Atlas of Biological Work: design, tools, technologies

Atlas of Biological Work


needs to facilitate transparent, repeatable observations, and also facilitate participation, framing, and interpretation. This means that data systems and tools must be citizen-usable, accessible, and user-friendly, and that rigid data schemas and numerous blank fields may take a back seat to usability and flexibility. For example, many academic and institutional databases are designed so that all data conforms to rigid standards and formats. For the Atlas of Biological Work, site-specific repeatability is more important than data standardization. 

Data entry and mapping

There are a bewildering variety of tools and technologies out there for entering and mapping data. For many years, GIS (Geographic Information Systems, a binary file format that often ends in .shp) was the standard, but these days the more accessible text-based formats such as GeoJSON are ascendant, and there are many open-source platforms and tools for data entry and display, and it is possible to build reliable and sturdy mapping systems on open-source components such as Leaflet and Open Street Maps using HTML and JavaScript. is one example: our open-source, free, offline-capable web app that works on any device with a modern browser. We will be making some local installations of this software as the Atlas grows, as it fulfills nearly every requirement for flexibility, open source, offline-capable, and has its own API so the data is not in a silo. For example, try this link for a machine-readable version of some data.

And there are many native apps that also work well for a variety of flexible and configurable data entry:

ODK (old but very reliable, also the model for Android only, offline-capable.

MapIt-GIS is relatively low-cost and flexible

Google Forms works well if you are collecting photos, numbers, and text, or if you have an auxiliary GPS and can use that for location. 

There are also app development frameworks that enable you to build your own app via a drag-and-drop interface. They typically are not free.

Georeferenced data can also be displayed in Google Maps with a spreadsheet that can be uploaded as a Google Fusion Table. See for an example.

Map layers is a potential platform for a good deal of data, but one of the core formats of the Atlas will be map layers in GeoJSON format. These can then be layered together using Leaflet or other tools in custom, local maps to display whatever combination of data that is most relevant -- even including data on problems, symptoms, or species. The core idea of Atlas is thus a participatory, flexible, and open mashup rather than a pre-configured website with limited options. 

Tools for making observations

The guide has a checklist of common tools for making water infiltration, soil cover, soil density, and soil sample observations. Sometimes these take a bit of ingenuity in finding the right materials, for example for infiltration rings that can be made of aluminum irrigation pipe but steel is better (an auger tube works well, so does a combine reel axle).

We like an infra-red thermometer for measuring black-body radiation from vegetation, soil, and sky. This can be an incredibly revealing activity around how plants manage water, and in managing water they manage heat, as Peter Andrews has noted.

5x plastic jeweler's loupes are a great tool for groups and individuals, to break down their stereotypes of all kinds of small things, and to see the soil surface with different eyes. Order them through the Private Eye.

Social skills

Last but not least are some skills and formats for creating an environment between people where listening and trust can grow, perspectives can be shared, and wedge issues defused, while people enlarge their views and contexts for soil health and watershed issues. Bob Chadwick's book Finding New Ground is a great guide and explanation.

See also the downloadable booklet on the Atlas of Biological Work.