Integrating Biological and Streams Data into PEARL
Lakes and streams are an abundant and valuable natural resource in Maine, currently being managed and researched by a range of natural resource agencies at both state and federal levels, as well as by academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private individuals. Ready access to both historical and contemporary information collected by these researchers is essential for ensuring full use of existing data, refining existing monitoring programs and designing new surveys. Currently, there is no central location, either physical or electronic, from which to effectively search and access the full range of information available for freshwater resources in Maine. Information not only needs to be readily available to users, it must also be available at a level of detail determined by the individual user.
We propose to expand an existing website (PEARL.maine.edu) to provide a forum for accessing and integrating a multidisciplinary array of data pertaining to lake and stream systems in Maine. PEARL will be expanded in three ways. First, the site will be redesigned to permit the incorporation of stream-based data. Second, a broad range of biological data, already compiled by a separate project, will be uploaded to PEARL. Third, two new information interfaces will be designed specifically for two target usergroups: educators/students, and anglers. In addition, a data submission feature, currently in beta-mode for lake water chemistry data, will be upgraded to permit direct uploading by data providers of their stream-based and biological data sets. We anticipate that the enhanced version of PEARL being proposed here will serve as a valuable model for future efforts designed to improve access to both terrestrial- and marine-based information in Maine and in other states. This is another step as part of creating the environmental database for Maine via PEARL.
Statement of Critical State Issues
Effective stewardship of Maine’s extensive freshwater resources depends on adequate environmental data on which to base management, conservation and research planning. However, it is not sufficient for this information to simply exist; it must also be readily available to scientists, resource managers, educators and others. This project addresses three major information-related issues in Maine. First, there needs to be an improved mechanism for accessing and sharing environmental data, in particular data on freshwater systems. Second, greater consistency in data collection and database development is needed to promote data sharing, integration and syntheses. Third, effective communication of information syntheses developed research and monitoring programs is essential for promoting and implementing wise environmental management policies.
The design of environmental databases is clearly driven by the needs of research and monitoring programs, and by the individual preferences of program personnel. As a result, we will always be faced with data being stored and presented in a broad array of formats. Nevertheless, a certain amount of consistency in the way in which data are stored and/or presented is possible; such consistency would significantly encourage both data sharing and integration. Examples of attainable consistency include: taxonomic names, town names, waterbody codes, dates/times and measurement units. Consistency in database formatting cannot be imposed on researchers. However, the need for this type of consistency can be publicized and promoted. Using the Web as a forum for sharing data sets from multiple sources should be an effective way for promoting database consistency.
The level of detail at which users need to access environmental information will depend on multiple factors, including the questions being asked and the expertise of the user. Some users will not need to access “raw” data tables but, rather, will want to be able to find out who has done what, where, when, and what are the major study conclusions. A town planner, for example, might want to know which threatened or endangered species are known to exist within town boundaries, and when and where these species have been recorded. A watershed or lake manager might want to know when a lake was last censused for fish populations and whether there is an abundant population of zooplanktivorous fish species present in the lake. A natural resource agency planner might want to evaluate where major data gaps exist in order to be able to better focus future sampling efforts. Educators and volunteer monitors might want to be able to easily find out what types of information exist for their own area of interest. These user groups need well-presented information syntheses, as well as user-friendly “road maps” to help guide them to this material and, if so required, to the underlying data tables.
Statement of Results and Benefits
This project will contribute to the evolution of our model web-based forum for sharing and communicating an extensive, multi-disciplinary array of data pertaining to surface freshwater resources in Maine. The primary product from the project will be the new PEARL: a greatly expanded website for both data access and data submission. The current focus of PEARL is on lake information. This project will expand the lakes coverage in PEARL by uploading to the site an extensive set of freshwater biological data, already compiled by the Maine Aquatic Biodiversity Project (MABP). In addition to incorporating lake biological data, this project will also develop the capability for PEARL to accept and display stream data. Once the site architecture has been modified for stream data, MABP’s stream biological data will be uploaded to the site and “new” stream water quality and other data sets will be identified for integration into PEARL.
PEARL will serve a diverse audience, including scientists, resource managers and planners, educators and students, and segments of the general public. PEARL will be able to address these audience segments by adopting two broad approaches to information access. First, users interested in accessing the PEARL data bank will be able to execute targeted data searches that are structured on one or more criteria, including: (a) data category (for example,water quality, flora and fauna); (b) town; (c) lake or stream name or waterbody code, (d) year(s). These initial search(es) will yield a list of data sets, any of which can then be selected, providing access to both metadata and to the underlying data table(s). The user will be offered a choice of which fields are to be presented from the full data table. The data will be downloadable for additional manipulation and analysis by the user. For some of the data sets that contain a time field, certain parameters will be graphable directly in the website.
As a second approach to accessing information in PEARL, this project will develop customized information interfaces for two targeted user-groups: educators and students, and anglers. These interfaces will focus on guiding users to those parts of the PEARL data bank that are likely to be of most interest to them. The interfaces will also provide series of pre-developed data syntheses and interactive data queries designed to extract pertinent information summaries from the PEARL data bank.
The student/educator interface will represent a potentially valuable resource for use in the Maine laptop program (Grades 7-8). Structuring the interfaces so that users can “drill down” to the underlying data tables will also provide a teaching resource at the high school level, thus extending into older grades the current middle school emphasis on computer technology in the classroom. These interfaces will represent pilots that will serve as a base for future development of products aimed at a wider series of targeted user-groups.
Expansion of PEARL will benefit the broader field of information access and management in Maine in at least two additional ways. First, this project will develop and publicize a series of data and metadata formating guidelines that will be requirements for uploading data sets to PEARL. It is anticipated that such guidelines will encourage data providers to put more emphasis on developing consistency in the structuring of their data sets. Second, the expanded PEARL will serve as a model of “one-stop shopping” for environmental data, a model that could be readily extended to other information sectors in Maine and other parts of the country.