Spreading the eco-word

22:54, Dec 12 2012
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Main Trust members Barbara Hammonds and Elise Smith check the Penguin boxes at Breakwater Bay in New

On a black and white screen we gaze at two bundles with small beaks. Nuzzling into each other, they twist as one. They're baby penguins, hatched two weeks ago. By the time this story is published they're likely to be out at sea with Mum and Dad. But last week they nestled in a penguin- nesting box, behind the building that is Chaddy's Charters at New Plymouth's harbour.

A small camera tucked at the top of the rudimentary box captures their frolicking. Inside Chaddy's Charters half a dozen of us stand around the screen, marvelling at their playfulness.

"They're quite active, aren't they," says Elise Smith. She and Barbara Hammonds have brought us here. Earlier they pointed out other nesting boxes, partly buried in long grass on the strip jutting out from Gusto cafe, which leads to Heliview's harbour base.

Along here are 12 wooden and concrete boxes, a sanctuary for the blue penguin when it comes ashore at night.

If more people were aware that they were roosting, interest might be piqued. People might keep dogs on a lead, for example.

"It means this is not just a nice place to have a coffee; it's a more meaningful spot," says Hammonds, a botanist who formerly worked for the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC).


The Nga Motu Marine Reserve Society, in conjunction with the Department of Conservation, provides the blue penguin nesting boxes. Other boxes are tucked up the coastline at Bell Block, Waiti- iti, Onaero and Urenui.

Data loggers in the boxes measure temperature and light. Changes in these factors indicate if boxes are being used. Some, like the boxes behind Chaddy's, contain the mini cameras.

"This way we can see if they're being used without having to put our hands in them, although we're still learning to interpret the data," says Smith, an ecologist who's long been active in environmental groups such as Forest and Bird and the Nga Motu Marine Reserve Society.

It's information like this - statistics about numbers, usage, and length of stay - that's being logged on a new online database run by MAIN, the Mapping, Analysis and Information Network Trust.

Trust members aim to get environmental information that might have been stored in dusty boxes under beds into a system that many more people can use.

"This kind of stuff can be easily hidden in someone's computer or head," says Hammonds, talking about generational amnesia.

Technological advances now make it possible to collate all this vital data into one location.

There are limits to the information: Names and addresses of environmental group members or an exact location of a rare plant, for example, are avoided.

But in short it is a Geographic Information System (GIS) or digital mapping tool that lays over the top a bundle of other information. The TRC has given the trust access to countless aerial maps.

Says Smith: "GIS can be very complicated and involved but really you can use it for anything. There's realisation now that people don't have to have layers and layers of information."

There's the case of the blue penguin data. Smith and Hammonds, both trustees of MAIN, want to make it easy for members of the public to enter their own data - sightings for example - so a regional picture is built up of penguin habitats, population or feeding habits.

This way collective regional knowledge is being built and future protection of the marine birds can be co-ordinated.

The idea for this digital 'library' of information sprang from a Friends of Pukekura Park initiative. Members wanted to get the information out of the heads of former curator George Fuller and bird expert David Medway. It's not that they wanted to suck out every morsel of data; rather, there was recognition that when people are no longer actively involved, information is lost.

That pilot project, the Pukekura Park Portal Project, began in 2007 with Puke Ariki working alongside volunteers to prepare maps that pinpointed locations, particularly of important trees.

About $200,000 in funding paid for technical expertise, with thousands more donated in voluntary time.

"Technological people are keen, generous and wonderful so we've had an enormous amount of free time given because people want to be nice. One of our programmers lives in Dunedin and he's produced a lot of nice interfaces for us," says Smith

Over the past year the MAIN trust has become a charitable organisation with the trustees being Smith, Hammonds, Linda Way and Chris Wild. All are New Plymouth based except Wild.

The MAIN system is unique, say Hammonds and Smith.

It uses open source software, which means several things: Open source software is developed by people who don't make a lot of money out of their work. It's free for others to use, it's often developed collaboratively and under an open source license, users can study, edit and sometimes distribute the software. "You can do a whole suite of sophisticated things at a very affordable rate," says Hammonds.

One group experimenting under the MAIN umbrella is the Friends of Te Henui. Group stalwart Phil Bendle has meticulously recorded plant information along the walkway. Click onto aerial maps of the walkway, zoom in on a red dot and up pops information about that particular plant. It might be a titoki. Different sub-headings or fields indicate information such as where it is located, its botanical name, and how many other titoki there are.

Another project revolves around beach transects - the lines across the shoreline that are monitored over a period of time. Plants and animals found along those lines are recorded; changes are noted and compiled. Layers of detail and patterns build up through this method of geographical sampling.

It's a scientific method for comparison over time that doesn't rely on hearsay, explains Hammonds.

The MAIN trust is keen for groups to use the tools although there's a set-up cost of about $3000, which includes the time involved in someone inputting the data to a certain standard. That standard is required to ensure the information can be 'read' by other systems such as those run by government departments. If that high standard and consistency isn't there, information loses its relevancy and reliability. The trust wants this system to be used by people around the country. It's not site specific, says Smith who knows marine scientists in Otago want to develop something like this so she's hoping the trust and the scientists can work together.

MAIN has been involved in some preliminary development of maps of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Dunedin.

A group might bother to spend the money to ensure future efficiencies. For example, members could be involved in pest trapping and recording. Their findings might be recorded in an Excel spreadsheet - but each person might have different fields or sub- headings within that spreadsheet. That makes it hard to compare. "It's the consistency and simplicity of getting the information out," says Barbara. Once the information is standardised, with aerial maps forming part of that bank of detail, the group could work out where to become more effective and put its efforts.

Similar groups in other parts of the country could tap into the information, feeding off existing knowledge and sharing their progress.

The MAIN system talks to Excel so a community group wouldn't have to duplicate or start from scratch in inputting data.

They would, however, need to have an idea of what their part of the system would like look, a sense of how their information could be categorised and displayed for example.

"It would be great to see more people using it for collecting this knowledge and data so that more becomes publicly available. You might only want something simple," says Hammonds. But that's the beauty of it: It can be as simple as knowing where and when blue penguins come ashore. People can become better custodians of their natural world. It doesn't make knowledge esoteric or random - instead we all get to see and share in environmental wisdom.


MAIN is the Mapping, Analysis and Information Network Trust.

It is a charitable trust formed in Taranaki.

It aims to provide an online mapping service that enables the collection of community data using approved digital standards.

MAIN should help community groups better focus their efforts by sharing information.

It aims to get data out of dusty boxes and into nationally useful formats to prevent generational amnesia.

It stemmed from a Friends of Pukekura Park pilot project, run in conjunction with Puke Ariki.

It uses Open Source software - software that's often developed collaboratively and for free.

For further information see main.net.nz.

Taranaki Daily News