How a unique computer application helps ecologists record field data on the fly
Monitoring turtles, determining controlled burn locations and tracking plants and wildlife in the preserves are done more efficiently and effectively than ever before thanks to a one-of-a-kind computer application that Rian Crowley, database developer at the Lake County Forest Preserves, designed and developed.
Crowley started creating mECO, which stands for mobile ecologists, three years ago. The innovative custom web application, or computer program that performs tasks over the internet, helps ecologists at the Lake County Forest Preserves record field data on the fly and monitor conservation activities and restoration impacts over time.
Prior to mECO, restoration and wildlife ecologists primarily collected data and recorded it on paper, field notebooks or entry forms that often lacked consistency, resulting in less powerful analysis, Crowley said.
After the field session was complete, they returned to the office for a time-consuming process of transcribing data into one or more databases.
"It could literally take months to get the data into a usable format before reporting and analysis could be conducted," Crowley said.
Using mECO, staff enters the data right into their phones, where the information is processed, analyzed and presented visually in mere milliseconds.
"mECO's true power and calling lies in its analytical prowess," Crowley said.
"When Rian started three years ago, he was tasked with working with the natural resources department and other team members to create the mECO tool to specifically meet these needs," said Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach.
"We are the only conservation agency in the region utilizing this state-of-the-art technology."
Shortly after Crowley began his job in the information technology department, he developed the first mECO module to help wildlife ecologists monitor Blanding's turtles. When staff enters data, mECO makes it quick and easy to search, register and track the turtles, as well as to monitor their nesting activity.
"The mECO application has greatly increased our ability to collect valuable wildlife data. It has allowed me to be more efficient and productive by reducing the amount of time I spend organizing, reviewing and managing data," said Gary Glowacki, manager of conservation ecology.
"In addition, mECO has allowed me to better guide ecological technicians. Application settings allow us to assign tasks and empower people in the field to ensure tasks are completed in a timely manner and quality data is being collected."
With the mECO controlled burn module, natural resources staff can easily prioritize burn sites based on historic data and restoration activities, manage burn crews, create mailing lists and publish notifications, record burn event data, and export map books.
Modules for invasive species management, seed collection and disbursement, and volunteer activities are planned for the future.
"The development of mECO has revolutionized the way we collect data throughout the forest preserve landscape," Director of Resources Jim Anderson said.
"Giving our staff and technicians the ability to enter their findings in a customized database while working in the field has paved the way for innovative approaches to analyses. This not only improves management of our natural resources, but also advances research efforts going forward."
mECO integrates seamlessly with a digital mapping method we use regularly known as geographic information system (GIS).
"Since every piece of data collected in mECO is time-stamped and has latitude and longitude recorded, we can map, query and analyze that data with the full power of GIS," Crowley said.
"This monitoring application helps advance several of the district's Road Map to 2025 strategic plan objectives, including to steward healthy landscapes, to innovate, and to enhance our organization's digital capabilities," Anderson said.
"Based on the mECO ecological data, our goal is to analyze the correlated data to implement precision conservation for restoration efforts focusing on ecological complexes, large habitats and priority species."
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.
Get to know Rian CrowleyAs a kid growing up in Beach Park, Rian Crowley said he spent time exploring the ravines near his home and playing video games.
Now, computers and nature play a big role in his career as a database developer at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
Crowley earned a bachelor's degree in geography, magna cum laude, from Illinois State University. He minored in environmental studies.
"After graduation, I discovered computer programming, fell in love with it, and have been coding ever since," Crowley said.
Describing himself as a problem solver, Crowley says he enjoys his job.
"I love that I am able to support the work of my colleagues in so many varied and interesting ways using a blend of technology and creativity. I am primarily a software engineer, but I also manage projects, conduct GIS and data analysis, administer databases, and give presentations, sometimes all in the same day!"