#25 Data Points

We have referred often in this blog to data collection and taking data points, so I thought it wise to give a brief explanation of what exactly we mean. Though we collect both computer- and paper-based data during our flights, the majority of our "effort" data (data about the route of our survey and the conditions that affect our ability to sight whales) is collected via a computer program called Logger 2000, a prevalent software program developed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) specifically for cetacean research (read more about Logger 2000 here).

We use the paper data only for right whale sightings, jotting down notes about the whales we're seeing and making a basic sketch of the callosities. We also keep track of which photographs taken correspond to a given whale; in this way, the paper data is instrumental when it comes time for photo analysis. (See photo of whale data sheet.)

In order to collect our electronic data, we connect our research computer to our main GPS in the plane, which sits in front of the pilot. Every ten seconds during the flight, Logger 2000 automatically downloads the plane's exact position in latitude and longitude and the time, tracking our every move. However, when we have an event we need to record manually, like the position for a whale, shark or ship, we force the computer to record a specific data point using the computer mouse which sits on the wall of the plane near the left-seat observer.

When we click the mouse we take a blank data point marking the time and location of the plane at that instant. We then make a voice recording detailing the information needed to make sense of the point; for example, that there is a cargo ship heading west three nautical miles to our north. All of these locations are automatically downloaded into a Microsoft Access database, and at the end of each survey, we manually enter all the information contained in each voice recording into its appropriate data point in this database.

This process allows us to record data points for all the commercial and military ship traffic (see a great diagram of the shipping channels in this archived blog), right whales, and other marine life, such as rare turtles, cetaceans, and sharks, we see in our survey area. Additionally, we take data points for any changes in weather, cloud cover, visibility, or sea state, and whenever anything unusual happens during the survey; in this way, we ensure that our data collection is as controlled and complete as possible.

All data is proofed for errors and then submitted to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) effort data curator at the University of Rhode Island where a complete quality control check is run. The data then becomes property of the NARWC and is made available to researchers for various studies upon approval by NARWC board members.

- Kelly

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