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Coweeta Supports Citizen Science Initiative; Collaboratively Redevelops and Publishes Long-Term Biomonitoring Database

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Issue: 
Fall 2010

John F. Chamblee (CWT)

Since 1990, The Little Tennessee River Biomonitoring Program, housed at the Little Tennessee Watershed Association (LTWA) has provided a record of stream health for the Upper Little Tennessee River and its tributaries. With the help of thousands of volunteers, Biomonitoring Program Director Dr. William O. McLarney, has been sampling fish to develop species inventories at stream sites across the Upper Little Tennessee River basin. The resultant database is one of the largest of its kind and includes observations for hundreds of thousands of individual fish representing all species known from the watershed. Most samples include a record of fish counts (by species) and a stream health ranking also known as an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) score. Each year, the Biomonitoring Program uses these data to issue “State of the Stream” reports that serve as a means to provide community leaders with feedback on water quality and general ecosystem health.

In 2008, Dr. McLarney approached the Coweeta LTER with a request for assistance in making the data public in an easily accessible format. Prior to his request program data were stored in a single, loosely structured excel spreadsheet (Figure 1) and directly accessible only to Dr. McLarney. In response to Dr. McLarney’s request, Coweeta offered to re-organize the data into a relational database framework and develop a simple web application for data download. In exchange, the LTWA provided assistance with quality assurance and quality control on the data and the right to curate the data in our data catalog and serve the data to the public through our web servers.

Over a two-year period, we worked collaboratively with Dr. McLarney, LTWA Executive Director Jenny Sanders, and North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Watershed Planner Andrea Leslie to migrate data from McLarney’s semi-structured data management system to an integrated RDMS. Coweeta IM staff developed the work plan and a series of interim data models that would allow LTWA staff to crosswalk the data through successively more complex data structures using the Excel Spreadsheet software with which they were familiar. Once this work was complete, I imported the data into a new data model, developed in Microsoft Access (Figure 2). At the same time, Andrea Leslie worked with Dr. McLarney to provide spatial locations for all of his 368 sampling locations.

Once the data were in the new database, staff from the LTWA and CWT IM worked with Anya Hinkle, Assistant Director of the Highlands Biological Station, to oversee student interns as both staffers and students performed a QA/QC check on all 8,000 species entries, over 500 IBI ranks and scores, and all site locations and site descriptions. These checks were specifically geared toward ferreting out transcription errors that developed from the transfer of data from a semi-structured format to a relational one.  Finally, the data were transferred via an online MySQL database so that CWT IM staff could develop a web interface.

Over and above the fact that we have established long-term community ties centered on an important citizen science initiative, this project has achieved three substantive outcomes thus far. The students from Highlands Biological Station produced a report that includes a preliminary comparison of the data against Coweeta's forthcoming 2006 land cover classification. That report is available here. More importantly, however, has been the collaboration's contribution to citizen-science-based decision-making by the North Carolina government. By providing a quality assured copy of the data to the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP), Coweeta and the LTWA were able to jointly provide the NCNHP with the data they needed to significantly expand the spatial footprint of the aquatic species diversity heritage zone for the Upper Little Tennessee Watershed by adding several previously unlisted tributaries. Finally, with the launch of a simple website to showcase the data and facilitate download, we have achieved Dr. McLarney’s goal of making the data publicly available to everyone and have added an important long-term data set to the LTER catalog.

Researchers at both the LTWA and Coweeta view this effort as merely the beginning of a long-term process that will enhance awareness of biodiversity locally while increasingly involving students and the general public in the setting and implementation of conservation priorities. The database will be updated on an annual basis using a canonical copy of the Microsoft Access application (Figure 3) that will be provided by Coweeta. This platform has been selected in recognition of the LTWA’s location in a rural area with occasionally unreliable Internet service. Annual versions of the database will be maintained in Coweeta’s new data catalog (to be released in early 2010) and the on-line database will continue to be updated with a series of ordered SQL operations and an ODBC connection. Over the long run, Coweeta will support the LTWA as they seek funding to enhance the website and we will continue to curate the database, update it, and maintain the website on the LTWA’s behalf.