In recent decades, people across the world have adopted ‘smart-phones’ and their technology. Software applications on these devices have become diverse in their functionality and easy to use. Citizen science projects that try to mobilise data collection from people from diverse backgrounds are ideally placed to benefit from the acceptance of easy-to-use technology. This article describes the development of the mobile BirdLasser app and its integrated gamification network, with emphasis on how its unique features contributed to increased participation and submission of data to the current Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) and associated BirdMap projects across Africa. The app has experienced a high adoption rate by contributors to SABAP2 (atlassers), birdwatchers and conservationists, contributing to causes, creating life lists and taking part in events. The app has been associated with the recruitment of new participants, but this has also seen a change in atlassing patterns, suggesting caution when using traditional measures of abundance comparisons, especially reporting rate, before and after the adoption of BirdLasser as the data submission pathway. We show that a well-designed mobile app that facilitates the flow of information from observers to databases is essential for maintaining long-term citizen science based, monitoring projects, especially if the platform is fun, well-supported, and free to use; but the introduction of an app may also introduce subtle changes to the data itself and so data submission pathways to citizen science projects is a field that requires additional research.
Citizen Science and birdwatching
Citizen science, the use of volunteers to collect data, has become hugely popular in recent decades (Robertson et al. 2010). Citizens contribute information, because they are motivated to contribute to “real” science, and conservation (Wright et al. 2015). Scientists can direct large numbers of volunteers to collect information that would otherwise not be affordable in terms of time, scale or manpower (Bonney et al. 2009). Birdwatching, the activity of looking for and recording bird species, is a popular past-time across the globe and an important ecotourism industry (Steven et al. 2013; Steven et al. 2015). Some of the longest running and largest citizen science programs in South Africa are broad-scale bird monitoring projects, where bird watchers submit lists of birds to centrally managed databases (Underhill et al. 1991; Harrison et al. 2008; Hulbert 2016).
A brief history of data submission through the South African Bird Atlas Projects
The first South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1) was a citizen science bird mapping project that took place from 1987 to 1992, building on various regional atlas projects conducted prior to this period (e.g. Parker 1994). Data from this project has been used widely in the scientific literature, from examining range changes (Little and Navarro 2019), to seasonal trends of occurrence (Craig and Hulley 2019), to estimating populations (Lee et al. 2018). The methods and protocol are outlined in detail in Harrison et al. (1997). In essence, the birdwatching community of southern Africa was mobilised to collect their sightings of birds in a standardized format, compiling their lists per quarter degree grid cell geographic areas (QDGC; but larger half-degree grid cells in Botswana). Volunteers were sent introductory materials, including an instruction booklet and printed checklists. The instruction booklet contained simple grid maps of the atlas regions and lists of the names and codes of the sampling units, but observers needed to acquire their own detailed maps of the areas they intended to visit. From 7 000 initially interested subscribers, only some 2 000 were regular contributors; 80% of the data was collected by 15% (750) of observers. Many volunteers were put off by the impression of technical complexity (Harrison et al. 1997).
All sightings for a quarter degree grid cell (QDGC), approximately 27 km long (north-south) and 23 km wide (east-west), were entered onto a region-specific bird list, which were printed out and either completed by hand in the field, or later from notebooks. These lists were sent to the University of Cape Town, where capturing of raw data was done directly from the checklists by the data-capture service of the university (Harrison et al. 1997). Data processing was done using in-house custom-written FORTRAN programmes, which implemented a variety of data checks for numbers falling outside defined limits (Harrison et al. 1997).
The second atlas project (SABAP2) was initiated in 2007 and is ongoing. The protocol was similar to that used for SABAP1, but at a finer spatial and temporal resolution, using pentads (5 × 5 minutes: there are nine pentads in a QDGC) and recording species over at most five-day periods, compared with monthly lists in SABAP1. There was also an attempt to standardise the minimum time effort for a list to count towards estimates of species reporting rates (two hours and coverage of all major habitats in order for lists to qualify as ‘full protocol’ lists). In addition, species were to be reported in the order sighted, on the assumption that more common species will appear earlier on species lists and rare species generally recorded last (Harebottle et al. 2007).
Volunteers for SABAP2 were recruited in a similar manner to those for SABAP1, but this time in addition to being provided printable data sheets were also provided with a software programme (Data Management System - DMS). The software was developed by the Animal Demography Unit (ADU, UCT) and provided free of charge. The DMS could be loaded onto Microsoft Windows operating systems, and allowed volunteers to enter their own data. Observers needed to manually enter pentad description information, dates, start and end times, species lists, and the number of species accumulated per hour of observation. Completed field sheets could be submitted to the central database using an internet connection. It was used by the majority of volunteers for the first six years of the project. Free GIS software to inform coverage efforts together with digital copies of 1:50 000 maps of South Africa were also provided to facilitate planning atlassing efforts.
An online submission process was also developed via the SABAP2 website ( www.sabap2.adu.org.za), and this continues currently. Observers log in and complete an online form that constitutes all the fields that were included in the DMS and required for the atlas project. A major innovation here was the inclusion of a Google map, which allowed observers to find their location, click on the map and automatically select the correct pentad code. Both the DMS and online submissions represented a major development for South African bird atlas projects. For the first time volunteers were able to capture their own bird atlas data electronically and submit cards directly to the national database. This ‘drastically’ improved submission rates and to some degree stimulated participation in the project (D Harebottle, Sol Plaatje University, pers. comm.).
Early software applications (apps)
Keeping digital records of sightings have been possible since the early days of mobile apps; SASOL eBirds gave a user the option to ‘tick’ a species, saving the date and time with the record. Roberts field guides (e.g. Hockey et al. 2005) soon followed, giving the user the option to identify and record a bird. The first free dedicated field logging app for the sub-region was g-Bird (Natural World Foundation, g-bird.org). Users could create a list, record species, and then the co-ordinates, date and time were saved as part of the record. Quite a few atlassers used the app as a means of electronic note keeping, but still had to recapture their data on the SABAP2 website/DMS.
The first dedicated mobile atlassing app was implemented by Lynx Development called BirdTicks in 2012. However, this was a commercial product available to Android-based devices only, and as a result was not widely adopted (100+ installs for the commercial version, 1000+ for the free trial version according to play.google.com as of March 2019).
In August 2014, BirdLasser was released by Lejint (Pty) Ltd. Although initial uptake was slow, it has now become the default data submission system to SABAP2 (Michael Brooks, SABAP2 database manager, pers. comm.; with 10 000+ installs world-wide as of March 2019; Figure 1), with popularity attributed to it being professionally designed, regularly updated to solve issues, free, more dynamic (inclusion of maps), integration with social media, and a close working relationship with the SABAP2 supporters and database staff (E Retief, BirdLife South Africa, pers. comm.). More on the development and background are in Appendix 1.
BirdLasser is an app designed for both Apple and Android phones that facilitates recording and sharing of bird observation locations (it is not a bird identification guide). The observations are grouped in a trip card; once created, the card is empty. Observations of birds are added by tapping on the LOG button, searching for the appropriate species in the list, then tapping on it. The software automatically records date, time, and GPS location for each species record. Records can be viewed either as a list or on a map, are easily modified, and the app allows users to add a large variety of supplementary information (e.g. number of individuals seen, demography, habitat use, behaviour). Use of the ‘Additional’ text field could easily be tailored to include additional information, for example distances to groups of perched birds for point counts or line transects, because this can be easily exported as a CSV file.
The app appeals to citizen scientists by facilitating data collection, as well as to bird watchers more interested in maintaining ‘life-lists’ that the app records and organises easily. Participation is encouraged through online events via the app's website (birdlasser.com). If atlassing mode in BirdLasser is selected, observations are automatically allocated to field sheets that conform to atlassing protocols i.e. field sheets represent pentads, time spent in a pentad is recorded if the phone is active, and a new field sheet is created automatically after five days have been spent in a pentad. New pentad lists are created automatically based on GPS position, allowing observers to move more freely on their birding routes. Most data that had to be manually entered previously is now automatically recorded (date, start time, species hourly accumulation lists). Records are backed up in the cloud, i.e. if a phone is lost, the data can easily be restored to the new phone. Records can be exported as CSV files or shared using a variety of methods, including most social media applications.
Bird sightings can also be shared with various ‘causes', i.e. conservation and/or academic institutions (e.g. threatened and other important species ‘cause’ sends data to BirdLife South Africa), or posted on a variety of social media platforms. The app caters for various regions of the world, and is compatible with the eBirds project (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), but uptake and use has mostly been in Africa (H Nel unpubl. data). There has been considerable drive by BirdLasser and associated partners, i.e. BirdLife South Africa, to promote the app as a tool for birdwatchers and atlassers. Several demonstrations at bird clubs and birding events have taken place and many ‘atlas bashes’, which target an area for intense atlassing over a weekend, have run BirdLasser workshops at the start of proceedings. This has helped to grow the BirdLasser movement particularly with South Africa's citizen scientists and general birders.
The influence of BirdLasser on data submissions and atlassing ‘culture'
For the purposes of this section we consider 2008–2014 as the ‘pre-BirdLasser' period, and 2015–2018 as the ‘BirdLasser period', excluding data from outside this period. The influence of BirdLasser on SABAP2 participation and contribution has been stark: the average number of observers contributing lists per year for the 2008–2013 period was 606 ± 95, compared with 942 ± 194 for the 2014–2018 period, i.e. the ‘BirdLasser period’ is 155% of the pre-BirdLasser period. The contribution in terms of data submission was also high, with the BirdLasser period 148% of the pre-BirdLasser period (Figure 1). In terms of ‘coverage’, or how many unique pentads data are coming from, the difference is less marked, with 4 691 per year for the pre-BirdLasser period, and 4 829 for the BirdLasser period (103%).
However, there has also been a change in the type of data submitted:, while the ‘full protocol' lists are preferable from a statistical analysis point of view, more data are being submitted as ‘ad hoc' records (Figure 2). ‘Full protocol’ means that at least two hours of searching has been conducted, over as much of the pentad as is accessible. Ad hoc records are cards that do not fulfil these criteria (lists made at single locations and/or less than two hours). Ad hoc records for the BirdLasser period are 871% of the pre-BirdLasser period, with a record 30 837 submitted during 2017. Ad hoc records allow mapping of bird locations, but not indices of relative abundance derived from the full protocol submission format, known as reporting rates (how often a species appears in a set of cards, usually expressed as a percentage or variations thereof (Lee et al. 2017). However, the use of information from ad hoc records should be more widely explored by scientists, because more of this information is now available.
The influence of BirdLasser on data patterns
Some 841 observers contributed data prior to the BirdLasser period only, which we refer to further as ‘retirees'. By contrast, 1 143 observers have been recruited during the BirdLasser period (‘new recruits'). Some 777 observers have contributed during both periods (‘veterans'). An observers’ status influences the data they contribute, with repercussions for broad patterns: annual species richness patterns are strongly explained by atlassing period: on average, total species per card (species richness) is 49 species since 2014, but 52.9 prior to this period, a small, but significant difference (linear regression of species per card as a function of atlas period: BirdLasser period = 49.08 ± 0.6; pre-BirdLasser period = 52.92 ± 0.75, F1,9 = 26.4, p < 0.01; Figure 3; data from http://api.adu.org.za/sabap2/v2/cards/species/info/749?format=csv). However, these patterns can be explained by observer status, with veterans contributing on average eight species more per atlas card, compared with new recruits, with retirees intermediate with five species more per card than the new recruits (linear mixed model of species richness as a function of observer status, with pentad as random effect: intercept (new recruits) = 34.87 ± 0.16; retirees = 39.85 ± 0.22; veterans = 43.29 ± 0.13; F2,243075 = 2131, p < 0.01). This is unlikely a function of effort spent atlassing alone, although all three groups spent just over three hours on average per card submitted this difference was also significant (new recruit 3.03 ± 2.34, retiree 3.72 ± 4.63, veteran 3.37 ± 14.5 hours; F2,243075 = 13, p < 0.01). It has been previously shown that accounting for observer experience can improve species distribution models (Johnston et al. 2018).
To more closely examine the influence of atlassing period on species' reporting rates (the commonly used measure of abundance), data for 58 species (the set of South African endemics considered in Lee et al. (2017)) was downloaded on 13 March 2019 from http://api.adu.org.za/sabap2/v2/cards/species/info/XXX?format=csv, where XXX is the SABAP2 species number. The data was filtered to include only pentads for South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (excluding other BirdMap records also available from this download option).
The reporting rate across the 58 species was significantly different between periods when controlling for species (linear mixed model with species as random effect: intercept = 26.12 ± 1.5; pre-BirdLasser period = 27.09 ± 0.36; F = 7.15, p = 0.008). This means that some interannual decline trends in reporting rate as currently illustrated on the SABAP2 website may not represent real declines in species abundance over this period. Although we cannot say with certainty that this is not attributable to ecological reasons e.g. drought, it does seem suspicious that the declines in reporting rate are observed for a wide variety of unrelated bird species (Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis, Southern Boubou Laniarius ferrugineus, Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, European Starling Sturnus vulgaris), and it likewise seems odd that population trend seems stable for some species thought to be on the increase, e.g. Pied Crow Corvus albus (see charts of interannual reporting rate from the SABAP2 website in Supplementary Information). Declines are more likely the result of more cards being submitted, each with fewer species. Because the denominator of reporting rate is the number of cards, this means derived values can be lower independent of any actual population change. Users of reporting rate to identify long-term population changes must accordingly take this into account (e.g. Brown et al. 2019) or use alternative metrics, for example z scores (Hofmeyr et al. 2014), or the ‘sequence position'.
The sequence position is an alternative to reporting rate, which has been recently introduced into data available for download from sabap2.adu.org.za. The sequence position is the relative position of where a species is recorded during an atlas card: common species are generally recorded first, rare species last. Because this index does not rely on number of cards, it seems more robust to the effect of atlas period, with no significant influence of period on sequence position for the above set of birds (linear mixed model with species as a random effect: BirdLasser period = 30.79 ± 0.9; pre-BirdLasser period = 30.87 ± 0.5; F1,577 = 0.03, p = 0.86), suggesting that sequence position may be more useful over the SABAP2 time period for identifying interannual changes in abundance, while accounting for changes in atlassing patterns for broad summaries, but additional exploration is required. Occupancy type modelling techniques are also available that account for the observation process for detailed studies investigating population change (MacKenzie et al 2018), although these models are technical and computationally expensive, requiring large amounts of processing power and time.
BirdLasser has substantially increased participation in, and contribution to, the South African Bird Atlas Project, Kenya Bird Map and Nigerian Bird Atlas. Through its development as a tool that addresses the requirements of the birding community, BirdLasser, like eBirds, has grown and sustains participation (Sullivan et al. 2009). Environmental impact assessment practitioners, birders, scientists, and conservationists are using SABAP2 to better understand avian biological patterns and the environmental and anthropogenic factors that influence them (Jenkins et al. 2010). Long-term citizen science projects will benefit from the development of apps that make life easy for participants, and should be a consideration in the planning of any citizen science project from the beginning to avoid any changes in data contribution patterns that may result from the use of the app. On a note of caution, apps should also be economically viable to ensure that the app will be updated and supported as required, hosting costs covered, salaries earned etc. If this cannot be ensured, the app can become a risk factor should the project become dependent on the app and it is decommissioned. In addition, leadership and direction is required to maintain momentum and loyalty, a concern for SABAP2, given competition from other citizen science projects.
We thank Ernst Retief, Peter Ryan and Doug Harebottle for comments on a draft version of this manuscript, as well as two anonymous reviewers. We also thank Michael Brooks for technical assistance, as well as all contributors to SABAP2.
Appendix 1: BirdLasser: History and development
What started out as a simple bird atlassing app for iPhones in mid-2013, quickly morphed into a much grander vision of what can be achieved with smart design, quality development and exceptional service to cater for both competitive birders and conservation causes. The founders realised that technology was ripe to service conservation through a collective desire by birders to make a difference. Citizen science, or social conservation, was the next big buzz phrase, and BirdLasser set out to supply this market with the technology that can assist in helping birders play a part.
With the idea of creating a real-time logging iOS app that can also be used for atlassing, the development started in November 2013. There was heavy emphasis on doing things differently; the app would look and feel like no other birding app before it. It had to be feature rich, but not complicated; easily integrate with conservation causes and users' social networks, but not intrusive and it had to be powerful and intelligent, but not compromise performance.
By April 2014, the alpha release was distributed to a handful of pilot users, and a couple of months later, more pilot users were added to test-run the beta version. Then, on 16 August 2014, the iOS version was available from the Apple App Store to the general public. Market uptake exceeded expectations, 200 users in the first month, reaching just shy of 600 by year end. Although never the intention to go Android, there was an overwhelming demand from the market, so development started in January 2015 and the first release went live on 29 of May 2015. Microsoft South Africa offered to develop a Microsoft version, which was released in June 2015. The app is now freely available for most phone operating systems.
With an ever-increasing user-base, the challenge was to ‘convert' casual birders/listers into citizen scientists (only an estimated 40% of the users are atlassers). Because of the seemingly high barrier of entry to become atlassers, the decision was made to develop a simple process whereby users could capture additional information about an observation and share it directly with conservation and research initiatives, the ‘Cause’ concept was born.
Causes: As of the beginning of 2019, there were seven causes registered with BirdLasser: The University of the Witwatersrand Invasive Species Project, BirdLife South Africa's Threatened and Other Important Species Cause, Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, FitzPatrick's Institute's Martial Eagles of the Kruger National Park, Wild Bird Trust's Cape Parrot Project, Sol Plaatje's HeronryMAP and the Veterinary Wildlife Services' KNP Yellow-billed Oxpecker project.
Events/challenges: Partnerships with the West Rand Honorary Rangers and BirdLife South Africa saw the first gamification platforms of its sort to be launched in November 2015, records logged by users show in almost real-time, on a website, with a leader board to increase the competitive aspect. Participants in Punda Mania 2015 and Birding Big Day 2015 were the first to take part in these events. The idea is for users to ultimately create and manage their own events/challenges hosted by BirdLasser.
Expanding into Africa: BirdLasser was released to Kenya in 2015, then later to Nigeria, as a result of the atlas protocol being adopted in these two countries under the auspices of the BirdMap project. Word spread quickly, the app unexpectedly leapfrogged into other countries, where it is not only used as a general listing app, but also for atlassing. #GoodTimeToBeACitizenScientist
Southern Africa – Collection of southern African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho.
SABAP2 – The second Southern African Bird Atlas Project, a citizen science project initiated in 2007 through the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town in conjunction with BirdLife South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). This followed on from what is commonly referred to as SABAP1, run from
BirdMAP – The collective name for the bird atlas projects running in various African countries
Atlas (protocol) – The bird data collection protocol defined by SABAP2.
Atlasser or atlaser – The term used to describe a person following the atlas protocol to collect, record and submit bird observation data.
Atlassing or atlasing– The term describing the process of collecting and recording bird observation data according to the atlas protocol.
Pentad – An area, 5' latitude by 5' longitude.
Field sheet – A list of bird species recorded according to the atlas protocol, spanning no more than five consecutive calendar days and within a pentad.
(Atlas) card – Once a field sheet is submitted to SABAP2, it is referred to as a card. Field sheets are often referred to as cards as well.
Cause – A non-profit research or conservation initiative registered with BirdLasser.
QDGC (Quarter Degree Grid Cell) – ½ degree latitude by ½ degree longitude. There are nine pentads in a QDGC.