Vital Signs

Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Where are the invasive species in Maine? What native species do they impact?

An ambitious citizen science data collection, visualization and mapping, and social networking software system was created for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) to provide students, teachers and researchers with the tools and support they need to help answer those questions.

Invasive species can displace native species and seriously threaten the health of ecosystems and are virtually impossible to eliminate once they are well established. But with so many lakes, forests, fields, and miles of coastline in Maine, how is it possible to keep track of new infestations as they appear? GMRI’s response is to get students across the state involved and connected with peers and experts online to share, map, and discuss detailed, evidence-based, multimedia information about the species they find. Vital Signs is an ongoing educational effort with significant environmental and scientific impact.

We researched, prototype tested, designed and programmed an extensive suite of web browser-based tools. Using open source Drupal contributed and custom modules, and Google Maps and Yahoo UI APIs, our user research/interaction design team and software engineers created a robust data-driven system that has supported the Vital Signs community since 2009. We also tested field and classroom protocols, data entry forms, mapping, and commenting in classrooms with students and teachers.


The experience

  • Vital Signs Field Missions prompt students to look for invasive species of interest to the scientific community. In the field, students document their observations with cameras and GPS.
  • Students post their species observations to the Vital Signs website. Thousands of species observations, photos, and GPS locations have been contributed since the site’s launch in 2009. The online data collection form effectively prompts students to provide detailed written and photo evidence to prove they found (or did not find) the invasive species they were looking for.
  • Students use the map, tables, and custom search functions to get the data they need to answer Analysis Mission questions related to the species they looked for. They post multimedia video and audio projects explaining their results and conclusions.
  • The experience includes extensive use of social media and networking tools:
    Participants regularly comment on the species observations posted to the Vital Signs website.
  • Species experts from Maine and across the country review the observations and provide feedback to ensure high quality data is available to the scientific community and to natural resource managers.
  • Teachers post lesson plans and resources to the site for other teachers in the community to use and re-mix.