The ABMI is fortunate to have a regular column in the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists’ Quarterly newsletter, BIOS. The following post has been adapted by Brett Campbell and Monica Kohler from a piece by Kurt Illerbrun that appeared in the newsletter’s autumn issue.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? We were faced with this question early on in our transition to the use of automatic environmental sensors at the ABMI. We love these sensors–they make it easier to monitor in more places, at more times, and in more detail than ever. In fact, we like them so much that we deploy around 1000 trail cameras and 1000 autonomous recording units (ARUs) around Alberta every field season. But we hit a problem: How do you handle, and get the most out of, the terabytes and terabytes of data produced by the sensors? As a data driven organization, we had to grapple with the fact that we had more data than we knew what to do with.
What we did know was that we needed a platform that could provide us with the following features to help us deal with the influx of data from sensors like ARUs and remote cameras:
· Reduced data processing time
· Online, real-time access to data
· Built-in QAQC to produce higher-quality data
· Automated project status tracking and user management
· Secure online account for private data management
The solution for us has been the development of WildTrax, a new initiative that has just gone live. WildTrax is an online platform for storing, managing, processing, and sharing environmental sensor data, developed jointly by the ABMI and the Bioacoustic Unit at the University of Alberta. It provides tools for managing large data sets, and aims to create opportunities to address broad-scale questions using novel analytical approaches. Users can upload their data, take advantage of sophisticated AI-based automatic processing tools to classify observations, and discover new data or share their own. They can do all this themselves, or contract the WildTrax team to do it for them.
WildTrax has also sparked interest in opportunities to connect practitioners using environmental sensors The basic idea goes like this. People across the country are already using environmental sensors to answer all sorts of ecological questions. But despite using new technology, few are leveraging the potential of digital data collection, and monitoring efforts mostly remain isolated. What if, in addition to addressing their own questions more efficiently, users could help build a larger-scale data set that would allow entirely new questions to be considered? Dr. Erin Bayne, Director of the Bioacoustic Unit, Co-director of the ABMI’s Application Centre, and Professor in the U of A’s Department of Biology, sees the potential in this approach. “All of this data might be collected for different purposes, but it’s crucial in helping understand large scale patterns and processes”, he says. “So [a platform like WildTrax] will ultimately allow new insights that we previously could not get from individual research programs.” ” What if, in addition to addressing their own questions more efficiently, users could help build a larger-scale data set that would allow entirely new questions to be considered?
How does WildTrax aim to accomplish this? Bayne cites three main benefits for researchers:
- WildTrax provides a standardized way to process data which allows information to be shared more rapidly;
- WildTrax improves processing time so that people can get their data dealt with more efficiently;
- WildTrax employs technologies which increase repeatability.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is in balancing functionality with the need to ensure data privacy. “We were really excited at the onset about WildTrax being a forum for collaboration and data sharing,” says Monica Kohler, WildTrax Project Manager. “Although that is still a core component of the platform, we’re increasing the options and flexibility around data privacy.” The result is a platform that puts users in control. Data ownership and privacy rights remain with the original owners, and all data on the platform is private by default, visible only to the account holder or data owner. While facilitating data sharing and exploration is one of WildTrax’s key functions, users decide for themselves whether to take advantage of this capacity.
What does all this mean for you, dear reader? After many rounds of testing with pilot users, WildTrax is being released publicly, and is available at www.wildtrax.ca. We plan to keep improving the platform too! We’re already working on developing a data discovery map, a citizen science version of the platform that will let anyone help ‘crowd source’ data processing, and increasing the range of data privacy options. Sign up and try it out! We think you’ll love it, and if not, we welcome your feedback as we add new functions.
We wish to thank the many sponsors, partners, and collaborators who have helped get WildTrax to this point.