How a unique computer application helps ecologists record field data on the fly

  • With mECO, staff can enter data into their phones so it can be analyzed immediately.

    With mECO, staff can enter data into their phones so it can be analyzed immediately. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

  • A mobile screen for tracking turtles with mECO.

    A mobile screen for tracking turtles with mECO. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

 
 
Posted8/20/2021 6:00 AM

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.

Before mECO, data was recorded on paper in the field and later transcribed into databases.
Before mECO, data was recorded on paper in the field and later transcribed into databases. - Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

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.

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"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."

In the mECO controlled burn module, staff can create mailing lists and publish notifications based on burn site locations.
In the mECO controlled burn module, staff can create mailing lists and publish notifications based on burn site locations. - Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

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."

A screen view of the mECO vegetation monitoring module. Collected data integrates seamlessly with GIS, a digital mapping method.
A screen view of the mECO vegetation monitoring module. Collected data integrates seamlessly with GIS, a digital mapping method. - Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

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.

A controlled burn is conducted by natural resources staff.
A controlled burn is conducted by natural resources staff. - Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

"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.

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