Odonata Central - history
- Since many of you are not (yet) members of DSA (Dragonfly Society of the Americas), I am pasting in the article on the history of Odonata Central from a 2010 issue of "Argia", their quarterly publication.
Also, as one of the vettors of California submissions, I'd like to STRONGLY encourage you to use the 'find Lat/Long" button on Odonata Central when submitting records. We have had many problems with folks entering in their own data in the fields and it was in a different format, or a # got transposed or something, and "tada" - the dot on the map it created was then in a wrong county or worse.
Also, I am working, SLOWLY, to add the date and place to the dot map records as I was the one who submitted these records to Nick Donnelly for the Dot Map project, way back when! There are over 600 records so I am trying to do a few whenever I have time.
A quote from the article, in case you don't have time to read it all, "...because all records must be vetted by relatively few Record Administrators, we are requesting that users try and limit their submissions to only new (at the county level) geographic records or new season records at whatever geographic scale you are interested in. This will help ease some of the burden on the Record Administrators." Tim Manolis and I, the 2 main vettors for California recognize that some of our counties are larger than several small states in the East, therefore we also welcome submissions that expand our knowledge of where, within a large county, the species is found.
Here is the article:
OdonataCentral: The Past, Present and Future
John C. Abbott, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas <jcabbott@...>
At the 2010 DSA Annual Meeting in Orono, Maine, I gave an update of OdonataCentral, <http://www.odonatacentral.org>, and promised a write-up describing the history of OdonataCentral, where things currently stand, and where I hope to take it. While doing this, I took the opportunity to crunch some numbers and see just who is using the site.
In November of 2004, I relaunched my South-central US regional web site, OdonataCentral as a web site with national coverage sponsored by my museum, the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, it relied on the novel incorporation of existing World Wide Web, database, and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to produce a truly dynamic, interactive field guide and web site for the dragonflies and damselflies of North America. See Abbott and Broglie (2005) for a full discussion of the initial version of this web site.
At the heart of OdonataCentral lies the North American Dot Map Project. Started in 1994, the project involved the efforts of more than 100 contributors from the Odonata community to accurately document and amalgamate the distributions of all North American odonate species through 2004. A three volume hard copy set of the data was published (Donnelly, 2004a,b,c).
It was the realization of the tremendous value of such a massive wealth of vetted digital data that lead to the expansion and relaunching of OdonataCentral in 2004 with several subsequent updates and enhancements (Abbott, 2006, 2007a). In addition to just making the Dot Map data available online, I wanted to continue forward by having a community web site that served as the central repository for all North American records. In 2004, one of the novelties of OdonataCentral was that it allowed and solicited community involvement. Anyone could submit new species locality records to the site. Submitted records have to be vouchered by either photographs or specimens. Outside of museum and private collections, nearly all records submitted are vouchered with photographs. Digital photos can be uploaded to the site and linked to the user’s record entry.
New records were vetted by regional experts and incorporated into the site based on the expert’s determination. The originator of the record is then recognized in perpetuity for the record and accompanying information. This turns out to be a driving force for many contributors. The ability to add to the odonate knowledge base is appealing to many as is the ability to view their contributions.
The early version of the web site was developed by an employee and myself. Neither of us were computer programmers, but we had some computer background, a lot of enthusiasm, and very hard heads. The site was a real mish-mash of languages, but it worked. We used ESRI’s ArcIMS software to power the Odonata Distribution Viewer. It was a powerful tool that allowed users to visualize the geographic distribution of dragonflies and damselflies across North America. Users could zoom, pan, and query the distribution of any North American species to view species limits geographically, find gaps in county records for selected species, or generate accurate county checklists. Anyone who has used ESRI’s software knows that for all of its power and potential, it has to rank as some of the most onerous software to use.
A number of issues immediately came up with the site. First, at this point, the site was still running off of a server housed under the desk in my office and I did not have the IT support and redundancy really required for a site like this. Second, the ArcIMS software we were using literally crumbled under the magnitude of the records we were dealing with. Third, users became frustrated, rightfully so, because the records they submitted were sent to a holding area that was only visible to record vetters and there was no real feedback system in place. These two issues, along with the overall desire to improve the site, lead to yet again, a complete overhaul of the site (Abbott, 2007b). This time, my museum director came up with $30,000 to put towards the development and enhancement of OdonataCentral. With these funds, I hired a local computer programmer to rewrite the site, make it more stable, improve functionality and we added a number of features.
Some of the major changes to the site included expanding it to world-wide coverage, we abandoned ESRI’s ArcIMS software and went with a Google API to power the Odonata Distribution Viewer, and user submitted records were now immediately visible as pending. The site also incorporated the Dragonfly Society of the America’s web site, including membership information and on-line journal access. In addition, the site took on a new, much spiffier look, was moved from under my desk to official UT servers, the database was moved to an Oracle server, and many elements of the site were vastly improved (Abbott, 2007b, 2009).
Argia 22(4), 2010 11
Two big downsides I hadn’t predicted however, occurred
simultaneously. The first was that I was lead to believe the
Oracle server now powering OdonataCentral would be
dedicated and fast. It turns out that the server is shared
with some major university resources that resulted in
dramatic slow downs and erratic behavior at times. I also
ended up losing nearly all the control I had over the site
with the redesign. Though it had been vastly improved, as
money dried up and the programmer found more lucrative
opportunities in the gaming world, I essentially lost any
control I once had over the site. I am able to only make
minor changes to certain pages throughout the site. One
of the biggest problems that came up was the inability
to incorporate large datasets (including the University of
Texas Odonate collection) in the database. Without the
programmer, I have had no way to even update the UT’s
collection and I have large datasets from many other collections
and individuals that ultimately need to get incorporated
It became clear that funding was the necessary, but missing,
component to move OdonataCentral forward. The
financial support from the museum has dried up and I have
begun exploring other sources. In 2009, I was the Principle
Investigator on a large multi-year collaborative National
Science Foundation proposal to database the major North
American odonate collections with large Neotropical
holdings. All of the subsequent digitized data would be
captured and disseminated by OdonataCentral and used
to help complete the IUCN (International Union for the
Conservation of Nature) Odonata Specialist Group, for
which I am a member, Global Dragonfly Assessment (von
Ellenrieder, 2009). As a result, the proposal included funds
to make further improvements to OdontaCentral. It was
met with “very good” and “excellent” reviews, but was not
funded. In order to strengthen the proposal and ultimately
make ourselves more competitive, I felt like we needed to
show how OdonataCentral could be used in a creative
and novel way and I began looking for someone or some
group that could help get my ideas for the web site actually
implemented. At this point, I discovered the Texas
Advanced Computing Center (TACC, <http://www.tacc.
utexas.edu>). This is a well-funded ORU (Organizational
Research Unit) at the University of Texas who is interested
in collaborating with researchers to archive and disseminate
data. After several meetings, we have now plotted
a course forward for OdonataCentral.
I’m working with TACC to migrate OdonataCentral
from the Oracle server at UT to TACC’s MySQL server.
This will ultimately provide me more control and allow
TACC to work with me on maintaining the site and ultimately
making improvements to it. This migration will
happen during December and should result in only limited
interruption to the OdonataCentral web site. I will
then be working with TACC to see what is possible in
the short run and ultimately they will partner up with us
on the resubmission of the National Science Foundation
proposal in August of 2011.
A subtle, but significant change that occurred in 2010 was
to pull the scope of OdonataCentral back from worldwide
to only the New World. There are well-established
databases already in place that are collecting distributional
records for the Old World. A couple hundred records from
the Old World had been submitted to OdonataCentral,
but this was a small percentage of the overall record submissions
and it has been a struggle just to keep up with
the vetting of New World Records.
TACC was able to help me extract some data from
OdonataCentral that I wanted to share. This is all based
on data up through August of 2010. OdonataCentral
is quickly approaching 1,500 registered users and over
16,000 user submitted records. Of those, 353 (24%) users
have submitted at least one record. Most of the records
have been submitted by a relatively small number of users
however. One user has submitted over 1,000 records, 39
users have submitted over 100 records, and 92 users have
only submitted a single record.
The distribution of record submissions is, not unexpectedly,
strongly skewed towards the United States (Table 1).
In addition there have been 14 records submitted for three
Table 1. The number of user-submitted records to
OdonataCentral by country.
Continent Country # of records
South America Ecuador 1
South America French Guiana 1
South America Peru 1
North America Netherlands Antilles 1
North America US Virgin Islands 1
Caribbean Antigua And Barbuda 2
Caribbean Trinidad and Tobago 2
South America Bolivia 3
North America Aruba 9
Caribbean Dominican Republic 10
Central America Costa Rica 12
North America Puerto Rico 22
Central America Nicaragua 29
Central America Panama 33
North America Canada 40
North America Mexico 81
North America United States 15,514
12 Argia 22(4), 2010
islands in the Caribbean, six records for four countries in South America, and 74 records across three countries in Central America.
Within the United States, records are also strongly skewed (Table 2). Over 15,000 records have been submitted from 48 of the 50 states; no records have been submitted for Rhode Island and West Virginia. Nearly 22% of the records submitted have been from Texas.
Records have been submitted for 484 different species. Thirty-seven of those have more than 100 submissions and represent 44% of all user submitted records. The top 10 species (Table 3) represent 16.7% of user submitted records. Sixty-eight (14%) species have only had a single record submission and 222 (46%) species have had 10 or fewer submissions.
There has been a continuous increase in the average number of user submissions over time (Fig. 1). To me, this really shows, despite some of its limitations, people are taking advantage of and using OdonataCentral. Vetting has been a bit arduous at times because of the large number of records and relatively few vetters. Currently, there are 11 record vetters. Three of whom have vetted 75% of the user submitted records and one, nearly 50%. Despite these sometimes overwhelming numbers, records are getting vetted at a rate that is more-or-less on par with their submission (Fig. 1). I have outlined some ideas in the Future section as to ways that I think OdonataCentral can change to better accommodate the need for timely feedback of submissions.
As mentioned above, funding is the most serious limiting factor at the moment for moving OdonataCentral forward. I am working with TACC and a number of North American collaborators to resubmit a NSF proposal in August of 2011 that would provide some funding to improve and enhance OdonataCentral. In the short run, I’m hoping that the migration of the web site to TACC servers will provide me greater control.
I have many ideas for the enhancement of OdonataCentral. One of the major areas for improvement is the user interface and the self-populating menus that have given some users fits. Another major goal is to provide an interface that will allow users and curators to upload large, previously vetted datasets, to OdonataCentral. The current inability to do this is a big shortcoming of the web site. It presents some major challenges (checking data like state names, county names, species names, user names, etc. for consistency), but there are ways to do this and I feel confident we will get there. My goal has always been to have a single, up-to-date resource to consult for the distribution of New World Odonata. There are lots of sites and individuals that of course keep track of records on smaller park, county, and state scales, but I hope to find an efficient way to “connect” the data of these sites to OdonataCentral.
Figure 1. Time series of the number of users submitted and vetted records in OdonataCentral. Data for vetted records was only available beginning October 2007.
Argia 22(4), 2010 13
The larger vision I have for OdonataCentral is to incorporate a Wiki-type interface in to the site. A Wiki interface allows users to collaboratively create and edit web pages using a web browser. This would allow users to upload photos for which they don’t have an id. Other users could then comment on it and ultimately place a name on it. This type of identification tool is used by the popular BugGuide web site, <http://www.bugguide.net>, and has proven to be very successful. Once the uploaded georeferenced photo has been assigned to a species, it then can become part of the database of distributional information. Not only would a system like this allow users to submit photos for which they are unsure of the species, but it would also effectively allow all users to participate in the identification, and thus vetting, of the records which would alleviate the pressures put on a few individuals at the moment.
A relatively simple enhancement to the site will be making all submitted photos for records available in the field guide section. A Wiki interface could be used in this part of the site as well. All users could collaboratively contribute to building a field guide to all New World Odonata. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the power of a Wiki interface, Wikipedia (<http://en.wikipedia.org/>) is probably the best example. It has been shown that this online encyclopedia, which is written, edited and managed by all of its users, is more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica that hires specialists to write on particular topics. The idea is that there is always someone out there that knows more than you do and if you provide them the opportunity to contribute, many will.
As more and more users submit records, the goal is to replace county-level Dot Map Records with actual location-level records. With time, as the database grows, users would then be able to plot seasonal abundance histograms for any geographic scale (a favorite local, park, county, state, or country) much like they do in many bird publications. This is just a matter of collecting data. The more data collected, however, the more difficult it becomes to vet and monitor for integrity. This is where I think a change to the Wiki interface is a partial solution. I however, think it would still be valuable to maintaining the scientific integrity of the data, to have Record Administrators, but I envision a series of algorithms that would flag potentially interesting or suspect records. For example, each species could be assigned to some level of rarity, which along with a calculation of the distance to the next nearest record for that species, might result in a flag that the record should be subjected to more careful scrutiny.
I hope to also setup pages that would automatically keep track of seasonality for any particular area. Right now,
Table 2. The number of user-submitted records to OdonataCentral by US state.
State # of Records % of US Records
Texas 3350 21.59%
New Jersey 2089 13.47
Oklahoma 2056 13.25
Tennessee 745 4.80
Montana 586 3.78
Georgia 519 3.35
New Mexico 495 3.19
Florida 455 2.93
New York 454 2.93
Iowa 436 2.81
Louisiana 373 2.40
Oregon 347 2.24
California 286 1.84
South Dakota 278 1.79
South Carolina 276 1.78
Michigan 270 1.74
Pennsylvania 260 1.68
Kansas 256 1.65
Minnesota 228 1.47
Vermont 171 1.10
Indiana 170 1.10
Nevada 157 1.01
Arkansas 155 1.00
Colorado 152 0.98
Missouri 139 0.90
Virginia 107 0.69
Washington 75 0.48
Illinois 68 0.44
North Dakota 67 0.43
Ohio 56 0.36
Maryland 54 0.35
Nebraska 49 0.32
Alaska 40 0.26
Mississippi 39 0.25
Connecticut 36 0.23
Alabama 33 0.21
Wyoming 33 0.21
Arizona 30 0.19
Utah 28 0.18
Delaware 17 0.11
Kentucky 17 0.11
North Carolina 13 0.08
Hawaii 10 0.06
Wisconsin 10 0.06
Idaho 9 0.06
Maine 9 0.06
Massachusetts 6 0.04
New Hampshire 5 0.03
Rhode Island 0 0.00
West Virginia 0 0.00
14 Argia 22(4), 2010
this is a somewhat arduous task for any singe individual in any single area, but this should be easily managed by regular and automatic analysis of the submitted records.
When we changed the Odonata Distribution Viewer from being powered by ESRI’s ArcIMS software to GoogleMaps, we lost some functionality. One of the most desired functions is to be able to link to a species with some constrained geographic distribution (Anax junius in Texas, for example). Several web sites have expressed the desire to be able to link to OdonataCentral’s maps in this way. I hope that in the near future, that we can make that functionality along with a number of features available again. I would also like to use the OdonataCentral database to generate an updated version of the North American Dot Maps.
What Can You Do
One of the most commonly e-mailed questions I get is what records and photos am I wanting users to submit. Ideally, I would love to capture the most data possible. One way to do this would be if OdonataCentral had an easy to use interface, you might ideally choose to manage all of your photographic observations within the site and thus all your records would be captured without any redundancy in the maintenance of data. Some users really enjoy documenting seasonality. That means early on, you may upload 20 photos of a common species for an area, but at 20 different dates. Others are more interested in geographically unique records. In its current form, because all records must be vetted by relatively few Record Administrators, we are requesting that users try and limit their submissions to only new (at the county level) geographic records or new season records at whatever geographic scale you are interested in. This will help ease some of the burden on the Record Administrators.
OdonataCentral continues to evolve, though I recognize it has been slow to do so over the last couple of years and this has frustrated many users and myself. The purpose of writing this note, is to let you know that I am aware of this and I’m continuously looking for ways to improve and enhance the site, but that my hands have been largely tied by lack of funding and expertise recently. I see this as changing though, and I ask for your patience through the process.
OdonataCentral’s greatest asset is that it is a community driven web site that has the benefit of many contributors. I am working hard to expand the ability for all users to contribute their time, expertise, and knowledge on an even grander scale. Together, I think we have the potential to really set the bar for these kinds of web sites. The Odonata community is unique in many wonderful ways, so it is only fitting that it is that community that sets the standard by which others are measured.
Abbott, J.C. 2006. Enhancements and New Features Added to OdonataCentral. Argia 18(1): 27–28.
Abbott, J.C. 2007a. Update on OdonataCentral. Argia 18(4): 7–8.
Abbott, J.C. 2007b. The New OdonataCentral is Now Live. Argia 19(3): 9–10.
Abbott, J.C. 2009. OdonataCentral: The North American Odonata Database. Agrion 13(1): 25–27.
Abbott, J.C. and D. Broglie. 2005. OdonataCentral.com: A model for the web-based delivery of natural history information and citizen science. American Entomologist 51: 240–243.
Donnelly, T.W. 2004a. Distribution of North American Odonata. Part I: Aeshnidae, Petaluridae, Gomphidae, Cordulegastridae. Bulletin of American Odonatology 7: 61–90.
Donnelly, T.W. 2004b. Distribution of North American Odonata. Part II: Macromiidae, Corduliidae and Libellulidae. Bulletin of American Odonatology 8: 1–32.
Donnelly, T.W. 2004c. Distribution of North American Odonata. Part III: Calopterygidae, Lestidae, Coenagrionidae, Protoneuridae, Platystictidae, with data sources and bibliography, parts I–III. Bulletin of American Odonatology 8: 33–99.
Von Ellenrieder, N. 2009. Databasing dragonflies: State of knowledge in the Neotropical Region. Agrion 13(2): 58–72.
Table 3. The number of users submitted records to OdonataCentral by species.
Species Common Name Records % of Total
Pachydiplax longipennis Blue Dasher 368 2.3%
Erythemis simplicicollis Eastern Pondhawk 357 2.2
Plathemis lydia Common Whitetail 353 2.2
Libellula luctuosa Widow Skimmer 300 1.9
Ischnura posita Fragile Forktail 265 1.7
Celithemis eponina Halloween Pennant 264 1.7
Perithemis tenera Eastern Amberwing 264 1.7
Anax junius Common Green Darner 250 1.6
Libellula incesta Slaty Skimmer 233 1.5
Libellula pulchella Twelve-spotted Skimmer 228 1.4