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STRDs part 7 : Conclusion. Some systems get close but none is ideal

At Osa Conservation (OC), data about the sea turtles, their nests and the hatchlings, is written down in note books during the beach patrols. Later, this data is collected in one or more spreadsheets. However, the sea turtle team would like to have a better tool to collect their data (STRDs part 1). In the previous parts of this series, I briefly described and discussed a number of sea turtle databases that I found on the internet. In this blog post, I will draw some conclusions.

Two serious candidates

Even though I found five databases, only two of them are made for the purpose of collecting data during beach patrols: TREDS AND Turtle Tracker. Most of the others are meant to aggregate data from multiple sea turtle projects and beaches. Finally, there is one that aims at collecting data through crowd sourcing, also known as Citizen Science. That one collects data from the beach, but since the crowd is not trained to for example examine nests or count egg shells after hatching, it is not suitable for beach patrols.

Blog postSoftware namePurposeStart YearProducer
STRD part 2The state of the world’s sea turtles (SWOT)Aggregating world wide data2003Partnership (Oceanic Society, the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Duke University’s OBIS-SEAMAP)
STRD part 3Turtle Research and Monitoring Database System (TREDS)Beach patrol and aggregation2003Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in collaboration with other governmental and intergovernmental organizations
STRD part 4Turtle TrackerBeach patrol±2003Axe Inc
STRD part 5Turtles Uniting Researchers and Tourists (TURT)Tourist crowd sourcing2015Dustin Baumbach / Protective Turtle Ecology Center for Training Outreach and Research
STRD part 6Sea Turtle DBAggregating world wide data2020Biomark

Old software

The two serious contenders, TREDS and Turtle Tracker, are both quite old. TREDS is a Microsoft Access 2007 Application and Turtle Tracker seems to work with a specially designed server. In both cases it is unclear whether they are still alive and thus whether one can still get support if something goes wrong or if help is otherwise needed. An advantage of TREDS over Turtle tracker is that it is for free, whereas the price of Turtle Tracker is a mystery, which means it might not be cheap but perhaps also that it is negotiable.

Off-line on laptop, or on-line on a phone or tablet

The TREDS server has the possibility to aggregate data from TREDS clients, even (or only?) through off-line exchange of data. This means that the clients do not need to be on-line for data entry. This would be an advantage over Turtle Tracker, at least for Osa Conservation, because large parts of the beaches are not covered by mobile phone networks. Unfortunately, TREDS is a MS Access implementation, which means that one needs a Windows computer or laptop to install it and enter the data. Beaches and laptops do not go well together unfortunately and I am not sure a laptop is as practical as a block-note.

With Turtle Tracker, it is the reverse. The server connects to the clients through a web interface, which means that both need to be on-line. But if there is a network, then a mobile phone or tablet may suffice.

Flexibility

There are many sea turtle projects out there, and probably no two collect exactly the same data. So, some flexibility is needed.

Turtle Tracker claim some flexibility when it comes to data fields or variables that can be entered. However, to get this flexibility, it requires specialized re-programming by the vendor.

TREDS does not provide flexibility. The manual shows a high diversity of data. There are some fields that are not collected by Osa Conservation’s sea turtle program, but some of OC’s data can not be captured by TREDS.

Conclusion 1 : there is no perfect fit, except in pen, paper and a spreadsheet

So, neither of the two systems seems perfectly suitable for OC’s needs. And in any case more detailed checking and further testing is needed. I could not compare ease of use nor how different user roles play out in the field. Lastly, I could not test them during actual beach patrols.

In the end probably no software will satisfy OC’s needs. It would require a custom-made solution, which is expensive and still no guarantee for success.

That leaves, making a choice, improvising and adapting to what is on the market and what is possible. Or not making a choice for either of the two solutions, and keep working as they currently do, with pen, paper and a spreadsheet. Those have some downsides, but when it comes to flexibility and robustness in the field (beaches not only have sand, salt, and lack of internet, but also spray and rain) there is little or nothing beating them.

However, this flexibility of spreadsheets will be used and small changes will accumulate into bigger ones and data from different versions will become difficult to compare. So, there is a price to pay for flexible tools, which is why I have been busy making a tool to stitch tables together and doing the stitching.

Conclusion 2 : a curious history

Only while writing the descriptions of the five database solutions did I realize that there is a curious history to them. Apparently, the early 2000’s saw a sudden burst of development : SWOT, TREDS and Turtle Tracker were all developed around the same time, it seems. It makes sense to me because it was when computers and software became cheap and simple enough to make it worth the while for sea turtle data. Or perhaps the earlier systems did not survive because they could not be updated anymore or it was too costly to make them fit in the newer generations of computers and operating systems. Also I would not be surprised if something happened in the world of sea turtle conservation and research that made things come together, and different organizations join forces, as they did with SWOT and TREDS.

Then nothing much happened for say a decade. The iPhone was introduced in 2007, the Android platform shortly after and sure enough apps were invented to collect data. I only described TURT but more digging will reveal more of such applications. If 2020 had not seen the launch of the Sea Turtle DB, then nothing much has happened since. When it comes to tools for beach patrols nothing has been developed since the early 2000s.

The questions then are what have all the hundreds and perhaps thousands sea turtle conservation projects been using and why is there no up-to-date software? In the Pacific and East Asian region, TREDS may have seen some use even though the evidence for that did not poor out Google when I searched.

Perhaps a large number of the projects were not interested in capturing too much data. After all, the aim has been to save the sea turtle species by protecting their nests and nesting beaches rather than by capturing data. Then again, it makes sense even for conservation purposes to keep track of the number of turtles, nests, eggs and so on. Perhaps this also explains why SWOT only collects aggregate numbers for beaches and tracking data for individual turtles, i.e. data that is relatively easy to capture.

For the rest, I can only guess that sea turtle projects have doing something similar as the project at Osa Conservation : note books, pens and spreadsheets. That means that there might be room for a data collection system that is cheap and lives up to the requirements of flexibility, off-line working, running on phones or tablets, is easy to work with, and allows for selective sharing of data.

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The series of posts to which this post belongs is also published as one page.

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