I came a cross the conclusion that large projects, where you’re going to have the same species over and over and over again, really starts to weigh down on the transcribers when you’re seeing an American Robin 18,000 times. So from that we transitioned over into a different strategy which would be the Waterfowl project, where you can see over a dozen different species collected together. Our smallest species in that set was the Barrow’s Goldeneye, I think it only had 2 cards. By itself we couldn’t build a whole project for that.
It wouldn’t be an effective management of time. But by bring ing together a diverse class of species we give the transcribers something to see, something interesting, obviously because waterfowl are across the entirety of North America. So that strategy has been very helpful to us. Moving forward, we are still running some numbers to see, well, you guys are doing such a great job at home, transcribing. Actually you’re completing projects a little bit faster than we can create them. So we are lagged behind a little bit. So we are going to have to come up with a threshold value so we know we can run the numbers on a project before we release it, to give us an estimate on how long it will take, so we can have a constant flow of two or three projects to the users, and we don’t end up having one active project with no mobile-friendly options when we do a webinar.
[Leo] Of course. Glad to know that strategizing is going on. Very cool. So other questions. I’m going to lump these two questions together and again I’ll put it out to whoever wants to answer this. What’s the most surprising stuff that you have run into? What surprising things have you found working with the cards? Either in terms of the data or the nest watchers. Let ‘s start with that. What’s been surprising to each of you? Anyone want to jump in?
[Nick] I’ll go first. Back when I first began working for Becca I was still doing the manual filtering of the cards, having to read them and check for nesting data. And waterfowl in general are my favorite set of species in Ornithology so I did a heavy focus on those. The diversity of cards we have at the Lab in the archives is unfathomable. There were species where there was only maybe half a dozen to a dozen records of very rare cross species, like for Mallards and Teals. I don’t think anyone in the world has ever seen this. I don’t think anyone has ever known that this data is real. So it was very interesting to be like, you’re one of the few people to actually know this. It was mind-boggling to be able to see that information in hand.
[Leo] Wait, when you say cross-species, you’re talking about hybrids, like a Mallard mated with a Teal? And you have records of the nest of that hybridization pair?
[Nick] Yes, Blue-winged Teal with Cinnamon-winged Teal is a cross that we have. Also the Mallard will cross with basically anything so, we have those hybrids, and we have them all set separately but they are available in the Waterfowl collection.
[Leo] That’s fantastic! I’ve heard of ducks hybridizing, Mallards especially inter-breeding with other species because we see the results of that sometimes when you go out birding, but to actually have the records of those nests is pretty cool. Anyone else have anything, any surprising tidbits they want to add in?
[Jewel] Yeah, I was pretty surprised with how all of our original observers, the ones I have been writing about and researching, none of them were career Ornithologists in a traditional sense. They’re all very much citizen scientists. And they just built off of their passion and they really let — they took birding to another level, to say the least. And I think it was super, super interesting to see that they made careers out of it by being citizen scientists. They made very significant contributions. I thought that was very empowering.
[Leo] Very cool. Let’s move on to another question, and again I’ll throw it out to which ever one of you guys wants to jump in and answer this. What are you most looking forward to researching or seeing researchers tackle with this data set once it’s all digitized? So are there specific populations, specific species that might really benefit from research being done with this data?
[Becca] Great question. I was just chatting, I’m trying to chat answer as much as I can. So if you see me looking very concentrated that’s what I’m doing. But somebody was just asking that question. And really to be quite honest, we are hoping that this data — and I think it’s why so many researchers have already requested the data once it’s available — the researchers help us guide this. If you can imagine there are many, many PhD worth of questions that could be answered by looking at this many records. And some species we have more than others. Eastern Bluebird is probably our largest concentration of cards we have. We have a large distribution, approximately 60,000 cards. As you can imagine, the wealth of possibility in terms of what researchers can ask and answer with these cards is pretty dynamic. And doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a lot of records for every species, but for many of the species we do. With the 3 Billion Birds report that came out recently, we know our grasslands species are in trouble. And we actually just finished our Grasslands project.
So if we can take that Grasslands project that was 60 years ago and use it to provide a baseline understanding of where — not 60 years ago, excuse me, 40 years ago — bird populations were at in different localities across North America and compare it to what we’re seeing today, we can start to sort of ask and answer big questions. About what are the major pressures that these birds are experiencing? What can we do about them? Hopefully use that information to inform policy. So I think one of the big early places this data is going to be used by researchers is really honing in on those species of concern and trying to figure out what did it look like 30, 40, 50 years ago and how can we compare that to what we’re seeing today.
[Leo] Excellent. Thank you Becca. As long as we’re talking about what research projects this data can be used for, I think you may have already answered this in the chat but I want to go ahead and talk about it verbally here. The heat map that we shared on the screen before showed that the cards don’t necessarily correlate with actual population distribution of the species. It partly depends on where humans are and where the most dedicated citizen scientists are that are collecting that data. So when you’ve got that heat map question of, where are the species versus where are the observers, what can you do with that and what else can the data really show? Does that make sense?
[Becca] Do you want to tackle that Nick or shall I?
[Nick] I can do that. Yeah so that heat map is just a very basic preliminary over lay of nesting location with the Lat-Long, obviously the first one you had shown was the world map, the satellite map and the markers. The second one is taking that information and breaking it down into postal codes. Because by mapping the Lat-Longs there is no good algorithm. We need to draw bounds. So by converting that Lat-Long into postal codes I can show the density in an actual postal code. That’s why the map looks spotty and has some areas larger than others. That’s because US postal code zones are just like that. But what that heat map is showing is not the population, but it’s where they nest. Whereas generally looking at population data over geographics, we use something similar to heat mapping. But it’s going to be a constant smooth distribution. So you’re going to have like a line or an area or a curve of your highest distribution and then it’s going to reduce from that main area and then you might have pockets elsewhere. Whereas the nesting data shows some interesting information.
Like on the first map I had the national parks and state parks also overlaid and you can see a general correlation that a lot of this nest ing occurs in undeveloped areas. Which especially for the Mountain Bluebird is very important. When we bring up the question of human population versus bird population, yes you need the people to observe the nests, but you need habitats so the nests can even occur. So it’s not as black and white as we might think. It’s you need one to have the other. But you also have to look at the general distributions of just where they can fundamentally nest.
[Becca] And I want to just shout out Nick here for viewers, I can see in the chat there are some scientific minds on this call who are getting excited about how to get this data, which is exactly what we’re hoping for. And in defense of Nick he got that data two days ago, and he wanted to play. Right? So this is part of the fun. Right? We can take data, we can begin to play. And as one of the people just asked, at what point can we combine this? I’m so glad people ask that question because that’s the power of this data. This data will rarely live on its own. We’re going to use it and combine it with other research data in order to answer and ask big questions. So this map you saw was more of Nick playing with, “oh interesting, we have some data on latitude and longitude. Where were these birds nesting?” and trying to create a visual for that.
[Leo] Excellent. And so the last question — we’ve got time for one or two more questions before we start to run close to our time here. I think we can get in a couple more. But I’m seeing the question come up] Are you going to give the step by step procedure for a volunteer to come on board and start transcribing cards? And my apologies if it wasn’t clear we did try to tackle that before when Nick shared the Zooniverse screen, and just showed how easy it is to just jump on Zooniverse and start transcribing cards. But is there anything else that you guys want to share? Or want to reiterate to make it clear to our audience how they get started with this? Maybe we just repeat one more time? So I’ll share my screen maybe.
[Becca] Yeah that would be great. Maybe visually walk people through it one more time.
[Leo] So I’m sharing my screen. This is actually the Nest Quest Go! main page on the Zooniverse website. It shows all the different projects that are finished, that are paused, that are active. But maybe I’ll go back to just Zooniverse.org to get to just the Zooniverse home page. So if you want to be a volunteer, you want to start transcribing cards, you just go to Zooniverse.org. If you want to, you can create an account and sign in. So I’ve done that. But when Nick was demonstrating before he was not signed in and it still worked for him.
So you just go in, either signed in or not, and find an active Nest Quest Go! project. So here is the Orioles project which is out of data for the mobile app but I think there might still be some — So here’s more about the project. And these buttons here. These are the different work flows that you can help transcribe. Nick demonstrated the Latitude and Longitude, but you can work on any of these. So you just click one and it will take you to — well this is actually showing me a tutorial, I think, right? Of how to transcribe this particular piece of information off the card. So you can go through that tutorial.
You can look at the card. Find the information that you want here. So, month of each nest visit, and you type that data in. And when you’ve filled in everything it’s asking you for you can click “done,” and it will take you to the next card. And then just do it again and again and again as many times as you want. So it really is that easy. And then there’s always the tutorial there if you want to pull that back up and say, “Wait, what part of the card am I looking for again?” And it will give you arrows and everything, and walk you through how to do it.
[Becca] And for any of you viewers, Leo, who are really interested in this, if you look to the right of your screen, where it says “Field Guide” that is hovering over the data. If you click on that Field Guide and it opens up, it gives you organized information about the different data fields that we’re collecting, that gives even more — if you can believer it — detailed instructions about cards that maybe have extraordinary things on them, so people know what to do with that information when they’re transcribing. So for the viewer who wants to know how to do this, there are lots of instructions within our projects in Zooniverse. Click around, read. A lot of people will just sort of read our field guide before they even start transcribing cards. There’s a lot of information there, but it will help you understand the project more.
[Leo] Excellent. Thank you. I want to point out that part of the reason this is so helpful to have the tutorials and the field guide, is that the cards are not all identical format. So the format of these cards, where the information is on each card has changed over the years. Some cards from some years or some parts of the country might be organized differently than others. Sometimes you have to go, “okay this card looks different from the last one, where do I find the month or the day or the number of eggs or whatever. Where do I find that information on this particular layout of card?”
So on the one hand, this Nest Quest Go! Is so easy in that you just open the latest project, choose a work flow, and then just fill in the information that it prompts you for. And then sort of the devil is in the details of making sure you’re finding the right information on each card for that card’s format. So I hope that makes sense as a walk through of how to do this. Am I missing anything on that, guys?
[Becca] Sounds great to me.
[Sophia] We definitely want to en courage people to talk about it. Hit up the discussion boards, take a look at people’s names. Google them, see what you can find. Because the discussions that have been generated from this data? Super interesting.
[Leo] Excellent. Thank you. Okay. I want to ask very quickly one last question and then we need to wrap this up for the sake of time. But Jewel, Sophia, Nick, I want to give each of you guys a chance to briefly say something, because you’re all Cornell students participating in this really cool historic project. Can you each briefly speak to how this experience has influenced you and maybe your educational career?
[Jewel] I’ll go first. I just recently got into communication, and I’m realizing that it is a very integral part of science and especially in the times that we’re living in right now. Being able to eloquently and concisely describe what’s going on in science and in medicine can really impact the way that the world is. And I think it’s helped solidify the fact that I do want to go into science communication, whether it’s writing, media production. I just think that’s the place for me to be.
[Sophia] Similarly, I have done a lot of video editing for years, but I’ve never done it about a science topic like this. And doing interviews with people and learning these stories has been really interesting and inspiring for sure. Especially knowing that people contributed cards for so many years and were so dedicated.
[Nick] Yeah I just — this is the first time I’ve seen a real world application at my fingertips to utilize my computer science and statistical background. I mean, to come to this project I’m a naturalist, I love the outdoors and I love birds. But to pair that with my electrical and computer engineering major, it was the perfect opportunity and I’m so glad that I seized it and I get to work on real things that need real solutions that I’m the only person doing it.
[Becca] You had one question I’d love to jump in and answer. This project has been incredible for me too it’s so much fun. There’s a question asked about the card and their future. I love that our viewers are concerned about that. All the cards are being preserved, they are being kept. The long-term storage place for them is going to be the Macaulay Library. We are going to uploading each individual card. They’ll be organized most likely by observer, which is one of the reasons we’re maintaining that information. So these cards will live on digitally and they will live on physically, we’ll continue to store them at the Lab.
[Leo] Excellent. Thank you for catching that question, Becca, that is very important. Well this is so interesting we could go on forever. You all have much fascinating stuff to say, it’s really enjoyable talking to you. I do want to be respectful of everyone’s time and try not to go too far past the end of our scheduled time here. So Becca, Nick, Sophia, Jewel, thank you all for taking the time to talk with us today and thank you for your hard work on this really awesome project.
[Sophia] Thank you so much.
[Nick] Thanks for having us.
[Leo] My pleasure. I want to thank our audience for joining us today too. It’s been great to see such a large turnout and all these fantastic questions from the audience. Now if we didn’t get to your question today, please email us at CornellBirds@Cornell.edu and I think we’re also sharing Becca’s email in the chat, and we’ll be happy to follow up with you more directly.
I would also encourage you to visit NestWatch’s page about Nest Quest Go! which is NestWatch.org/nest-quest-go . That has lots of background information and lots of great links. And then of course, to actually participate as we’ve said, go to Zooniverse.org and search for one of those Nest Quest Go! projects. So that’s our show, and I hope you all enjoyed it, and I hope everyone will log on to Zooniverse and try your hand at transcribing those Nest Record Cards for Nest Quest Go!. So, thanks everyone and happy nest questing. Bye everyone!End of transcript
I am working to digitize NestWatch records with the goal of building a Zooniverse, crowd-sourced project that will be used to gain a better understanding of birds during their nesting season, and how bird populations have changed over time.
Deep in the file cabinets of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology exists a buried treasure of historical data. More than 300,000 handwritten nest records from the North American Nest Record Collection await analysis. From the 1960s through the early 2000s people from across North America observed nesting birds. They submitted their observations on 4×6 inch cards and mailed them to the Cornell Lab. The Nest Quest Go! program was created to digitize and transcribe these cards so that the data can be made available to researchers.
Join us for this free Webinar and Q&A to learn how Nest Quest Go! engages thousands of Zooniverse volunteers to transcribe these cards, hear more about historical nest findings, and get to know a little more about the people behind the cards. See how easy it is to transcribe cards yourself and look back in time to a different era of naturalistic observation. We’ll be talking with Project Leader, Becca Rodomsky-Bish and three Cornell students who’ve been working on Nest Quest Go! this summer—Sophia Matthews, Jewel Alston, and Nick Thomas.
Interested in learning more before the webinar? Read about the Nest Quest Go! project.