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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Plumbing for Data

article spread
by Hugh Powell
Photograph by Chuq Von Rospach

Science Pipes taps into an ocean of information

Whatever happens to the oodles of data that citizen scientists collect each year? It gets stored in databases, where it’s available for analysis by anyone with the right skills. And starting this year with the launch of Science Pipes, that means you!

Science Pipes is a remarkable idea: a computer program that makes it easy for people to create and run their own database queries without having to write programming code. It works by envisioning data analysis as a kind of mental plumbing.

Before Science Pipes, if I wanted to know how many Western Bluebirds had been seen in Oregon versus Nevada over the past five years, I’d have had to ask a programmer, such as Paul Allen in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Information Science program, to tap into the eBird project data set.

In my mind’s eye, Paul would turn on a tap and millions of data points would pour out of the eBird database to flow toward me through the network. Like some kind of digital plumber, Paul would tinker with these “pipes,” throwing in a filter that let only Western Bluebird records through, cross-referencing them with the state and year of occurrence, and then routing the results into a couple of charts. At the end of the line, that torrent of data would have been tamed into an orderly and intelligible stream.

Doing this has always required programming chops. “In the past five years, lots of big biodiversity data sets have come online,” Paul says, “but they’re not very usable because you have to know exactly how to deal with them.” Without special training and expensive software, it’s something I couldn’t do myself.

So Paul’s team built Science Pipes (with funding from the National Science Digital Library) to let users like me manage that torrent of data. With Science Pipes, I can start with a screen displaying a data set; a toolbox of filters, splitters, and joiners; and display tools like a bar graph or pie chart. I simply drag these components onto a workspace using my mouse, and then connect them in the order I wish by dragging a graphical “pipe” from one component to the next. Behind the scenes, Paul’s tool converts the actions I’ve indicated into the actual query code, which I never even see.

Once you get the hang of it, you can see that my bluebirds analysis is pretty simple to create. At a recent workshop for the Crossing Boundaries Project, middle and high school teachers used Science Pipes to compare biodiversity in New York State and the Brazilian Amazon, habitat by habitat. Teachers were excited to see that their students would be able to build an understanding of the remarkable diversity of tropical rainforests through investigating real data rather than simply reading or hearing about the Amazon. After seeing this powerful yet simple-to-use tool, Crossing Boundaries teachers commented, “This is going to be awesome!!!!!!,” “Kids will love it,” and “Fantastically easy for a non-tech person to get results with.”

Sign up for your free Science Pipes account at www.sciencepipes.org. The Science Pipes team is busy adding analysis tools as well as more data sets. This spring, 20 years of Project FeederWatch data, covering 170 species, will come online and into the hands of curious citizen scientists. Perhaps it’s time for us to start calling ourselves citizen analysts?

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