Experiencing Data

Any student who has worked with me knows that there are many things, sometimes conflicting, that I value about the field of wildlife science.  When running a field team I value (1) the significance of the field experience to my students, and to those with whom we regularly interact (including but not limited to the public, the community, and those of you who read our blogs), (2) the quality of the data that we collect, which ensures that the money we have been trusted with is going toward understanding something previously unknown or poorly described, and (3) the welfare of the system with which we interact.

Sunrise surveys

Sunrise surveys (photo credit: D. Culp)

In the case of the Acoustic Spyglass Project I feel privileged interacting with the students and the community is a long term relationship.  In the past I’ve mentored students over a period of weeks, with this project I’m able to extend that duration out to a period of months or even years.  I would also hope that in reading the blog posts made by my students that the value of their experience would become… well… self evident. I won’t harp of how inspiring this summer was, or how it changed us all.  To put words to the moments we shared might cheapen them, and I’m not willing to risk it.

On the other side of things, however, is that magic science word – “data”. Yes, we had a great time and ooo-ed and aaa-ed at many many whales; but was it worth it?  Yes.  Yes it was.  We were able to exceed my data collection dreams (let’s blow that power analysis out of the water friends) with over 300 scan point surveys and over 300 focal follows.  (To be fair we had about 500 of each, but after developing an inclusion criteria some had to go).  These kind of sample sizes are often hard to obtain in the marine mammal world (my heart goes out to you folks using tag data). While I’m quick to pat my own back here, this data still has some flaws that need to be reconciled. Three hundred focal follows doesn’t mean three hundred individual animals (fear of pseudo-replication anyone?). I still need to parse out the photo identification data we collected over the summer, put my head together with Chris and Janet to see what their photo ID record from the summer looks like, and then make some decisions on the best way to dive into this (delicious) data set.

Until then however, I’m working on getting the data uploaded into ArcGIS and organized in R (deep breath Miche… programming is your friend), and guiding my senior thesis students through their own data management forays.

Coming home is a challenge, it always is. At least in this context both the data, and the field team, are able to accompany me.  For a stranger plotting these dots on maps may not feel meaningful.  When I’m able to show my team the path that a humpback whale took during a sunrise survey, however, that means something to them and to me.  Once I have it plotted?  I’ll be sure to add it to this blog post… in the hope that it may mean something to you as well.

More than just a dot on a map

More than just a dot on a map

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