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Into the Woods
Researchers enlist citizen scientists and smartphones to fight invasive species
Close up image of Japanese barberry on smartphone app

The Outsmart app is premised on crowdsourcing, or using the public, or “crowd” to gather data.

UMass Amherst researchers at the Center for Public Policy and Administration and Department of Environmental Conservation have rolled out a smartphone-based application that connects citizens and conservation agencies in the fight against harmful exotic species in New England forests.

Outsmart Invasive Species allows people with little to no experience with invasive species to identify species and alert local agencies that can then potentially respond with management strategies. The app provides users with pictures and other information on invasive species. A built-in camera component enables users to easily send data to the University team for review. The data can then be used by state and local agencies to better control these species.  

Charles Schweik, Associate Professor of Environmental Conservation and Public Policy, whose research focuses on the intersection of public sector information technology and environmental management and policy, directs the project along with Jennifer Fish, Director of the DCR’s Service Forestry in Amherst. Colleagues at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, University of Georgia are partners on the project. 

Northeastern forests harbor a number of harmful invasive species – species that are non-native to the region and are likely to cause environmental or economic harm or affect human health. For example, garlic mustard was originally introduced to Massachusetts as a culinary and medicinal plant but has since widely spread, producing a compound that inhibits seed germination of native plants. Agencies tasked with protecting local ecosystems are constantly on the lookout for invasive flora and fauna, but they tend to spread quickly through vulnerable regions. “We don’t get to them fast enough and they spread, and by the time they get to a certain point we can’t deal with them, it’s just a difficult situation to control,” says Schweik.

Simply put, state and regional agencies do not have the manpower to constantly search the forest for invasive species. By giving everyday citizens the tools needed to identify these species, the UMass/DCR team hopes to provide the eyes on the ground they need. With the app in hand, hikers and dog walkers among others become the front-line data collectors in the field. The app is free for download through the iTunes store or Google Play, and provides users with information on invasive species known in the region based on lists compiled by local conservation agencies.

For example, users can find a description and picture of an emerald ash borer or the Asian longhorn beetle, both considered serious emergent invasive insects that threaten trees. “The emerald ash borer is a difficult pest to control. It has expanded in many states surrounding Massachusetts. What our project is trying to do is get as many people as we can, who are doing things outdoors anyway, to keep an eye out,” says Schweik. He likens people using the app to a citizen militia, but armed with smartphones instead of muskets. “If someone finds something they may think is an (invasive species), they can take a picture of it, the GPS gets a location… and that data gets sent to us.”

Schweik and Fish have established an intermediary screening team of graduate students at UMass Amherst who verify the information and relay reliable data to the appropriate agency. Outsmart is premised on crowdsourcing, or using the public, or “crowd” to gather data. Schweik previously developed a crowdsourcing app with UMass Amherst Computer Science Professor Deepak Ganesan to help identify wildlife injured by the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010. That experience led to the idea of a similar invasive species app. But rather than developing one from scratch, the team contacted Chuck Bergeron and Chris Evans at the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, who were already developing a system called Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDmapS). The EDDmapS platform is used by agencies to track invasive species in other parts of the country.

The UMass/DCR team, however, is taking the project a step further. Along with running the front-line group for Outsmart, the UMass/DCR team is studying the data sent to them to streamline Outsmart for best use. They are the first team to extensively study the data. “Our project is first trying to do outreach and help government agencies, nonprofits and Massachusetts residents protect our natural environment, but we are also trying to do research related to how these kinds of tools are effectively used,” says Schweik. “For example, we’re trying to understand human cognition questions; how much should be on the list (of species), and also incentives, or what leads people to participate.  At the same time, we’re trying to monitor how to market and build a crowd.”

Another key research question the team is investigating relates to citizen training in plant and insect identification.  “Our hypothesis is that citizens who get face-to-face plant ID training will provide better data than citizens without such training. But we’re wondering if video plant ID training, available on the smartphone when they are out in the field, could do almost as well. No one has investigated this question that we know of,” says Schweik. The theory is that the better the training, the more participation from the public, and the better the information that will be sent to the screeners.

Now that the project is operational the team is monitoring data received and working with its partners to perfect the data flow processes.  “What’s most important right now is that we get the work flow right, that we make sure the data is good and get it to our partners,” says Schweik. In addition to the Massachusetts DCR, we are working with organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Trustees of Reservations, the Westfield Invasive Species Partnership in western Massachusetts, and the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area Partnership in central Massachusetts, who for some time have been trying to develop collaborative efforts to control invasive species that are already prevalent and destructive, as well as ones that are new or emerging threats. Our project is trying to help them in their efforts by making it easier for citizens to contribute information.  Our only chance to control new invasive species threats like the Asian longhorn beetle or the emerald ash borer is through collaboration across public, nonprofit and private sectors. No one organization can do this alone. It requires everyone’s participation.”

The Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, USDA Forest Service provided project funding.  The Outsmart app is currently available for iPhone and Android phones. Those without a smartphone can photograph species with a digital camera and upload them directly to the Outsmart system through a Web browser.

Dennis Lynch '12