Our modern world is incredibly busy and complex. There are so many new things coming our way that we can’t take them all in, let alone act on them. However, every now and then we are exposed to something new, which turns on a whole lot of light bulbs at once.
For me, it was being told about NatureWatch, part of an international initiative called iNaturalist. In this blog, the first of a series, I will tell you about NatureWatch and why it appeals to me as an educationalist, as a parent, and as someone simply interested in the Living World. I will also tell you about my journey so far with NatureWatch, and hopefully tempt you to start using it too. My next blogs will look at the rationale for using NatureWatch in formal education settings and delve deeper into NatureWatch as a tool for learner agency in a globally connected world.
What is NatureWatch?
Naturewatch is a tool for all citizens that makes it easy for us to contribute to a living record of life in New Zealand. From the crowd-sourced data we create, scientists and environmental managers can monitor changes in biodiversity. NatureWatch enables anyone with the smartphone app (Android or Apple) to record their observations of living things like plants, birds, and insects, and upload them to the Cloud so the NatureWatch community can identify them and analyse them. It’s like iTunes in that the mobile app is used when you are out-and-about, whereas logging into your account from a bigger device like a laptop allows you to manage and organise your observations, and communicate with the NatureWatch community.
NatureWatch on my smart phone. Note the + sign to add a new observation.
Why does NatureWatch appeal to me?
It is part of human nature to be curious and to belong to groups. Belonging gives opportunities to contribute, be affirmed, and gain personally from the experience. NatureWatch enables your curiosity to be translated into valid scientific contributions without being a scientist; it removes barriers and gives you the chance to be a citizen scientist. Anyone with minimal camera skills and IT capabilities can make a worthwhile contribution. How good is that! I can also see the potential for getting my family more informed about the living world. For example, the next time my daughters freak out because they see a spider, I am going to photograph it first and put it on NatureWatch and see where that leads. Lastly, with my professional educator hat on, I see unlimited potential with NatureWatch!
My NatureWatch journey
My observations include this fine example of Cordyline Australis, also known as tī kōuka or the New Zealand Cabbage tree.
Once I had downloaded and installed the free app, I chose a tree for my first observation – they are easy to photograph because they are big and don’t run or fly away! The date and time was automatically recorded, and with GPS turned on, I did not have to enter the location. I moved the slider to “Needs ID” and clicked Save. If you are out of cellphone range, or do not want to use up valuable data on your mobile plan, wait till you get to a WiFi network before clicking Sync, which will upload the data and photos. This first part took me about 15 minutes.
Later, when I logged into my NatureWatch account via my laptop and looked at My Observations, I saw that my tree had been identified by people in the NatureWatch community. Heartened, I used the app to photograph and record more tree observations. In my early “clumsy” stage of learning, I didn’t notice that you could click on the camera icon to take more photos of the same tree, so I was only taking one photo of each tree, showing the whole thing. I have since learned that it’s good practice to take a photo of the tree that also shows its habitat, then one of just the whole tree, and then at least one close-up photo of a leaf, or bud, or flower. Why? Some trees are tricky to identify!
Two powerful things have happened to my observations. One day I went to “My Observations” and saw some of my observations had suddenly been tagged “Research Grade”. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel — better than getting the Principal’s stamp, for sure. Secondly, my one observation of a spider that had been identified as a gravid white-tail, had also been added by one of the Curators to a Spiders with Te Papa project. (PS, I didn’t tell my daughters about the white-tail spider!)
This brings us to the concept of Projects in NatureWatch. There are hundreds of them, ranging from wetland restoration projects to recording the biodiversity in school grounds. Most projects have a defined geographical area, and all observations added to it become part of a dataset that can be analysed by anyone. Projects are great, and a huge component of NatureWatch, but I would hate for anyone to delay starting with NatureWatch because they don’t have their own project, or can’t find one to contribute to.
It’s enough for me in my early stages of using NatureWatch to know that my observations might one day be data for someone to analyse when they are trying to answer big questions like:
- “Are urban trees healthy?”
- “Is climate change making plants flower earlier?”
- “Are pest species under control?”
- “Are native species spreading back into areas they once were?”.
It’s also great that I am getting help identifying my plants and learning at the same time.
Are you keen to try NatureWatch now? How about putting a reminder on your digital calendar so that when you go home today, you download the app, then go outside with whoever else is at home, choose one living thing to photograph (please, NOT your pet!) and record and save your first observation. Later, use your laptop to log in and see if anyone has identified the item in your observation. And have a click around — there is a huge amount more “under the hood”. That will also get you ready for what I have to say in my next post on this subject.
In part 2 of this blog series I will unpack the pedagogical reasons for using NatureWatch with teaching and learning programmes in New Zealand schools. I will look in more depth at the links between NatureWatch and 21st Century learning trends, how NatureWatch integrates with Learning Areas, especially Science, and write more about what you can expect with NatureWatch on the LEARNZ Wetland Biodiversity virtual field trip.