The Kea Database: a new citizen science project

3 August 2017 | #article#kea#featured#conservation

On one particularly rainy day at the start of July, over fifty people gathered in Arthur’s Pass to celebrate the opening of the Kea Information Shelter.

The shelter was the result of over a years’ worth of work by Dr. Laura Young, Mark Brabyn and myself (alongside numerous hours of volunteer labour from many people), and marked the completion of the first major part of the Arthur’s Pass Kea Citizen Science project. Consisting of six large information boards, the shelter helps highlight the history, intelligence, threats, local kea ‘personalities’ and other interesting things about our special alpine parrot, Nestor notabilis.

The Kea Information Shelter in the rain People checking out the Kea Information Shelter immediately after opening

Part of the reason for the project is that it seems that a lot of people underestimate just how threatened kea are, with numbers remaining estimated to only be between 3000 and 7000 birds. A contributing factor to this illusion might be that because they are so interested in humans they are seen regularly, giving the appearance of a high population. This is in contrast to the rarely-seen kiwi, in which the southern brown kiwi species alone is estimated to number over 25 000!

Citizen science

Whilst telling people about the plight of kea is helpful, the most engaging and unique part about this project is the citizen science aspect. In a nutshell, this involves the banding of kea with coloured bands which are easily able to be read with the naked eye (or on a photo). These kea are then loaded on to an online database, in which anybody can look up the name of the bird they just saw, find out some key details, learn about its personality and also log sightings of birds (banded or not).

One metal and two plastic bands on a kea's legs An example of new bands on a kea. This band combo would be written down as ‘Yellow : on Black’.

The purpose of this is twofold—both to raise awareness of kea conservation, but also hopefully collect some useful information along the way: i.e. where are kea being seen, but also where are they not being seen.

Amongst other things, the online database for bird details and reporting sightings is the main part of the project that I am responsible for.

The Kea Database

The Kea Database (now online at https://keadatabase.nz/) is the result of hundreds of hours of work. It has certainly been an interesting project to work on, requiring me to design and build the user interface (how it looks), as well as design and implement the back-end (where the data is stored). That’s not to mention sorting out web maps, hosting, data import (from DOC’s kea band Access database), accessibility testing, search engine optimisation, security and more!

TimeZoneOne, the designers of the kea information panels, helped out with the early conceptual design of the website so it was consistent with the styling of the panels, however everything else was something that I needed to figure out!

The end result of all of this is an online database that is designed to be easy to use on all devices—mobiles, tablets and desktops.

Screenshots from the Kea Database The Kea Database, as viewed on a mobile phone

For technical minded readers, it was built using open source software: GeoDjango, PostGIS and Django REST Framework for the back-end; React, SCSS, Bootstrap for the front-end. The API (https://data.keadatabase.nz/) is available for anyone to pull data from, and it is the aim that this will eventually be a documented interface. The source code is also freely available under an AGPL licence on GitHub, so anyone can use the code to build their own database so long as they too share the code they write.

The database is by no means finished—there is still heaps to do, from small things like bug fixes, to larger things like making all ~1000 birds in the system easily searchable, improved maps and a refined report sighting form. But one thing at a time!

Personally I found this project hugely rewarding, because it draws on many things I am interested in: web development, geography, conservation, citizen science, open data and the outdoors.

What’s next

As best I know, nothing like this, i.e. sightings of individual birds (not just species), has been attempted in New Zealand before. It helps that kea are charismatic and easily approachable birds, but who knows—maybe this approach can be taken with other species as well!

As far is this project is concerned, we’re hoping to get our brochures (and soon-to-be-produced posters) out into DOC huts, ski-fields and other places where kea are found. They contain info on kea, and also a paper sightings form—useful in areas of no cellphone coverage!

We’ll also soon be reaching out via media, community groups (e.g. tramping clubs), social media and more to promote the sightings database, but for now we’re just seeing how it performs (and putting the finishing touches on it).

Another aspect to the database is that it enables the sponsorship of individual birds. Community groups, businesses or individuals can pay a sum of money to either name a bird, or ‘adopt’ an existing one. For example the Lyttelton Cubs fundraised money to sponsor Kauri the kea!

In summary

All-in-all, this has been an incredibly interesting project to be able to be involved in—it will be exciting to see where this goes over the next few years. However, this project is only one part of kea conservation efforts—if kea are to survive in the wild we a need significantly more pest control and a better funded Department of Conservation. I’d encourage you to consider this when casting your vote at the upcoming election!


Sponsor a bird

Get in contact if you (or your business) wants to sponsor a bird: contact@keadatabase.nz


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Laura Young & Mark Brabyn—the other two key members of the Arthur’s Pass Kea Team for all of their amazing work with kea. I am lucky to be able to help out with this project.

Thanks also to Josh Kemp from the Department of Conservation (Nelson), for his expertise and access to the kea band database.

(It also goes without saying that I wouldn’t have the ability to work on this project without the support of my family!)

There have also been a whole pile of individuals and businesses that have helped out with the project, and we couldn’t have done it without them. Every little bit helps!