100.000.000 nature observations on Observation.org

For well over 13 years I am active on Observation.org. That is, on the Dutch sister site waarneming.nl, because the international version came online more recently. Here is some background through the eyes of an adminn/validator on the worlds’ largest nature-database.
An online database with over 100.000.000 worldwide nature observations!
It all started with an idea of two avid Dutch birdwatchers: Hisko de Vries en Dylan Verheul. They are not only enthusiastic naturalists, but they also have a thorough knowledge of computer programming. Back then, they didn’t have one vision, they had two:
They felt that, when naturalists collect nature observations, it would be very nice to share these observations online. Like this, everyone could read what all others had seen. This would be much more than a news-service for those who like to see rare birds: you could easily look up which species occur where. Back then, naturalists’ data usually went to a database of a society or foundation, and these clubs occasionally published overview maps. You could also go through their database, but this was quite a hassle involving requests, appointments and a lot of spare time and goodwill.
The second idea was that it would be nice to have a single system for all nature data. Back then, if you saw a bird, a flower and a butterfly, you had to submit these data to three different databases, none of them online and all with different systems. 
So, they sat down and developed one of the worlds first online databases for all nature data. I am sure that this was really complicated to do, and involved a lot of thinking, but since I barely know anything about computers I can’t really comment on that. The result was a database and a forum, called Waarneming.nl This was at the same time a single, public system for all nature observations, as well as the perfect personal online notebook for naturalists. And you can look into everyone elses’ notebook as well. Briliant!
In those early years, the system wasn’t universally accepted. Especially experienced observers didn’t trust the reliability of data. But one by one, specialists started to offer help. I was one of them. From the beginning, I saw the system as a great opportunity for education: through simple comments on observations, you can help others to distinguish species and develop their knowledge. And, it really works. Increasingly many data were validated, increasingly many experienced observers also started to use the system. And, at a certain time, the system contained so many data that the established naturalist’ societies could no longer ignore it.

Right now, the international version, observation.org, goes through the same stages. Of course, there are many unvalidated data. Also, many data are uploaded by inexperienced, or, more often, by experienced naturalists who are well outside of the areas where they usually go (read: Dutch naturalists who are on holidays). But, again users go through the learning process and there are also increasingly many validated data which can be used as a reference. But what makes the system unbeatable is the combination of ease of use (especially through the app for Android phones) and the sheer endless options which can be recorded at each observation. I admit, the system can be overwhelming at first. 



As administrator or validator, I sometimes look at observations of fish, reptiles and amphibians. For each observation, I can choose to validate it, and that on several levels. I can approve it on the base of evidence (photo, description) or on the base of likelihood (for instance when I know an area very well and I know which species you can expect there). I can also choose to set it as “cannot be validated”, which I do when there is a landscape picture, but the observed animal or plant species isn’t visible on the picture. Or I can disapprove it when the observation is clearly wrong.

I don’t like the disapproval option: I rather comment on the observation with a suggestion (often by only writing a species name in the suggestions). However, there are some exceptions. When someone makes fun of the system I immediately put the observation on “disapprove” (do it more often: you get banned: Flying warthogs over the sea are not appreciated at all!). Also, I disapprove data which generate wrong dots on distribution maps, like fish which are photographed in a seafood restaurant (yes, it happens). I can also adapt species names at observations, usually, I do this only when there is good photographic evidence and the observer doesn’t respond to a comment.

The charming part of the system is that the ownership of data remains at all times at the observers. Nonsense data can be disapproved, but only rarely get deleted. They just become invisible for anyone but the observer. 

But, in all honesty, the majority of international data remains unvalidated. It is simply impossible to validate all data which are not accompanied by photographic proof. Even when there are photographs, there may not be a volunteering validator who is expert on a particular animal group. Still, also for these data, the functionality remains: an online notebook where you can see everyone’s data!


Some restrictions

The public visibility of data comes with a risk. When there are attractive species with exact locality data, it may mean that many people come to see and photograph them. In the worst scenario, this leads to trampling vulnerable vegetations, disturbing birds nests or poaching. I vividly recall the discussions we had behind the screens in the early days. Two interests were conflicting: public visibility of nature data and conservation priorities. This was elegantly solved by adding two options. One is to make data less exactly visible, so you just see that a species occurs in a region, not the exact square metre where it was photographed yesterday. The other is to postpone public visibility, for instance by showing nesting places only well after the nestlings have fledged. These options can be set at the level of a species (by validators), as well as at the level of individual observations (by the observer). Very nice if you don’t want anyone to know when you were trespassing btw …  


And that’s not all …

No, there is more, like automatic data validation, translation functions in many languages and one of the most active forums in the world (well, in the Dutch part of the world at least). Also, national databases and naturalist’ societies can join and get their own entrance sites and overviews of data. But, why don’t you check out the system yourself? It is free and accessible for everyone and can be used worldwide. You find it through these links: 

International: Observation.org

Dutch: Waarneming.nl

Belgian: Waarnemingen.be 

Spanish: Observado.es


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