Big data, big impact

In the past, you might have noticed a vibrant little yellow flower near your hiking path on the Bruce Peninsula or on Manitoulin Island and wondered about its name and where else it is found. Today, the curious hiker can instantly access a wealth of information about species and habitats – discovering that the little lakeside daisy is, in fact, one of Canada’s rarest plants. The growing abundance of publicly accessible data on species and habitats is transforming conservation, enabling individuals, organizations and governments to make more informed decisions to protect habitats and species.

Dan Kraus, senior conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) says that 20 years ago, determining the conservation status and needs of many species would have taken a considerable amount of in-the-field, in-the-library and in-the-natural-history-museum research – if it was at all possible.

But with new technologies and computing power, massive amounts of data are now collected, stored and made publicly accessible. “I can identify a species in the field, find out its status and see its global range – pretty much instantaneously.”

Much of this data is collected by conservation scientists like those at NCC, but an increasingly significant amount is also contributed by people who simply enjoy connecting with nature and participating in citizen science initiatives. 

“With an app like iNaturalist,” says Kraus, “you can take a picture of a species and upload it to a central database where both pattern recognition software and experts will help to identify it. If you’ve geotagged your photo, that data is mapped, and shared with in global database, like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. It democratizes natural history. My neighbour’s observation of a luna moth are now verified by experts and are in the same database asthose collected by trained biologists. It’s exciting that we can all contribute to our collective knowledge on Canadian species and make new discoveries”.

Along with its own centralized database that records extensive information about each of its properties, NCC uses databases from NatureServe and Provincial Conservation Data Centres in its decision-making and conservation work. It also draws on the data housed in the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas and the United Nations World Database on Protected Areas.

"There's a global effort to quantify, map and classify protected areas," says JC Laurence, national GIS manager at NCC. "These structured, publicly accessible databases allow anyone – individuals, non-governmental organizations or governments – to assess short- and long-term conservation activities and see how close we are to meeting the protected areas targets we've agreed to."

Kraus adds that the global conservation datasets also contextualize the work we're doing in Canada.

"Knowing that Canada has over 500 globally rare species, one-quarter of the world's wetlands or the largest areas of intact forest landscapes left on the planet helps put our role in conservation into a planetary perspective. Most importantly, it also allows governments and organizations like NCC to set priorities for conservation work. In the past, we may have lost species due to ignorance. But with the knowledge we have at our fingertips, we have both the ability and responsibility to make sure we don't let those habitats and species disappear." 

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  Lakeside daisy (Photo by Charles Peirce)

Lakeside daisy (Photo by Charles Peirce)

Global databases can give us insight into local species. Thanks to publicly accessible global data, such as iNaturalist and NatureServe, we now know that most of the world’s population of the lakeside daisy is found in Ontario. This knowledge is helping land conservation organizations like NCC identify priority areas for protection. 

Watch the "Big Nature. Big Data." video to learn more about NCC’s work in this area.

RandallAnthony Communications