Enthusiasts and experts document biodiversity on a digital platform

  • A citizen science initiative has been able to link amateur naturalists with experts on an online portal to report and record species of plants and animals.
  • Since 2008, the India Biodiversity Portal has recorded above 26,000 species from 1.3 million observations.
  • The quality and quantity of reporting has improved over the years, indicating a strengthening of biodiversity literacy.

There is an increasing interest in exploring natural habitats in India in the recent years. Encouraged by better connectivity and more conservation-related discussions in the public domain, many amateur enthusiasts are stepping into the countryside and forests. Observing and recording new plants and animals has become easier. Since 2008, the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP) has been working to bring information from enthusiastic citizens to a common digital platform, so that it can be vetted by volunteering experts. Together, they have been able to create a buzz on India’s biological diversity. The public discussion is gaining in traction with 1.3 million observations having been recorded on the portal. R. Prabhakar, the conservation scientist who made this possible talks with Mongabay-India, on how it all started and how this citizen science project evolved.

When did you start the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP)?

The early beginning of our activity was in 2008. But it was in 2011 that we were able to significantly accelerate the work on the portal because we got funding for a three-year term.

Why did you start the IBP? What was the need? Who were the partners involved in the initial stages?

The Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) laid the initial beginnings of this portal when it proposed to the National Knowledge Commission the idea of establishing an open access collaborative and participative biodiversity information system. This built into the initiative that the NKC had started in 2007 to establish data portals involving citizens, and to be hosted by civil society groups. As a part of the initiative, the India Biodiversity Portal was proposed by ATREE along with other partner institutions.

The IBP initiative was proposed as a collaborative effort between five partner institutions – Agharkar Research Institute, Pune; ATREE, Bengaluru; the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Bengaluru; the National Chemicals Laboratory, Pune; and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru. The idea was to develop a portal that will provide a platform for sharing information and also be an open-access source for biodiversity information. Other institutions have come together as partners on the portal by committing resources, sharing data and providing intellectual leadership for the evolution of an open and participatory portal. These are the Foundation for Ecological Security, Anand; the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore; the French Institute, Puducherry; and Strand Life Sciences, Bengaluru.

The home page of the IBP.

Who funded it then?

The 2011 funding was part of the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF), which was trying to make investments in biodiversity hotspots for conservation. CEPF is a large fund, created to support civil society activities for conservation. In 2011, CEPF was funding studies for the Western Ghats. As part of this, they thought that it would be worthwhile to build an information system to host all the studies and reports. They earmarked some funding for establishing a Western Ghats biodiversity portal. This later developed into the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP).

Is this the only Indian biodiversity information system that has gone big?

What we do is only the tip of the iceberg of what can be done in India. You should see some of the country-level portals, for example in Sweden. The kind of observations that the citizens put together is remarkable. They achieve in one day what we achieve in 15. It concerns the way in which societies behave, and the importance they give to data-based biodiversity science.

In India, there are people all over the country that are interested in nature. People are travelling through biodiversity-rich areas. If all of them contribute biodiversity data, it can be fascinating. Simultaneously, there must be a set of people who are willing to spend a certain amount of time helping to clean up and curate that data. This is where experts are needed to be involved – to clean up data and provide correct identification.

There is more that can be done in India. For instance, we have a huge diversity of moths in this country. Moths are very interesting. As caterpillars, they feed heavily on plants. But there are not many experts in this country to help us identify these moths. By using a platform such as the IBP, we can link field enthusiasts and experts and strengthen our understanding of moths. This is the potential of a platform like the IBP.

R. Prabhakar who coordinates the IBP.

How have you been strengthening the data reach of the IBP?

What people like of the IBP is that it has a structure that can accommodate growth in innovative directions. For example, our members started reading the monthly Journal of Threatened Taxa. We link the latest information from the journal to the species listed on the IBP. We do a similar exercise with the Indian Birds Journal of South Asian Ornithology. The idea is that we can get all the reports, published data, grey literature, etc., and reference them taxonomically into the IBP.

We have a practice in which somebody looks at all the observations that come in, and if the person finds something interesting, he/she features it. It then becomes a featured observation. Our observations are coming in all the time. If there is something interesting, we feature it, thus highlighting it for our users.

You were talking about the IBP as an example of citizen science. Can you please elaborate?

There have been some interesting examples of amateur citizen contributions that have been helpful to science. There is the case of an attractive looking spider being photographed and reported by a nature lover and photographer from Kerala. A researcher soon picked it up. The researcher and the amateur started interacting with each other on the portal. They collected the specimens and validated the identification and finally published the occurrence as a new distribution record for India for the metallic jumper spider Siler semiglaucus. The publication is available on the portal, and the species page has been updated on the IBP.

The metallic jumper spider Siler semiglaucus was reported by an amateur from Chilavannur in Kerala and validated by an expert in Pune through the IBP. Photo by Sunny Joseph / IBP.

The Malabar tree toad Pedostibus tuberculoses is an arboreal species, and there is very little known of its distribution. It is only seen during the monsoon when it descends for mating. Frog researchers have been using the portal to try and crowdsource the distribution of this species. And there are currently 38 records on the portal and growing.

There are other instances where the portal has been used by researchers, like mapping the distribution of invasive species across India. And there are many more possibilities.

Did the IBP improve citizen participation in biodiversity information gathering? Did it strengthen biodiversity understanding among the larger public?

All observation data on the portal is by citizen participation. There are some very serious and enthusiastic citizens who are carefully documenting biodiversity around their area and putting them up on the portal. The portal provided a platform for some of these people to contribute information. For example, there is this banana farmer outside Bengaluru who stumbled on the portal and since then has been actively contributing insect data on the portal. Initially, he had experts identify species, and now he has been actively identifying other moth observations on the portal. There is also a serious biodiversity documenter from Pune, who has been extensively curating and contributing fantastic observations from the rocky outcrops of the Western Ghats outside Pune.

Have you seen biases creeping in because of people’s preference for certain kinds of animals – say birds or reptiles?

Of course, there are biases in citizen participation in biodiversity information. There are geographical as well as taxonomic biases. Globally, birds are the most observed and most contributed occurrence records in database systems. And if you look at global databases, you will find more contributions in accessible areas, along roads, etc. So any use of such data for scientific studies must recognize these biases.

How have you structured the IBP?

In a sense, we have developed the IBP as a flexible and modular system. We have different modules and groups (which are thematic, such as the Western Ghats). These are like micro-sites that are completely independent, which can decide whether they want to be a closed group or an open one. The groups can decide who can contribute content to that group and format it. All data rests at the mother portal, which is the India Biodiversity Portal. These groups or micro-sites are subsets or filtered views of this data.

The distribution of the elusive Malabar tree toad Pedostibus tuberculosus was crowdsourced from 38 locations by contributors.

Has the quality of information improved since you started the portal?

Quality has been reasonably good, and we are taking steps to strengthen this. Posting public documents can improve quality, and we are also developing mechanisms where we have quite a few experts verifying observations. Quantity is definitely increasing. For instance, there is much data from Assam, and we may load information from the people’s biodiversity registers in Assam. Taking a cue from Assam, we are hoping that other Indian states may also use the platform to aggregate state specific biodiversity data. With each of these new collaborations, we build new features on to the platform, which is available to everybody else.

Have you not yet collaborated with the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA)?

We have had initial discussions, but nothing has materialised. It would be nice if we could work with them.

Has funding been a challenge for IBP?

Funding has always been a challenge. The CEPF funding got over by 2015. Now it is run as a consortium. A group of institutions have been supporting us. ATREE provided funds for two years. This year we have got funds from the Government of Assam to build a biodiversity portal for the state. The Assam funding goes on until March, and then we will have to look for other sources.

We also run the Bhutan biodiversity portal. The National Biodiversity Centre of Bhutan is very supportive of us. That project will support us financially until next June.

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