Open science: sharing salmon counts

Imagine for a moment a seagrass meadow in the mouth of a river as it rolls out to the Pacific. We have these meadows here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve walked in their murky shallows.

They are rich places, in the sense of full of critters. They mix different ecosystems when salty sea water backs up at high tide into the fresh river water dumping out by the gallons. They are messy places, and frequently don’t charm tourists the way beaches and waves might. But many species of fish find these waters the ideal place for babies to hide out and grow. They are dynamic nurseries.

In a similar way, the movement known as open science is an argument for a rich and messy public place where ideas mix like salt and fresh water, mixing the scientific equivalent of separate ecosystems in a way that brings fresh fertile new ideas. New ideas get nourished there, in the space between disciplines. Open science means a lot of different things. It’s too big for one story, but I want to share one fishy example of how the state of Washington is sharing science data directly with you, or anybody else.

Open science can mean helping scientists to communicate faster with each other about discoveries that have synergies. But it can also mean opening data to public scrutiny and helping policy makers to visualize complicated trends and patterns in data more easily.

Jennifer Johnson, who works for the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office, helped create a website portal that lets you see the counts of fish from any stream or lake or river where the state does this math. Sharing data directly with the public is one element of open science – literally opening up Excel spreadsheets in ways that let the public and other scientists peer inside.

People are so excited about this, she told an audience during the Seattle Science Festival. Measuring the fish is just one part of trying to understand ecosystems. By sharing the counts, there could be discoveries about regional trends that happen faster.

Just to give an example, you can click through the stateofsalmon.wa.gov and find “adult abundance” and read how many summer steelhead have been counted in Toppenish Creek. Before this data was open and online, it was dated material printed on paper in a report issued every two years. As Johnson explained in an archived panel discussion, her team took a 150+ page report and turned it into an active portal that the public, including other scientists and elected officials, can use to get updated information and make decisions.

But just like the salt and fresh water of our seagrass meadow, Johnson sees the portal as interactive and an exchange between many communities. It doesn’t just save money for taxpayers in printing and publishing hassle of mailing paper reports.  It allows state collaborators from Snohomish to Walla Walla to send information back to the portal, and “see” the data locally or regionally any time they wish. The fish are counted by many different agencies, from tribes to state biologists. In the past, those agencies had to send their data to a central state office where this was uploaded to software. Now, qualified members of the collaboration can send their new counts directly into the portal.

“We collaborate with tribes and salmon recovery efforts all over this state…This portal allows them to contribute to the data directly and shows them all the data they might need about local areas and regions,” Johnson said.

Opening up the data has led to other collaborators “racing me to see who can get their data up first,” Johnson said. “That’s fantastic. That’s exactly what we need in salmon recovery.”

More information at this video with a panel discussion of the portal.

Next blog in series on “open science” will be profile of Seattle scientist given honor by the White House in his bid to speed medical research by throwing open data.

Health Care of the Future: Entrepreneurs find gold as they mine health care data

Read the full article in the Puget Sound Business Journal, Feb. 1, 2013.

A small but significant strand of the future of health care winds through Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

There, a 6-year-old company called Socrata helps run the federal government’s data portal, called Data.gov, with Medicare and other health-related agencies a big part of the mix.