Harmon on BPM: Digital Birding

OK, I’ll admit that this Column is going to be a bit weird, but, let’s admit it, the times have been weird lately. While I was sheltering at home during the last year, I also spent mornings, two or three times a week going birding. I’ve been into bird watching since high school, when we learned to do it as part of biology, and, as my BA is in Biology, I’ve continued to do it, off and on. It’s something one can do alone, and it gets you out of doors in pleasant places. Until recently, however, I did birding just as I’d done it in high school. I had a bird guide, a checklist of the birds commonly seen in my local park, a pair of binoculars, and good walking shoes. But during the past year, I’ve realized that birding has changed completely, and I am now working hard to catch up.

In essence, birding is going digital! This is very like the transition that many companies and government agencies are undergoing, and I thought I might share some insights into it. I suspect that even those who have never considered birding can spot some similarities.

To begin with, I still get up and go hiking in my local park, binoculars in hand. The basic effort involved in seeing birds hasn’t changed. Identification and documentation have changed entirely, however. I now use my iPhone to identify any unknown birds, and I now report the birds I have seen online.

Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab has two important apps, which you can either access via a computer or via a smart phone. One is Merlin, a bird ID app. It’s an Artificial Intelligence app. I’ve written to its creator about it, just to learn enough to write this article. In essence the grad student at Cornell who created Merlin used a standard AI (neural network) tool (TensorFlow) to create the app. What’s interesting is how different the AI app approaches ID. The creator explained that they tried a bunch of variables, but found that only 6 were needed: Date, Location, Size of Bird (sparrow, robin, duck, etc.), Main overall colors of bird (up to three), and the birds behavior (eating at feeder, swimming or wading, on the ground, in tree or bush…)

It’s hard to explain how unusual this sounds to a birder. In the field when you are looking at birds, you note things like the color of the bird’s head, its back and belly. You look to see if it has dots or stripes and you look to see the color of its feet and the shape of its bill, etc. You look for details to assure that you can distinguish one bird from similar birds.

Using the iPhone app, once you provide your six answers the app shows you a picture of the bird it suspects you are viewing. (It also shows alternative birds, in case the first isn’t your bird.) I’ve checked it many times. It’s almost always right! This approach is very different from what a human would do. Merlin relies on databases. And it has the advantage of the largest database on birds in the world. Once you provide Merlin with a date and a location (actually your phone provides the location, using GPS), Merlin checks its database to find all the birds seen at your location, within a few days of the current date, for the last several years. It then uses your subsequent data to narrow its search. But, here’s the key: The essence of the application is a huge database.

Merlin then uses data on size, color and behavior to rapidly narrow the possibilities. And it offers you a first choice and then a few alternative possibilities. Moreover it shows you several pictures of each possibility and asks you to tell it which of the possible birds you actually saw.

In fact, Merlin has two modes. There’s the mode I just described and then there’s a second mode where you simply take a picture of the bird with your iPhone, submit the picture to Merlin, along with location data and it proposes a name. Once again, Merlin depends on a huge database of bird pictures.

(To check it out Google: “Merlin, bird ID”)

The second app I’m into is eBird, also by Cornell. eBird provides all kinds of information to users and it’s free. You can go and explore in a dozen different ways. You can also report birds you have seen (your checklists). I now routinely sit down after every bird trip and fill out a checklist to report the birds I saw and send it off the eBird.

Locations that birdwatchers frequent, like Floyd Lamb park in Las Vegas, or the Carmel River Lagoon in Monterey, or the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, are set up as sites that everyone who birds there can post results to. (100’s of thousands of people are reporting birds, worldwide, each day. This site rivals Wikipedia as a free, collective volunteer effort. As a result of daily inputs eBird can generate maps that show birds migrating around the world, on a day-by day basis!)

So, I go birding at Floyd Lamb. Then I come home (I could do it in the field with my iPhone, but I prefer to sit and do it via my computer) and create a new checklist reporting all the birds I saw at Floyd Lamb that day. To check out my eBird site and my checklists, go to:


Then, I go to the Floyd Lamb hotspot to check on what my fellow birders (aka the competition) are reporting:


I can check the hotspot checklist to see who was there, in order, and what each birder reported. Knowing what was seen at the park, yesterday or the day before, gives me an idea of what I might see, and being prepared, I find I am seeing more birds than in the past.

Of course I’ve also bookmarked Carmel River, Golden Gate Park and Bolinas Lagoon so I can check what is being at other hotspots I’m interested in. Between entering my own sightings and then checking out what is being seen at other sites here in Las Vegas and in CA, I spend another hour or two online each morning, learning about birds.

My initial response to eBird and other online sights wasn’t too positive — we are all creatures of habit and I’d been doing birding my own way for 50 years. But I’ve adopted and I now like online birding a whole lot!

One of the reasons that Merlin can be so good at ID-ing any bird you might see is that it can access yesterday’s reports (or even this morning’s reports) from where ever you might be birding and see what is being seen before making a guess. And, since its been going since 2000, and accepts not only checklists, but photos and sound recordings, eBird can rely on a huge and growing database, and it can provide birders with photos and sounds that have been recorded in the local area by other birders.

Of course I’m also falling into the habit of checking-in the morning as I prepare to leave for Floyd Lamb park, to see what other birders saw yesterday, just to prep me for what I might expect. It’s important during migration periods, when new things arrive or depart each week. (Two weeks ago there were 70 cormorants on the lake in Floyd Lamb. This morning there were 5. Most cormorants apparently decided it is warm enough and they have headed north.)

As I said, I was slow to adopt digital birding, but now that I have, its changed my way of birding and has greatly improved my birding experience.

Thinking about the digital transformation, more broadly, I expect it’s doing something similar for lots of people. Obviously it depended on having digital access – in the case of birding, an iPhone – and someone to set up the apps and maintain the database. But given those fundamentals, it has effectively connected all the hundreds of people who bird in Las Vegas, allows us to share data, and allowed each of us to plan in ways that we couldn’t before. Nor is it only local. eBird is used throughout the world. Literally hundreds of thousands of people report their sightings daily. If I were to plan to visit a site in Costa Rica, or Japan, as I have done in the past, today I would first check out the local hotspots – on maps provided by eBird – and then check what birds were seen at each hotspot during the past few days. Thus, when I arrived at a location I had never birded before, I would already know what I might see. And, if I wanted, I could work my way through the local checklist, pulling up photos of the birds being seen, to prepare myself.

Companies are going digital. They are arranging to capture data online, and using large databases and apps to access data, to make information to their online users, whether employees, partners, or customers. Using that information, everyone can plan better, anticipate, and do a better job in the physical world. One has to begin with a struggle to understand the resources and break old habits, but once one has managed to break into the new world, things often prove to be much easier and more efficient.

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Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of BPTrends Associates, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in Las Vegas. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.info

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