Putting Your Data to Work With myObservatory


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Editor's Note: myObservatory is a SciStarter advertiser but had no editorial input or control over this blog post. When I attended the Citizen Science Association’s first national conference in San Jose earlier this year, I noticed a recurring theme: while there has been an explosion in the collection of data by volunteers across the globe, researchers are still challenged to find the time and resources to organize, analyze, understand, and share all that data. Helping people use technology to make their data meaningful is the idea behind myObservatory, an information management system platform that allows users to collect, check, analyze, and share data. The small company was founded in 2007 by Yoram Rubin, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has a passion for conserving natural resources. “I was born and raised in the desert where water was life and everyone conserved every drop of it,” Rubin said. This early appreciation for water led Rubin to study and later teach about ground water resource management. Eight years ago, he joined a project to help food processing facilities in California’s Central Valley understand how their operations were impacting nearby groundwater supplies. The data they had collected was housed in hundreds of paper reports stored in the “dungeons” of these plants, he said. So he and a small team of software engineers developed a web-based tool to allow workers at the facilities to collect, check, display, search, and share their information at a professional level. During the last 15 years or so, data management technology has blossomed in fields like medicine and education, Rubin said, but the same gains had not been as quick in the environmental fields. While working on the Central Valley project, Rubin recognized that the environmental field needed an easy-to-use online system that provided quick data analysis capabilities as well as continuity through the periodic changes in staff and volunteer leadership that often occur in long-term monitoring programs. “My goal with MyObservatory is to bring together environmental science with information technology,” he said. Today, the tool he and his team designed helps users create customized forms; collect and house GPS-tracked data; organize information by region and visualize data using time lapse photo views and other display tools; run quality assurance protocols; make estimates about regions that have not been sampled; and run statistical analyses. MyObservatory also allows users to share data with different types of users while controlling access to information, and customization is easy enough for customers to accomplish on their own without having to hire extra help, Rubin said. It is available globally, and since its inception, farmers, educators, and researchers (including citizen scientists) from 17 countries in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia have used MyObservatory to derive meaning from their data. A number of holistic agriculture farmers, including cattle ranchers in Virginia, use MyObservatory to develop strategies to avoid negatively impacting the ecosystems where they farm. Teachers are using MyObservatory to offer math and science students opportunities to learn while using real data. And many people are using MyObservatory to protect the natural resource Rubin learned to appreciate as a youth: water. These include citizen scientists in Portugal monitoring 250,000 kilometers of streams to help protect the country’s river network; a nonprofit in South America investigating the country’s water treatment practices; community members in the West Bank documenting water pollution abuses; and citizen scientists in Sonoma County collecting ground water data to understand and respond to California’s drought. With MyObservatory, Rubin and his team are empowering individuals and organizations with the ability to put the data they collect to work.

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