A computing team at Berkeley and Texas A&M has finally enabled us to go birding in someone else’s backyard. Their project – the vaguely naughty-sounding Cone Sutro Forest Collaborative Observatory for Natural Environments project – takes you out onto Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s back deck and puts a pan-tilt-zoom camera at your fingertips. There’s an array of well-stocked feeders plus a bird-bath and some alluringly red hummingbird flowers. Sign in, and you can move the camera, take snapshots of rare beauties (like this house sparrow pair) and identify or argue over the resulting pictures.
The only hitch is that there’s only one camera, and it’s simultaneously at the fingertips of everyone else. Satisfying the wishes of so many users probably makes a really interesting problem for coders, but at our end it’s a lot like being a pair of binoculars that a bunch of five-year-olds are fighting over. Seasickness is a possibility. The camera constantly wheels from bird-bath to feeder and back, zooms in impossibly close on foliage, or leers at the back windows of Craig’s neighbors (the programmers wisely disabled the zoom feature for those areas).
For all the jitteriness, users have already compiled some great photos of 13 species, including black-headed grosbeak, pygmy nuthatch and Anna’s hummingbird. Somebody named “Sialia” (bluebird) has already earned more than 900 points since yesterday. (I got one point for my house sparrow, which suggests Sialia has put considerable time in already.)
The system developers hope to invent a system that remotely monitors wildlife by collecting the observations of a crowd. (They’ve got a prototype stationed in an Arkansas swamp looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker.) I like the idea of crowd wisdom, but finding rare things has always been about looking where no one else is looking. Still, give the site a spin and enjoy some San Francisco backyard birds. Then lobby for putting the next version out at Point Reyes – where hotshots like Peter Pyle and Keith Hansen have backyard bird lists around 300 species.
Thanks to Jessica for the tip.