Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

How Uniting People, Data, and Technology Conserves Wildlife

The journey from a pie-in-the-sky data management idea to the moment where Point Blue is managing ALL bird data for every one of the Department of Defense’s installations, covering 27 million acres of land.
(Originally published in our Summer 2022 issue of the Point Blue Quarterly)

When Dr. Grant Ballard helped bring together more than 2,000 bird-lovers for a conference in 2002, he had no idea it would lead to transforming how bird observations in North America were managed. Now Point Blue’s chief science officer, one of Grant’s goals for the conference was simply to learn how other scientists were managing their data and using it to achieve conservation impact, and to see how Point Blue could best contribute.

Kevin Garcia, banding apprentice, and Renee Cormier, Avian Ecologist/Banding Supervisor collecting avian data. Photo: Matt Lau

“What I learned is that we had a real problem on our hands,” Grant says. “We had lots of people, lots of organizations, and lots of federal and state agencies that were deeply committed to bird conservation. But the data were stored in very idiosyncratic ways, across many different platforms, and far from standardized,” Grant says. “For example, some people were measuring wing length in millimeters and others in inches; some were counting birds for 3 minutes per location, others for 5, and others for 10!”

While these may sound like minor differences, discrepancies in how data was logged meant that it was impossible to create apples-to-apples comparisons of, for instance, the population density of Song Sparrows in the Point Reyes National Seashore to that of Song Sparrows in northern Washington.

In partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, and with some initial funding from the National Science Foundation, Point Blue set out to build a standardized repository for bird data in North America. We consulted with dozens of other organizations to make sure that what we were building would serve their purposes and to ensure that they would actually use it if we built it. Then, slowly and deliberately, we laid the technological foundation for what is now the Avian Knowledge Network (AKN), a collaborative effort between scientists, natural resource managers, and other stakeholders to advance bird conservation in the Western Hemisphere.

We first built the basic infrastructure to store the data. Then we layered on top a user interface that would allow people from all over the continent to enter data into the platform, then analyze and compare it to data that others had entered. We standardized everything we could, from measurement units to the four-letter code names ornithologists use to refer to birds (BUOW for Burrowing Owl, PIGU for Pigeon Guillemot, etc.), to protocols such as how long you should stand in one spot counting birds to conduct what we call a “point count.” We also built in converters so that if you were uploading old data that used different protocols, your data could still be compared apples-to-apples with data that had been collected or entered differently.

Now, more than 20 years after the project was first conceived, the AKN database is the leading repository for scientific bird data on the continent. Martin Magaña, Point Blue’s informatics engineering manager, is responsible for making sure that AKN data remains secure and accessible, even as technology changes. “In the past two years,” Martin says, “Point Blue’s Ecoinformatics team has done so much to upgrade our data management systems, I hardly know where to start.” Among many other things, we moved our data from local servers at our Petaluma headquarters to the Point Blue Science Cloud (see page 4), enabling easier data entry and increasing accessibility to researchers around the world.

“We also took a huge step forward in data security,” Martin says, “by becoming the first and only conservation organization to achieve Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) certification.” This two-year process resulted in an official designation–a seal of approval, really–that the Point Blue Science Cloud is secure enough for federal agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service to utilize it as if it were part of the federal government’s own cloud infrastructure.

Over the years, we’ve worked with hundreds of AKN partners who have not only used the platform, but helped shape it along the way. And one of our collaborators has recently committed to using the AKN in a major way.

“When I tell friends that we work closely with the Department of Defense, they’re often really surprised,” says Michael Fitzgibbon, Point Blue’s recently retired chief operations officer (see page 6 for our send-off tribute). “Many people don’t know that, not only is the DoD the third largest federal land managing agency utilizing 27 million acres of land, but they also have a legal mandate to protect and steward the natural resources they manage.”

Point Blue has a long history of partnership with the DoD (see page 7 of the Summer 2022 issue of the Point Blue Quarterly), which collects ecological data at military installations across the country in order to comply with legislation like the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.]

We began working directly with DoD biologists at a few individual installations, training them on how to enter their data into the AKN. Soon, DoD conservation leaders at the regional level saw what a powerful tool the AKN was and asked us if we’d be willing to open it up to other installations and regions. Then, things started to move really quickly. As leadership at the DoD, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management saw the potential of the platform to inform conservation decisions, a question emerged: Would it be valuable if all DoD installations across the country used the AKN to store their bird data? The answer was a resounding “yes” and we are thrilled to announce that the AKN is now the official avian data repository for all DoD installations!

It’s been quite a journey since the AKN was just a glimmer in Grant’s eye to where we are today, and we’re excited to see where things go next. Because of the huge scale of this new agreement, we now have the opportunity to transform how conservation is accomplished by using the data we collect to help inform decisions. When the Department of Defense sends a public signal that they trust you to securely manage their data, there’s a good chance that other agencies will follow suit. And the more data we can make accessible to resource managers, the more powerful our conservation outcomes will be.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant a leap forward this is,” says Sam Veloz, Ecoinformatics and Climate Solutions director. “Having data from major conservation agencies across the country in one place is completely new. We now have the ability to look at huge amounts of data and identify what’s working and what’s not, and where limited conservation funding should go. This, I truly believe, is the future of conservation.”