Cloud Computing: A Key Tool in the Fight Against Invasive Species

Middle school students collect data about an infestation of the invasive common reed (Phragmites australis) to enter into iMapInvasives for New York.  Photo: Bryan Banks

Middle school students collect data about an infestation of the invasive common reed (Phragmites australis) to enter into iMapInvasives for New York. Photo: Bryan Banks

By Darci Palmquist, senior science writer

Conservation problems are often big and unwieldy, involving copious data and multiple layers of impact. Invasive species are a particularly daunting issue — a fast-spreading invasive can have implications for transportation, recreation, agriculture and other industries. And these combined invasive impacts carry a global cost of $1.4 trillion annually.

But how can resource managers hope to stop invasives in their tracks when simply keeping up with their numbers and locations is a challenge?

Enter cloud computing.

iMapInvasives is a cloud-based database and mapping system that tracks and monitors invasive species in real-time. The tool is being used in 7 states and spreading quickly (as fast as an invasive, you might say).

It can be used for any taxa of invasive species — from common aquatic weeds like Eurasian watermilfoil to invasive insects such as Asian longhorned beetle — and it’s so easy that even citizen scientists can use it.

The system got its start in New York, when the state-funded Natural Heritage Program partnered with The Nature Conservancy to develop an online database that could pull together existing data on invasives and become the de facto tool for all natural resource managers working on the problem.

“The goal was to create a shared, standardized data management tool,” says Jennifer Dean, an invasive species biologist with the New York Natural Heritage Program. At the time, there were multiple tracking tools across the state but none of them were linked — a problem plaguing invasive species management across the United States.

“There’s great value in being able to assemble invasive species data from all different sources across a state in one place,” says Steve Buttrick, director of conservation science and planning for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. “And currently this is the only system that I know of that does that.”

For instance, in Oregon’s upper Willamette Valley an invasion of Japanese knotweed had attracted the attention of 7 different organizations. But each were separately collecting and mapping their data — which spanned 2.2 million acres. The advent of iMapInvasives allowed for data sharing, leading to the creation of the Upper Williamette Knotweed Partnership.

“For the first time they have a big picture view of the status of knotweed across this landscape,” says Dean. “Now they can jointly identify and treat priority infestations and direct early detection monitoring.”

Citizen scientists are playing a big role in growing the database. Trained volunteers learn how to spot invasives, take photos and enter location information into the online system. In New York, more than 500 citizen scientists are registered with iMapInvasives, and Oregon’s volunteer “Weed Warriors” are reporting invasives across the state.

By enabling collaboration, instead of working in isolation on a huge problem, resource managers and the general public are coming together over a common problem, to share knowledge and find solutions.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Darci Palmquist is a senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy. Previously she served as editorial manager for, the website of The Nature Conservancy, as well as for the Conservancy's e-newsletter. She is based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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