GCOOS-RA developing new data portal for citizen-gathered information to help groups share information Gulf-wide

When fifth graders at DeSoto Elementary School in Hillsborough County, Fla., went exploring at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach recently as part of The Florida Aquarium’s new Watershed Investigations program, they were doing more than just learning about the watershed that feeds Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They were joining other student and adult citizen scientists throughout the Gulf who are gathering data about their local environment.

There are hundreds of groups Gulf-wide monitoring their local environments, collecting important data about how things are changing over time. But where is all that information going? Often the answer is that the information is gathered and archived locally, but isn’t shared with other organizations or agencies that could make use of it.

Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for the GCOOS-RA (left) and Ashley Sutherland (right), Watershed Investigations Instructor for The Florida Aquarium, teach DeSoto Elementary School fifth graders about a flounder that the students collected in a seine net on Feb. 11, 2015.  Photo copyright GCOOS-RA

Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for the GCOOS-RA (left) and Ashley Sutherland (right), Watershed Investigations Instructor for The Florida Aquarium, teach DeSoto Elementary School fifth graders about a flounder that the students collected in a seine net on Feb. 11, 2015.
Photo copyright GCOOS-RA

The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association is hoping to change that by developing a new citizen-science data portal that will help make information that citizen-science groups gather more accessible to a wider audience. GCOOS already provides a one-stop-shop online clearinghouse for environmental data gathered by scientists from all Gulf of Mexico states. Now, they’re working on a pilot project that will add some citizen information to the mix.

“Gulf-wide, citizens’ groups are gathering data about their regions and that’s great,” said Dr. Chris Simoniello, Director of Outreach and Education for the GCOOS-RA. “But if the data aren’t widely available, they can’t help when the unexpected happens. For instance, after an oil spill, resource managers must restore habitats that were damaged. But without good baseline information about what a particular habitat looked like before a disaster, it’s impossible to do good, science-based restoration.”

Simoniello is working with three groups in Florida and Texas to host the data that their citizen scientists are gathering — the Galveston Bay Foundation in Galveston Bay, Texas, Nature’s Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla. The data portal is under development by GCOOS product developer Dr. Shin Kobara, who is addressing the challenges of integrating diverse datasets collected with different methods and instruments. Kobara and his team are testing the portal, which is expected to go live this summer.

A DeSoto Elementary School student collects a water sample to test it for pH during Watershed Investigations, a new program from The Florida Aquarium designed to help increase student  science literacy. The program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Photo copyright GCOOS-RA.

A DeSoto Elementary School student collects a water sample to test it for pH during Watershed Investigations, a new program from The Florida Aquarium designed to help increase student science literacy. The program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Photo copyright GCOOS-RA.

GCOOS Executive Director Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick said that the organization is hoping to expand its partnerships with citizen’s groups in the future. “Ultimately, the amount of information we can host will depend on funding availability,” she said. “We hope that we can continue to work with new organizations to expand the amount of data available over time. For now, we’re excited to be piloting this project and making the information our partners are gathering widely accessible.”

Compared to environmental monitoring conducted by state and federal programs and academic institutions, place-based data collected by citizen scientists can be a cost-effective way to gather information in more localized areas over longer periods of time — something often missing in other datasets. Making the information widely accessible can fill data gaps and enable state, federal and academic programs to allocate their budgets more efficiently and effectively.

In addition to having baseline data that can be used to develop science-based restoration projects, the data portal can also be used in classrooms and informal learning venues as a teaching tool. “These organizations will be compiling long data sets that can be used to teach students about the types of information that is gathered about the environment and show them how things change over time,” Simoniello said. “These kinds of lessons are vital for educating  students in science, technology, math and engineering.”

To discuss the possibilities of having GCOOS host your organization’s data, please contact Dr. Chris Simoniello at chris.simoniello@gcoos.org.