Thursday, 10 July 2014

Citizen Science in South Africa: iSpot and ADU's Virtual Museums

Over the last couple of years there has been a recognition that the general public can play a very important role in science, and wildlife monitoring in particular. Anyone from the librarian's daughter to the postman can now also be a 'citizen scientist'. In South Africa, probably the most rigorous in terms of raw data collection is the South(ern) African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) where birdwatchers upload lists of birds to a central database. Due to the local focus on going 'wide and deep', as well as encouraging repeat surveys, this is an outstanding database. In some initial analysis I did on bird distribution of the fynbos, it proved way better than the global ebirds project, and even Birdlife International range maps. There is no ornithologist working on South Africa's birds that does not refer to this major database. Join the atlas efforts at

Citizen science projects cover a range of activities, from really specialized skill sets, like bird-ringing, to submitting photographs to online archives. The age of digital photography has been around for a while, and now almost everyone has a camera – ranging from built in cameras on mobile phones to fancy D-SLR cameras with massive lenses. Recording nature has never been easier. However, there is also now competition among citizen science programs to recruit people willing to record their observations. There are 2 major photo archive platforms in South Africa: iSpot and the Animal Demography Unit's Virtual Museum.

iSpot was launched in South Africa in 2011 and has an online community that boasts many expert members that has grown very rapidly through the institutional support of SANBI and a vast amount of time dedicated to the task by Dr Tony Rebelo. Tony's focus was initially to use the tool for documenting the plants of southern Africa and he has succeeded remarkably well – aiming to have 95% of South Africa's plant life documented by 2015. He describes iSpot first and foremost as a learning tool (i.e. you can upload photos and let others identify them). However, you can also contact them to obtain spatial and other information.

iSpot was developed through the Open University and they have brought incredible developmental power to play to create a slick interactive tool – iSpot allows multiple commenting streams which creates conversation and users are a tight knit community. The South African iSpot community can be found at (don't get confused with the UK site). Through a single portal it is easy to upload photos to a range of groups (Amphibians and Reptiles, Birds, Fungi and Lichens, Fish, Invertebrates, Mammals, Plants, Other Organisms). Members collect points through interactions (agreeing with ids). Apart from plants, birds and insects feature prominently in group interactions (see

The Cape Town University's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) Virtual Museum has been around for a few years more, but created their virtual museums from scratch. Despite constant financial constraints, the team led by Prof Les Underhill has done a remarkable job. Registered users number only a quarter of those of iSpot. A key difference is that identification is confirmed by an expert – as opposed to iSpot where the users agree or disagree on an identification. I prefer to do this than get involved with dialogue, but each to their own. I also prefer the mapping feature with the ADU's VM. There are several Virtual Museums (but only one data upload interface at – you then choose which museum your photo belongs in). Apart from trees, they don't do plants, but have more focus on the animal kingdom – including weavers (PHOWN) and Starfish (EchinoMAP). There flagship group is the MammalMap (, but their LepiMap (Butterflies and Moths) formed a major contribution to the recent “Conservation Assessment of Butterflies of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland”, part of their proven track record of doing something with the data submitted.

So which platform to use for documenting your wildlife in the most helpful manner? While both platforms would beg user loyalty, a simple answer is: Plants on iSpot and Animals on ADU Virtual Museums. In fact, iSpot has been courteous enough to link to the MammalMap and SABAP2 under their survey pages – so there is a tacit recognition of the broad domain of each of these.

Participating in citizen science programs is a really useful and rewarding exercise. Its a great way to do something useful with your photos collecting real or digital dust, and for recording your legacy – the information exists for as long as we can produce electricity to run servers, and in any scientific publications that result. By uploading photos with dates and locations you are contributing to a database that allows one to see where and when animals were documented at various locations, a valuable conservation and management tool – but their value will only be realised through sufficient participation – so register for both now!

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