From Verification to Modeling: Adding Complexity and Realism to Web-Based Environmental Assessment Tools, Version 2

Description of Fellowship Project

The Volunteer Stream Monitoring Partnership, a program of the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center, provides academics and environmental professionals with vital information about the health of Minnesota streams. Over 1,900 volunteers monitor 51 stream sites in the Twin Cities metropolitan area; they gather aquatic insect specimens, identify them, interpret their results relative to water quality at their stream sites and submit their findings. I contributed to this project by designing the Aquatic Insect Interactive Verification Program Web site, which leverages the power of the Web to help our volunteers accurately identify the specimens they collect. Version 1 was released in December 2006 and has received more than 450,000 hits from users in all 50 states, and more than 121 countries world-wide. Version 2 is scheduled for release this Fall.

Challenges

The success of the Volunteer Stream Monitoring Partnership depends on the accuracy of information that we collect. This presents a challenge given the diversity of experience and knowledge amongst our volunteers who range from high schools students to working professionals, as well as retirees. When we began the program in 1999 the rate of accuracy varied immensely, but for some groups was a discouraging 50 percent correct. Development of a printed guide that includes information keys and line drawings helped bring the rate up to approximately 80 percent. The Chironomidae Research Group and I began to develop Web-based materials as a supplement to the print guide. We have developed Version 1, which consists of an extensive online catalog of photographs organized according to the scientific classification system. Eventually Version 2 of the Web site will also help volunteers learn to verify their findings. I hope that the combination of the printed guide and Version 2 of the Web site will increase the identification accuracy rate among Citizen Volunteers to 95 percent.

Goals

Citizen volunteers may not realize when they have incorrectly identified an aquatic insect and may not understand the importance of verifying all findings before submitting data to regional coordinators for archiving. The goals of Version 2 of the web site are to improve the accuracy of insect identifications by volunteers by (1) drawing attention to the possibility of making an error, (2) providing an online module that teaches volunteers how to determine if an error was made by modeling how an expert does it, and (3) then providing a resource to help correct the error.

Outcomes

By using the VSM-IVP Version 2 Web site, volunteers will be able to:
1. Use the site to test the accuracy of each of their identifications.
2. Make a series of two-way comparisons to determine the correct identification if an error has been detected. Two-way comparisons will be of similar-looking groups of insects, or the two-way comparisons will be arranged hierarchically from the most common errors to the least frequent errors.
3. Develop a more accurate mental image of the individual groups of insects based on color photographs of insects and parts of insects rather than the idealized line drawings used to build the conventional paper-based dichotomous identification guides that we have developed.

Resources

Printable copies of our paper-based identification guide can be downloaded at:
http://www.entomology.umn.edu/midge/GuidePage.htm

Version 1 of our VSM-IVP Web site can be accessed at:
http://www.entomology.umn.edu/midge/VSMIVP.htm

More information about the Chironomidae Research Group is available at:
http://www.entomology.umn.edu/midge/index.htm

Information about members of the Chironomidae Research Group and their professional biographies can be obtained from:
http://www.entomology.umn.edu/midge/People.htm

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