From budding biologists to citizen scientists

Children often take a keen interest in the natural world and national curriculum science contains several elements exploring biodiversity including sorting, identifying and classifying different species, and understanding the interdependencies that exist between organisms.

I have written previously about the importance of practical science, so I was interested to be introduced to a website and mobile app that enables budding biologists of any age to become citizen scientists by adding their wildlife finds to the database of the national Biological Records Centre (BRC).

iRecord is not primarily aimed at children, but can be used by professional biologists, volunteers and amateur enthusiasts, and anyone who takes an interest in the natural world. The app allows users to log wildlife finds by location and date, and to upload photos if they have one. Each uploaded record verified by an expert, so the photos are extremely useful.

After verification, records are added the BRC database. In contrast to some citizen science programmes which are designed mainly to raise awareness, rather than gather robust data, iRecord enables anyone, including children to assist research by adding records to this verified national database.

Setting up an account

Accounts can be set up on the iRecord website: www.brc.ac.uk/irecord or via the app, which is available for both iOS and Android devices. You’ll need a user name and an email account. This can be a single account, perhaps one set up for the school or class for this purpose. If you’re using the app you log into this account and finds are attributed to it. If you use the website to record finds, you can attribute finds to different observers while logged in as a particular user. There is a more advanced function where you can set up an activity, for example a survey or bio blitz at your school, and invite users to join. This might be suitable if children have school email accounts. You can also join activities set up for others.

Recording your finds

You can record what you find using the website or the app. I’ll describe making and submitting a record on the app, which I find gives an immediacy when using a mobile device with a camera, whereas the website is better for uploading several records in one go.

At first, I didn’t find the interface particularly intuitive, but I quickly got used to it and there is an extensive help menu explaining the icons and menu items, with tutorials on how to use them. You can also select a ‘training mode’ which allows you to practice creating records.

To start a new record, click on the + symbol at the top right of the screen (you could also click on the camera icon next to it to start your record with an photo).

This will open the screen for a new record. You start by entering the name. The example assumes you will start with a binomial scientific name (or abbreviation of one), but the predictive text works equally well for common names. Start typing and a list of suggestions will appear:

Click on / touch one of these suggestions to select it. This will add the record to your list, but we still need to add some details and a photo, if we have one. In the example below, we’d click on /touch the record we started for a garden bumblebee to select it.

This opens the screen for our new record. There are several fields for information and a red prompt that no location has yet been added.

Adding the location

To include a location, we select that field from the screen. This opens a map. As we zoom into our location, the map changes from geographical to a street map, then a satellite map.

Just click touch the location and a red square appears. You can change it if it isn’t the right spot. A grid reference will automatically be added at the top of the screen. We also need to add a place name in the field below it. Pressing the back arrow returns us to our record.

There is an advanced function to set up an activity. This could within a defined geographical area such as a school grounds. The app can then be set to default to this activity, recording finds in that location.

Adding a photograph

A photo isn’t essential, but is most helpful to having a record verified. To add one, we click on the camera icon at the bottom left of the screen. This opens a prompt to open the camera on our mobile device, or the photo gallery. I find that it’s best to take photos first and then open iRecord, rather than hope that whatever I’ve seen will stay still long enough to open a new record before photographing it. From your gallery, select the picture(s) you want to add. You can’t edit them within iRecord, so it’s best to do this before you start. Most of my records are insects so I often crop photos, so that the focus is on the species I have found.

Once we’re happy with the photo, we can add other information about the find:

  • Date
  • Abundance – how many individuals you saw
  • Comments – additional information, for example type of habitat or behaviours
  • Stage – adult, juvenile or pre-adult
  • Identifiers – the name of anyone who helped with the identification of your find

Uploading the record

The record is now complete but we haven’t yet uploaded it to the BRC. To do this, click the paper plane icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen. Bear in mind that you won’t be able to edit it once you have done this. Records are run past clean-up algorithms which validate the data you have entered and sent to volunteer verifiers. A verifier will then confirm the identification of your find, and may send you an email message asking for further information. In your account settings, you can set the frequency of messages. I have mine set to send a weekly email. You can also check progress of your uploads via your account. Verified records are included in the national BRC database.

I hope you feel inspired to have a go. I’ve found that iRecord has made me much more observant of the natural world. I think it has great potential to transform learning about ecosystems by enabling children to become contributors to the scientific record, as well as users of it.

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