Data watching

The digital trail led me to an electricity substation near Walmart, and my first encounter with its globetrotting tenant. In documenting the moment, I joined a community of far-flung onlookers crowdsourcing her story.

Newfoundland, last Summer. Our annual fortnight with my parents-in-law. The humidex was high, and I was listless at my laptop. I’d an instinct for a research path, but needed to connect the hunches; something empirical. That day, like the day before, I sat there Googling.

I stumbled upon a book review, which referenced an app. I downloaded the app, and it located me on a map. Pins fell away as I zoomed in on remote St. John’s, and soon just one remained. I tapped, revealing a profile.

“Geri, drive me to Walmart!”, I shouted excitedly; probably an unusual thing for anyone to shout excitedly, but the pin floated right by that big box. I sensed my target was in residence, at her nearby summer home.

En route I burned data. The profile led me to Facebook, Twitter, and an abundance of activity. I found a webcam; she was at her nest, with her partner and two youngsters. I learned that the tracker was fitted ten months previously and that she’d flown 16,000 kilometres in that time, returning recently from Venezuela via Haiti, Cuba, and the eastern United States.

Her full name was Shanawdithit, named after the last living Beothuk, an indigenous people based on Newfoundland. Within a few minutes, I knew a huge amount about “Shana”.

Exiting the retail sprawl, we arrived at a fabricated forest of fake metal trees: Snow’s Lane electricity substation. The original nest had appeared on live wires without planning permission, so the power company moved it to a dedicated platform just beyond the perimeter (hence the opportunistic webcam). The nest was immediately visible, hidden in plain sight, and I could hear her calls. We crept closer to the platform, and there she was: my first osprey.

This meeting mattered to me. In my teens, I’d stopped birdwatching, but a fascination for raptors remained. Growing up in the English Midlands offered little chance of seeing an osprey, yet I would make pencil drawings of them from reference books. There was a breeding pair in the Scottish Highlands, but that was an eight-hour drive away — and we didn’t even have a car. UK numbers have improved significantly since, but still, I’d never seen an osprey, and I’d never stopped to consider if there were any in Atlantic Canada.

It was my ninth or tenth trip to Newfoundland, yet nobody ever told me about these ubiquitous birds — but then, I never asked. The word “osprey” unlocks common knowledge; ordinary people will detail nest locations (one apparently just by the shopping mall). My father-in-law reports that a bird hunts on the neighbourhood pond — a spectacle I see with my own eyes the next morning.

So anyway, there I was on Snow’s Lane, with this animal that I’d just found on the Internet. It was thrilling. What’s especially fascinating is that my first osprey was not anonymous, not merely an osprey, but an individual, a persona. She had a name and a story, and I already knew more about her than the locals.

I love that when I first met her out there at the substation, I was in a sort of augmented reality, a heightened sensory state, pre-armed with a layer of knowledge — thanks entirely to a serendipitous digital trail.

The natural world is now transparent to the point where sharks tweet; kites write blogs; trees have email addresses, and I’m friends with an osprey.

Today, around 50,000 GPS-equipped wild animals transmit a constant stream of wide-ranging data. Often, hundreds of animals are involved in one study, resulting in enormous hairballs of abstract data.

Things get interesting when we take that data and highlight individuals. Familiarity with a single animal offers researchers a gateway to understanding problems faced by an entire species. I especially love how highlighting individuals makes data relatable to non-academic audiences. It’s clear there are stories in those hairballs, so designers and data engineers often assist with the unravelling; asking questions, identifying patterns and presenting narratives.

However, online communities will autonomously crowdsource open-ended narratives, watching for new data and folding it into ongoing group threads. Bird watchers become data watchers. When animals receive online personas, onlookers adopt them, become invested, and connect with each other around tracked animals. Human communities develop, and friendships form—a heartening byproduct of global animal research.

And so, during that first encounter at Snow’s Lane I submitted my observations to the tracker app. In doing so, I joined the global community gathered around these connected birds, and I continued to help crowdsource Shana’s story. We usually knew where our friend was, and occasionally she’d send updates. I guess most of us have friendships like that, but this was different. Our friend was an osprey.

This story doesn’t end there and I’ll post a followup soon. Throughout my research I’ll also delve deeper into the connected natural world, exploring future benefits and our moral responsibilities.

An earlier version of this article was first shared with my Internet of Natural Things subscribers. If you enjoyed it, please consider joining them.