Citizen scientists help create one-stop reference spot

Not so long ago, research for a school science project involved a trip to the library to drag kilos of books off dusty shelves to search for information that was probably many years out of date. Now, several clicks of a mouse can reveal everything from how many species of creature to be found in suburban backyards to the best places for fairy penguin-spotting along the Australian coastline. Scientists behind the Atlas of Living Australia, a five-year project due to finish next year, intend it to be a one-stop website for information on every single plant, animal and microbe in Australia. Information about several million species has already been uploaded and Queensland Museum scientist John Hooper today said there were ‘‘multiple millions’’ to go. Dr Hooper described the project as a ‘‘world first’’ interactive online encyclopaedia of biodiversity that will change the way scientists and citizens share and access information about Australian species. ‘‘There are other encyclopaedias around the world but this one’s got far more depth,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve got some millions of specimens sitting in databases and have plotted them all into a big map. ‘‘By going into these data points you can predict what sort of habitat will be there and what species will be in there. ‘‘A really exciting part of it is ... what we call citizen science. Say someone lives in Cairns and he wants to know what lives in his backyard. He can put photographs in on the atlas and compare them with species pages, or ask someone else on the site what it is. ‘‘So a school kid or an adult or an eco-tourist can interact with the atlas to be a citizen scientist.’’ The site went online last year but it now finally has enough information to be useful, Dr Hooper said.

Funding for the site, provided by the federal government's National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, is due to end next year.

But Dr Hooper said the committee was developing proposals to extend it so it could continue to grow and ''not just remain static''.