Thursday, June 13, 2013

“Siri, where is the nearest research plot?”

By Bob Unnasch, Director of Science

It’s early morning in a strange town and you are desperate for that first cup of joe. So, you pick up your phone and say, “Siri, where is the closest coffee shop?” And, the phone gives you a map showing coffee shops in the neighborhood.  You choose one and ask for walking directions and the phone displays a map with an arrow guiding your path. It’s amazing. Yet, this geographically specific information is now so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.

Not all information is so easily searched geographically. Ecological research, for example.  If I stand in the Owyhees, pick up my phone, find a cellular signal and say, “Siri, where is the nearest research plot?” there will be no map, and no answer. When back in my office I can go onto the Web of Science or Google Scholar and search for rangeland research by topic, but not by geography. A search of “rangeland health” and “Owyhee County” results in all of 20 hits, only one of which is published in a scientific journal. A search of “rangeland health” with a latitude/longitude location yields no hits.

I know of a lot of important research has been done in the Owyhees – I’ve published some. But, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find it. That’s because the scientific journals are stuck in the 19th century, indexing their articles by topics and concepts, not locations. Since the emergence of cheap GPS, most journals have required authors to provide the location of their studies. Yet, these very journals don’t use that information.

We needed a tool that could pull from this GPS data to find research. That’s why JournalMap was developed. In collaboration with colleagues from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service / Jornada Experimental Range we created JournalMap to allow anyone to find relevant scientific information by location.

Specifically, JournalMap is an ecological literature search engine that allows users to track down relevant scientific research based on location and biophysical variables as well as traditional keyword searches. Publications are indexed based on reported location information and plotted on a world map showing where the research was conducted allowing you to easily visualize the research occurring in specific areas and show you where data gaps might exist.

JournalMap allows scientists to get a broad perspective of where research has been published or to focus on specific areas. Users can easily visualize literature richness in a given area and identify knowledge gaps. This is particularly powerful for land managers that need to know everything about their specific landscape, or a researcher looking for an underrepresented study area.

In addition to being able to search for literature geographically, JournalMap opens up the possibility to search for literature from similar areas. In many parts of the world, there has been little formal study of the structure and dynamics of local ecosystems, turning resource management into a guessing game. However, research that has been conducted on landscapes that share similar soils and climates can, in many cases, be relevant to these understudied regions. JournalMap allows researchers to search for research in these similar areas.