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Thoughtless duplication of Koalatracker application negates progress made by its creator

The reason Alex Harris dedicated so many hours to on her Koala tracking website, built it and gave it to all freely to use, was because all koala conservation efforts to-date had failed. A clear reason for this failure was that every conservation group, research team and government agency insists on working independently of everyone else. They all have their own databases, own projects, own data. And it is all meaningless and ineffective. Governments and koala groups do not want to share with or promote a project they do not own or control, and which they cannot therefore manipulate. Alex Harris, who has dedicated her life to this work has sacrificed her health and finances to this vital community service, sold her car a year ago and has been homeless since March.

FRAGMENTATION OF DATA

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee - the body responsible for recommending which wildlife species are added to the threatened species list - had three opportunities to protect the koala. They considered the question in 1996, 2006 and 2012. On each occasion, despite desperate submissions from wildlife rescuers on the frontline of the decimation of a species, they denied listing. We will forever be grateful for then Environment Minister, Tony Burke, for listing it anyway, even if only in QLD, NSW and ACT.

The reason the Scientific Committee recommended against it was: the “body of data on koala populations is patchy, often sparse and not nationally comprehensive or coordinated.”

Conveniently, no single government agency was collecting data, some states hadn’t tried, others only collected death and injury statistics, or live sightings only, to be filed.

KoalaTracker was launched in February 2010 with the specific intent of gathering a range of data significant to making informed decisions - such as the actual location of koalas (rather than food trees); the actual points of impact (where koalas are hit by car, killed by dog, sick with disease) - to enable more effective risk mitigation by states, councils and communities, all on the public record for everyone to access for free.

It was the single repository of such data until the Australian Koala Foundation paid ESRI Australia and others, extraordinary amounts of money to copy it. A number of councils also copied, and a plethora of other organisations now claim to map koalas.

I argued passionately with ESRI Australia to not copy KoalaTracker (then known as KoalaDiaries) for the very reason that this exacerbates the key issue that had prevented the koala from being listed as threatened.

From my email of October 3rd 2010 to the then sales manager of ESRI Australia:

“The whole reason I have dedicated so many hours to Koala Diaries, built it and given it to all freely to use, is precisely because all koala conservation efforts to-date have failed. This is a fact. One of the clear reasons for this failure is that every conservation group, research team and government agency insists on working independently of everyone else. They all have their own databases, own projects, own data. And it is all meaningless and ineffective.

“The more of these websites you help build or support, the more you dilute the value and usefulness of Koala Diaries; the more you perpetuate the problem of fragmented effort, information, analysis. The koala is doomed with such an approach.”

You can read the correspondence around this and the lead up to the name change that occurred in April 2012 at http://www.koalatracker.com.au/correspondence

The effectiveness and value to science, to government and to the community of a single repository of data is indisputable. And yet, every government; every second wildlife organisation wants its own ‘KoalaTracker’, rather than contribute to national learning; rather than share the data and participate in a hub that brings science, government, business and community together for the koala.

Atlas of Living Great Koala Count a poor imitation adding to confusion

The federal government spent $60 million building the Atlas of Living Australia. Its purpose was to gather information about plant species and fauna across the country. It added to this the Great Koala Count in Adelaide last year - a two-day public survey of koalas in a specified area - and is now extending that into other regions.

The ALA is trying to get everyone to use it, rather than existing resources - such as KoalaTracker. However, the data captured is minimal, the analysis possible is limited, and the ease of use questionable (seriously, click that link). Having obtained the data from the Adelaide count, I found it impossible to import without extensive editing and fudging of the information as there was not sufficient information to create a useful record in KoalaTracker!

It also does not (yet) collect death and injury data, among the most important information for the public record, and without which the body of evidence as to the state of koala populations is highly skewed.

Speaking at the Spatial@Gov conference in Canberra November last year, I detailed the extraordinary value in crowdsourcing such data for public policy, using KoalaTracker as the case study. I met the scientist in charge of ALA, Dr John LaSalle, (who was present in the audience) and was commended by others for my contribution to citizen science.

Academic and public Closed shop prevents recognition of cutting edge natural science

Earlier this year, there was a citizen science conference attended by Dr LaSalle and others familiar with KoalaTracker. Although KoalaTracker was not mentioned - and should have been for its value as an example of a successful citizen science project - the scientists instead referenced recent American projects. Worth reading both these articles for summations of discussions: Citizen science comes under the spotlight, and Participative Science.

Most disappointing of all was the discussion that only those citizen science projects created with the guidance of scientists is valid. They agreed that they should advertise citizen science projects on the ALA website, but they only do so of projects that utilise the software provided by ALA itself (which does not appear to work on Mac or iOS, and has proved inadequate in what it captures).

So, given the fact I - like most members - do not have a science degree, that no scientist contributed to the idea or creation of KoalaTracker, and does not use the ALA platform, KoalaTracker is made to appear irrelevant.

Which means of course, it is more successful than it should be in the eyes of scientists. More so now than ever, it is our success that makes KoalaTracker an apparent but unintended threat to scientists (afraid of losing their jobs! and project funding True. See the links above.)

Koala Tracker the largest, oldest running science project in Australia - needs recognition

Far from being an individual lay person unable to contribute to scientific research or provide any meaningful assistance to conservation efforts, you are participating in the largest and longest running citizen science project in Australia, and delivering real and measurable outcomes for research, rescue and conservation.

Through your reports of alive sightings, deaths and injuries, through your unscientific observations of koala behaviour, we have not only gathered for the public record a valuable body of location intelligence and evidence of how and where koalas are being killed, we are revealing new information about the koala.

Koala diet wider than previously thought - includes termites

I have mentioned in a previous email the reports of koalas eating termites in Toogoolawah. We have since received video of an individual male eating termites at Mt Byron (just search termite in the database to see), with photographs of koalas next to termite mounds in Ironbarks that suggest it is likely more widespread. We have reports of koalas eating a much broader diet that scientifically know, including the leaves of the camphor laurel tree - considered a pest that is poisoned by councils.

We are revealing wildlife corridors, disease clusters, genetics compromised and the ignorance of public policy.

Because that public policy is not founded on the information from a single national database, but on tiny fragments of information within a closed data loop. Worse, governments at every level are deliberately pursuing a policy of fragmentation. Koala conservation groups too.

The only means we have to make a difference for the koala is to continue participating in KoalaTracker. Continue adding data, sharing information learned, encouraging more to join, viewing the map regularly, and demanding action from government on the visual evidence delivered (that you can use for your own local advocacy).

KoalaTracker remains free for everyone to use - including scientists, government agencies and wildlife rescue groups, some of which point-blank refuse to share their data with KoalaTracker. Governments (the QLD government has stated it will be creating its own koala map) and koala groups are developing their own mapping projects; some charge for the release of data; some don’t release data to anyone. They do not want to share with or promote a project they do not own or control, and which they cannot therefore manipulate.

Do not become complacent. KoalaTracker has proved official habitat maps to have in some places, no relationship with the whereabouts of koalas. And yet the assumption that selecting pixel colours on satellite maps is sufficient for determining habitat values prevails, and it is this that forms the basis of planning and conservation decisions. Some of those decisions have been disastrous for the koala.

How can we save them if we don’t know where they live? How can we save them if we don’t know where they are being killed, or by what? These are the questions I asked myself that were fundamental to the creation of KoalaTracker three years ago. These are the questions whose answers are vital to community engagement and public policy, and meaningful action to save the koala today.

They remain the driving force for calling on citizens to join and report every sighting, death and injury for the public record - on a single national database that has over 4,000 individually entered reports to-date. A resource that remains entirely self-funded.

BACKTRACKING

In an email early this year I promised a Glider Tracker, and for Bob Irwin, a Cassowary Tracker. I could combine both with KoalaTracker and include echidnas and other wildlife, but the work involved in creating and managing such a site with so many member queries and requests for help from community groups fighting planning decisions, I have neither the resources or strength to do so. I do what I do for free, and simply cannot do any more.

KoalaTracker has consumed so much of my money and time, with no support from the government agencies, researchers and well-funded conservation groups that freely use it, it has ruined me financially.

With this hard reality in mind, and the above discussion as to the copying of and competition with KoalaTracker, I have decided against reproducing similar mapping projects for other species. Sorry Bob, Charlie, et al.

NEW T-SHIRT DESIGNS

Earlier in the year I invited members to submit ideas for new T-shirt designs and members were encouraged to vote for the ones they liked. You can view the entries submitted so-far . The two with the highest votes will shortly be added to the range available to purchase.

Entries were closed just before we were hacked, but I have decided that than rather run it as a one-off, to reopen submissions for new designs any time you feel inspired.

Just email me the design (just the picture/text for placement - per the design entries already received) and I will add it to the site for member votes. You can access the design entries page (for voting) from the link above or the list below the link icons on the Member page.

See current designs available for purchase in the KoalaTracker shop. Note prices have been reduced. The intent was to use T-shirt sales to raise funds to help support KoalaTracker, but this made the prices too high and subsequently raised nothing.

So, prices have been reduced to encourage you to instead help promote KoalaTracker. Just as valuable!

On a technical point: If you have trouble actually checking out of the shop, it is a browser issue not a shop issue. Some members using the browser Safari have reported a problem. There is no problem using Google Chrome, and I have not heard of any problems in Firefox or Internet Explorer. But, if you have in your browser security settings that block popups or javascript, or do not have the current browser plugin for Flash, you may have problems checking out. The easiest solution is to use Google Chrome as your browser!

KOALATRACKER ON FACEBOOK

I am indebted to members Kay Thornton and Charlie Lewis for their tireless behind the scenes management of KoalaTracker’s Facebook page. The three of us share administration (for anyone who has already joined the conversation and wondered at the comments which appear to be KoalaTracker ‘talking to itself’) and maintain a lively flow of information and debate.

Please like us on Facebook, friend me (KoalaTrackerAlex) or follow me on Twitter.

YOUR HELP NEEDED

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Alex writes:

"Long-time members will know the financial and health toll KoalaTracker, associated deceptions and copying has had on me. (I have recovered my health.)

Without boring you with the detail, I sold my car a year ago and have been homeless since March. Cat and I are housesitting - free accommodation in exchange for looking after gardens and pets while homeowners holiday - until I get back on my feet financially.

Until October 16 th I am house sitting in Tinbeerwah (Noosa area - where I lived for 11 years until I could no longer pay rent - having already sold my home) and would sincerely like to remain in Noosa, but will accept what I can get to.

So, if you know of anyone who requires a house sitter (preferably for a month or more) mid-October in Noosa or anywhere in south east QLD, or has a granny flat or potential short-medium term share arrangement in Noosa, please pass my details on. I have police clearance and house sitting references/referees.

Alex Harris
alex@koalatracker.com.au
0412 635 274"

Comments

"Conveniently, no single government agency was collecting data, some states hadn’t tried, others only collected death and injury statistics, or live sightings only, to be filed".
This is the heart of the problem, that collecting data is left to individuals and not for profit wildlife groups, with little overall coordination. There are no funds given to wildlife carers, who are meant to use their own resources to care and rescue animals.
Back in July this year, the Federal Government announced millions of dollars in cuts to the Biodiversity Fund and Carbon Farming Futures program, as Australia moved to a floating carbon price. A floated carbon price was supposed to cover the $213 million in unallocated money from the Biodiversity Fund, including Caring For Our Country among other environmental programs.
What's needed is an integrated approach to biodiversity. It's goes beyond protecting farmland, but protecting the intrinsic value of native flora and fauna.
Kevin Rudd cut millions from the Biodiversity Fund and Tony Abbott wants to hand national environment approvals over to the states, so that damaging developments, such as the rush of mining proposals threatening Tassie devil habitat in the Tarkine, don't have to face federal scrutiny.
Nationally, not one threatened species has had its status upgraded.
The Coalition in August released its “Green Army” policy – a 15,000-person strong environmental workforce that will “provide real and practical solutions to cleaning up riverbanks and creek beds, re-vegetating sand dunes, re-vegetating mangrove habitat, and a host of other environmental conservation projects”. They will scrap the rest of the Biodiversity fund.
There's little importance given to our native animals, and remain incidentals. Land is considered primarily an economic resource rather than for its intrinsic value for biodiversity, and the diversity of iconic and keystone species - such as koalas.

This is your invitation to attend a public lecture organised by the South Eastern Centre for Sustainability as part of its AGM scheduled for 7pm at the Mt Eliza Community Centre on Canadian Bay Rd on 18th October. The lecture will formally launch the Mornington Peninsula Wildlife Atlas by leading ecologist Malcolm Legg. Live music and refreshments will follow.