Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Revealing personal locations--how do you feel about it?


Over the past two years we've been developing tools that showcase our users, and in so doing we've made more and more of the eBird data easily accessible to the public. One of the things we've struggled with is whether or not to show people's personal locations on a map. If you look at the eBird "High Counts" output tool, you'll see a mix of locations listed there. The "hotspots" are linked to a Google Map, whereas people's personal locations have no map link. We thought this would be fine, but it turns out that we're getting a lot of complaints about it.

If you look at "High Counts" for a region and see one that interests you, don't you want to know where the high count occurred? The problem is that for personal locations we do not enforce any kind of naming standards, so there's lots of places like "My backyard" or "Jim's Place". The problem with this is that when there is a record of interest to the public, they can't make sense of that location name, nor can they click on a link to find out more about where it actually is.

On our Google Rare Bird Gadget we display all locations on maps, personal and shared. We have had few complaints about this. I'm wondering how you all feel about creating links to personal locations in all the eBird output tools so that people can learn more about your data? We will still have the "hide this" option to hide checklists so users with sensitive data can keep their information private if they wish. We'd love to hear your thoughts, comments and concerns.


Brian Sullivan
Team eBird


  1. I would bet a lot of personal locations are actually public places that were just not shared because no one thought they were legitimate birding Hotspots. I just recently submitted a bunch of shared locations once I found out "Hotspots" really just meant "previously eBirded/mapped locations". Everyone would probably agree in making locations like that public.

    As you know, it's the backyards/private property that are the problem. As a pretty private individual, I think my main issue is whether or not the observer AND the location will be known. If the observer is kept private, I don't see what the big deal is in making every location public. But some of us have submitted eBird lists from locations where we didn't necessarily have permission to bird. And I wouldn't want my name necessarily linked to those observations.

    So I guess that's my main concern. Does "no personal contact information is ever made public" in your privacy policy mean that my real name is never linked by eBird data users to my observations? I've been operating under that very assumption of relative anonymity: that all data I submit to eBird is public information but my name and personal information is private and my name is never connected to my observations by eBird data seekers. And that's why I was kind of ticked off with all the "Top 100", "arrivals/departures" data when it was released. It seemed like a violation of terms or at least my operating assumptions.

    My only other concern is that I be allowed to rename any personal location before it becomes public.

  2. Private/Personal should mean just that. Default should be "Hide this" and the option should be "Show this" site/data.

    And rare sightings should not be an exception, especially if they involve threatened or endangered species. Many people don't want crowds of people showing up in their backyard to view a rare bird.

    Legitimate, vetted, scientific analysis of the data should allow access to full information provided by the user, but protection from general disclosure to the public should be the standard. Lack of this protection leads to some people either not using eBird or giving less than fully accurate location information, which inevitably results in the data being much less valuable scientifically.

  3. I am interested in what species others are seeing, and I do greatly value the tools that allow me to do this in eBird. (I also subscribe to the listserv for my state of residence for that purpose, and occasionally other places.)

    I use the View and Explore Data>>Departures functionality to see what species have been reported recently and where. Yes, the contributing birder's name and sighting location is listed, but it doesn't bother me. The way I look at it is, it's a subtle positive statement that says "I think eBird is worth contributing to." Most of the time I am checking my county of residence to get an idea of what I should (hopefully) see if I pay attention. Most of the time people are birding from public places but sometimes it is clear they were in their backyard. I am NOT someone who goes driving hither and yon to see birds so I don't actually go to those places unless it is a public place in my own tiny corner of the county and I have some non-birding errand that takes me in that direction.

    I have also used the departures function to learn what is being seen and where in counties which I plan to visit due to non-birding reasons. I find that very useful, but again, I don't necessarily go to the places mentioned. I did so once - in a different state - to a public foot bridge over a creek next to a residential neighborhood (but sadly in the 10 minutes I had I didn't locate the cliff swallows I had hoped to see).

    The one thing that bothered me, which I've mentioned to Brian previously, is that sharing an observation with a birder who was with you makes the location a shared location for that birder, which makes it clickable on the arrivals/departures list -- which is OK if it is a public location -- but NOT OK if it is a private residence. Please fix that (you may have done so already).

    I like the top 100 submitters lists because (I hope) that spurs some competition in submitting more data to eBird. I think that's a valuable thing. (As to the top 100 by species, I don't play that game - but to each their own - but you may turn some people off by this type of list, maybe more than you gain, I don't know.) Maybe the default view there should be to the top 100 by checklists, not to the top 100 by species.

    The View and Explore Data >> Maps function does allow people to drill down to see where species have been seen (great!) by whom and when. You could remove the by whom and when (but keep the yellow/red dot signal) and it would still serve the purpose. I've used this to find out where I might find certain species ... but since I don't drive hither and yon, I don't recall that I've used the data I've seen.

    The View and Explore Data>>>Bar Charts (and) Summary Tables of course provide ALL data anonymously and ALL data should flow into those because there's no privacy concern since there's no way to know who, what, or where (except at county/state/hotspot level.) This is a great thing that I use to learn more about specific counties or hot spots.

    Anonymous's suggestion is a good one: for default "Hide this" with option to "show this" relative to the maps, and arrival/departure list. BUT -- the data should still go into the public bar charts and tables since those are at the state/county/hot spot level with complete anonymity.

  4. I like being able to see the personal locations on the map when I look up sightings of a particular species. And I like to see who made the sighting. I don't mind my name being attached to my sightings either. Having an option to keep the sighting private is good for the sake of sensitive species and sensitive locations. Uniform site location naming structure is helpful, but is somewhat irrelevant when the map indicates the location.

  5. I'd like to see all private locations mapped except those locations (and/or checklists) that are explicitly hidden for a legitimate reasons (several have been mentioned). In my mind this greatly increases the utility of the various eBird reports. As Kirk pointed out, these are generally accessible birding locations that simply don't meet the criteria for a hotspot. There is no reason for most of them to be hidden. eBird users should also be encouraged to use meaningful names for all locations. Finally users should be encouraged to periodically check and merge their private sites with hotspots for the same location (perhaps a software tool could be written to help accomplish this).

  6. I'd like an option to specifically hide a few spots but leave the rest open to the public (many of the spots I visit aren't really 'hotspots' and thus are not actively visible to the public, but the few times I've been to those spots I've had some interesting sightings).

    I would not like all spots defaulted to some sort of public view though...there's obviously my backyard, and I do sometimes get high counts in it or a not-so-common warbler, but I do not want people knocking on my door because they caught sight of my sighting on ebird. I also do visit other areas that are not open to the public to go birding but which I've been able to gain access (talking to an owner or even my own workplace which is not open to birding due to it looking like suspicious activity) - these are areas I prefer to 'hide' since the general public is not usually allowed to bird there. I think misunderstandings as to whether a spot is truly open to the public or not might happen if all locations were able to be viewed by everyone on ebird.

  7. I think that some confusion stems from defining a "hotspot" as simply a location open to birding by the public. Thus some of the eBird "hotspots" are not truly hotspots and many "private" locations are actually public. Technically I could suggest "Kohl's parking lot" as an eBird hotspot and as currently defined it would truly be an eBird hotspot. I don't know if this is feasible but what you really need is a third option of "Public". All the existing hotspots would be in this category with perhaps a check mark to designate them as true hotspots. Perhaps when a baseline number of submissions from 2 or more observers is turned in for the location it would automatically be designated as a hotspot.

  8. I agree with Charles Swift. I think the option to hide a location is good but the default should be that all sightings are visible unless the location is specifically hidden. It is important to be able to see who, where and when of most sightings. I do not want to have to have to manually make every location public. The locations should be public unless the user hides the location.

    The default should be "show this" with option to "hide this" relative to the maps, and arrival/departure list. I'm surprised people think the default should be hidden. Far more locations are going to be public rather than hidden.

    The recent enhancements that allow for better sightings maps with names and locations have really improved the usability of the site.

  9. Personally I don't mind having my private locations shown on a map. Not having a direct link to a map for private locations on the arrivals/departures page doesn't bother me though. Whenever I see a interesting bird on the arrivals/departures list that is at a private location I just go to the county bar chart, click on the species an then all locations public or private come up on the map. I really wish that we could contact the people on ebird to ask about certain sightings. This would be helpful to beginning birders especially, I know from my own experience that I have started to see lots more birds since I got in touch with a very experienced birder who lived in my subdivision through my local listserv. He was able to tell me where all of the best local birding spots were and give me lots of other helpful tips. This doesn't necessarily need to involve displaying email addresses, maybe messages could come up on each person's my ebird page. From my point of view, being connected with other birders makes birding a lot easier than doing it all by your self. Also, please keep the top 100 species lists, it is one of my favorite features on ebird.

  10. In terms of the public/private location issue I agree that an option to hide or share a location is the way to go. I also think that the default should be "show this" with the option to hide. I have 167 locations in eBird, most of which are personal, unshared locations which I would like to be public. I would prefer to go through and hide my house and one or two other spots rather than individually changing some 150 locations. As someone else said, the majority of locations are going to be public with only a handful needing to be hidden.

    To the people who don't like their names being listed next to observations, there is a simple fix. Go to "My eBird", in the bottom right hand corner click on "edit profile" and change your name to a psuedonym, nickname, or whatever. I doubt that the people at eBird care if the name you use in eBird is your real name.

    I personally love the top 100 lists and look at them all the time. I had recently begun working on my county lists and the top 100 list made me put even more time into birding those areas. I always liked the old maps where you could simply look at an area over a time period and see all of the observations without having to search by species.

    I understand some people's desire for privacy but I think that there are fairly easy ways to do that while still letting eBird get as much information out there as possible.

  11. I eBird with a GPS unit everywhere I go and I have around 1100 locations in My eBird. I have stopped suggesting locations as Hotspots, however, because I find Hotspots to be restrictive and problematic. In fact, I regret converting many of my personal locations to Hotspots. 1) I do not like compromising the high accuracy of my GPS locations in order to merge a personal location with an existing Hotspot. Doesn't this go against the eBird philosophy of location, location, location? 2) I prefer to name my location as I see fit and not adopt the name or spelling of the existing hotspot. 3) I do not like it that once a personal location is merged with a hotspot, I am unable to move that location if I need to. 4) I also wonder if the focus on Hotspots will discourage some birders from exploring and birding new areas.

    I am also very concerned with data privacy. At this point I am quite invested in eBird with all of my bird records. Generally, I don't mind if my bird records are available to the public. But I wish more flexible options for privacy were offered on a per-record basis and I wish there was an eBird Privacy Policy in place stating boundaries for what information is made made available to the public, and what information will NEVER be made public. With all the different tools available (top 100, early/late dates, mapping, sharing, etc.) it is pretty unclear to me what the public will be able to dig up if they really try. For example, sometimes the information I enter in the comments fields is somewhat personal. That isn't public now, but what if eBird rolls out a new feature? It would be impossible for me to go through my 3000+ checklists and filter my comments. Other times, I don't want a particular species to be visible to the public and/or my name to be associated with a particular record because of trespassing concerns or sensitivity of breeding species. I wish it was more clear whether "Hiding" a checklist actually invalidated that checklist scientifically, or just made it invisible on public outputs. Would it still show up on Top 100? Early/Late dates? Maps? What if I "Hide" a checklist, and then Share it with another birder? Will it still be hidden? What if the other birder Unhides it?

    The bottom line: Please make privacy options available that clearly state which information the public will be able to see, both now and in future feature roll-outs, and under all possible sharing situations.

  12. I'm for as much user access as possible to the important information: location, date, number, and observer, with the option to hide certain checklists, species, or locations from public view. I have over 500 locations, and most of the "private" ones have no issues with data access.

    Each step toward making eBird data more accessible has been very exciting so far, and I'd love to see more.

    Oriole's example isn't quite right. "Kohl's parking lot" shouldn't be eligible to be an eBird hotspot, unless for some reason there is a history of people birding there. A hotspot doesn't have to be the greatest place around to see birds, but it does have to have a reasonable chance of having more than one person submitting bird information from there, in addition to being public. So "Kohl's parking lot," assuming it is a somewhat random and haphazard place to bird, would not be a hotspot, but the data should still be viewed publicly.

    Charlie Wright

  13. I agree with Charlie that Kohl's parking lot should not be eligible to be an eBird hotspot. My point was that the current definition of an eBird hotspot allows for just that. From the eBird website:
    "Hotspots are public birding locations created by eBird users. ... The idea is to avoid the creation of duplicate hotspots, and to make sure that the location in indeed a hotspot (e.g. Point Loma) and not a personal location (e.g., My Backyard)." http://ebird.org/content/ebird/about/hotspots

    If you can find another criterion other than "public" on the eBird website I'd appreciate knowing where to find it.

  14. While not every public spot is a HOT spot, I would like to see more public locations being shared locations. Ideally, even every public park in America. But that might lead to map clutter, perhaps. I have refrained from offering some public locations as hotspots because they're not "hot" even if I happen to bird there often, anyways. Or, at least, be able to nominate public locations as share-able non hotspot locations to which others could contribute data.

  15. I think users should have the option to designate each personal location as public or private. A lot of personal locations are really public locations that don't count as hotspots for one reason or another – either no one has bothered to submit it, or the local hotspot editor has been slow in approving submitted hotspots, or the site has too few checklists to make it worth cluttering the hotspot map. Under those circumstances it makes sense to make some personal locations visible. However, I have a few sites whose exact locations I would prefer to keep private, like my home and some private properties where I occasionally watch birds. I think the best course of action is to leave the level of privacy up to the user.

  16. It should be up to each individual birder to decide whether they wish their records to be public knowledge. Some like myself never signed on to the Ebird platform to share information with the public, that is what the local clubs are for. I use Ebird to contribute to science, not someone else's lifelists, therefore I would greatly appreciate it if I had the option to just switch on and off private/public instead of having to do so for each checklist.

  17. I think the biggest issue is the use of the word "hotspot". In discussions I've had with the Canadian eBird coordinator, he asked for recommended hotspots for my area. I automatically defaulted to the usual use of the word "hotspot" - someplace crazy good for birds, the sort of place you could go and always see an excellent variety or abundance. I didn't know any in my area.

    However, I didn't think to go look at what eBird defined as a hotspot, which turns out isn't actually what I think of as being a hotspot at all. Turns out, it's just a public birding location. If that's the case, I can make many suggestions for my area. You aren't guaranteed of always getting lots of birds, or even any sometimes, but it's a good place to try and I'd recommend it to anyone who asked for places to bird in my area.

    I think "hotspot" is a misnomer as it is used by eBird. I think it would be better to change the word you use to refer to public places. Currently users who submit lists are given the option to make a new location a hotspot or not. Given that none of mine are ever hotspots in the traditional sense of the word, I never have. However, if you changed the label to "public location" or something similar, I think that would get around the whole problem of private backyards. Private birding locations can remain private. Public birding locations, regardless of whether they're hotspots or not, can be made public.

    "Would you like to designate this site as a hotspot?"
    "Well... it's a city parkette, not exactly Cape May here..."

    "Would you like to designate this site as a public birding location?"
    "It's a city parkette, so sure, why not?"

    I might be inclined, if attaching a name is necessary at all, to use a username or initials or something rather than a birder's full name, in the interest of privacy. There's no real reason other people need to know who submitted an observation. If there's an issue with the potential validity of a sighting, that's supposed to get reported to eBird anyway, and they can do the following up without revealing personal information.

  18. Maybe public locations could be on a two-tier labeling system. "Hotspots" for places that really are hotspots, Point Pelee, Cape May, etc, the sort of spots that you would see in a "The 100 best places to bird" sort of book. And then maybe there could be "Destinations" (or something), other public birding spots that wouldn't likely ever be found in a "100 best" book but are still open to the public nonetheless. To avoid clutter on a map, at wide-scale views (continent, state level) only hotspots would be shown, and as the user zoomed in to small-scale views, then destinations could be displayed on the map.

  19. I agree with some of the previous posts that it is best to give the user some options on whether they would like a certain personal location to be viewable by the public. This is especially important for rare species that are seen on private land where the observer has permission to bird, but the public does not. The only ways currently to avoid having the public be able to see the location are (1) to "hide" the entire checklist, which removes it from the database entirely, or (2) submit the observation from a more general location, like the town or county. Both of these options run counter to the goals of eBird, which hopes to gather as much data as possible, and tie individual bird observations as closely as possible to a single location on the ground. There must be a way that individual locations or observations can be hidden from public outputs, but still be viable in the database and made available to Cornell, Audubon, etc. researchers.

  20. The only ways currently to avoid having the public be able to see the location are (1) to "hide" the entire checklist, which removes it from the database entirely,....

    You can hide a checklist? How do you do that? The only way I know to hide a checklist is to not submit it in the first place.

  21. I agree with Seabrooke's recommendation for three categories - Hot Spot, Public, Private.

    As for how to avoid having the public see the location - there is another way that several active birders I know use - don't submit your sightings to eBird.

    In my opinion, unless explicitly authorized, sightings at private locations should be hidden from all maps available to the public, especially while eBird continues to include a birder's personal information in specific maps. This information can still be included in the combined checklists, graphs, etc. when no private information is disclosed.

    In our society we have a strong culture of protecting individual privacy. I believe the eBird community will be beter served if that culture is strictly adhered to. If eBird better protected individual privacy, more people would use it, and the addition of their sightings to the database would greatly enhance the value to the general public.

  22. I too agree with Seabrook: private, public, and hotspot. However, personally, I've never found the word "hotspot" to be of value if those doing data entry are allowed to designate it as such or not. To me, a hotspot should be determined by the data itself. If the frequency of sightings hits a threshold (the definition to be determined by our ebird developers), then that general location becomes a hotspot for data retrieval, not for data entry. One shouldn't enter data by hotspot name as it does reduce location specificity. As we all know, a birding hotspot is not a lat and long on a map, but a general habitat type in a generalized locale that can be an acre or square miles in size. So I say let the data gatherers decide if private or public and let the data itself determine if the location is a birding hotspot.

  23. I agree totally with the previous anonymous comment.

  24. I have been submitting data to ebird for over 2 years now and it was only recnetly that I ever checked the "View and Explore Data link. I was quite surprised to see my name all over the map. I firgured some scientists in a back room at Cornell were using my data. I did not know it was available to the public. That being said, I like seeing my name and other people's names on the map at the birding locations. I don't know many of the other birders but it's fun for me to see who saw what where and how many. Also, I am trying to get others involved in eBird, including students and I think it is fun for them to see their data on the map. I just recently did a birding presentation to six 7th grade science classes and counted birds in and around their school. Now these students can look online and see which bird species are being seen in their area. I have taken my nephew and a 12 year old friend out bird watching and helped them submit data to ebird. For these young people seeing their name is a powerful incentive to keep ebirding. I do like the idea of keeping private locations (i.e. one's home) private, but in the 2 years that I have been ebirding and my private location has been on the map I have not once had a person come knocking on my door in spite of some rare and unsusal birds showing up. Still, I think this is a good option. I have seen it used on Dick Siler's rarity map where it says "2 X species were seen at a private location". Perhaps this method would help.

    As for Birding Hotspots, I like this tool. I use it all the time when I am going ebirding in a new area or state. It helps me find spots to go birding. I personally only submit birding areas as Hotspots if they are public and if there is a high probability of seeing numerous species. Other than that, I keep anything else as a personal location, like the Walmart parking lot or a walk in my own neighborhood. I like to find new areas to bird, like vacant lots. I do beleive we should keep sensitive breeding and nesting areas hidden to protect the birds. Other than that, if one does not want to have their private location known then they should rename it. I have done this when birding at other's houses by just naming the location as the street and not the address or the person's name. Please keep the top 100. It is a new feature that I really like and I use it to get others interested in eBird. For me it is immediate validation that I truly am making a difference when I submit counts to eBird.

    An additional note: Most birders I know are very respectful other other people's privacy and would never dream of trespassing on someone else's yard or disturbing a nest site. But as we all know, it only takes one jerk to ruin it for everyone else.

  25. I finally read through most of these threads. I think there are two issues: 1) What is a "hot spot"? and 2). Should personal entries be made public or private.

    I think hotspots should be reliable places to see birds. I have birded some pretty amazing places, some of them listed in State Bird Guides and yet they weren't "hot spots" in ebird. I checked the "hot spot" for those locations. However, I've also seen birds along Highway XX. Definitely not a "hot spot." We, as birders, need to be selective about this one.

    2). I think the default should be to show all entries, with the ability for a user to "check" an entry NOT to display on the google map. But the data is collected of course. Then, if it is indeed a sensitive location the birder can choose NOT to have it displayed.


  26. I prefer my locations to remain private unless I choose to make them public. Defaulting to public is not fair practice as it automatically violates the desire for privacy. I wouldn't want all my locations to magically be public until I log in sometime to hide them again.

    I joined eBird understanding that scientists will have full access to all my data; that's the reason for the site. However, I don't consent to making my locations fully public to the general internet.

    That said, I will gladly make public places I explore viewable on a map... as long as I don't have to suggest it's some kind of bird-magnet "hotspot."

    I also don't mind my name showing up on arrival/departure features, etc.

  27. In reading the comments on this question it appeared to me that respondents were about equally split between revealing personal/private locations or not. I would hope the final decision would allow some way to protect the privacy of those who wish it. However, the recent announcement that species comments will be made public doesn't seem to provide that kind of option. It appears that eBird is being treated by the developers more like an updated internet version of the rare bird hot-line than a repository for citizen scientist contributed observations. I don't send my observations or list information to ABA because I feel observations of changes in bird distribution and populations is more than and game. I have no problem with those who play the game - they contribute in their own way. But I am reluctant to add my observations to eBird if they are all public and thought of as primarily a tool for "chasing rare birds."

  28. After reading the other posts on here I think that the Public/Private option for location would probably work best. This would allow for those who wish to keep their personal locations private do so, while others (like me) who dream about getting a bird in their backyard rare enough for other birders to want to come see it can show their locations. Also, I just saw your new message on ebird about making species comments public and sending out email alerts for rare species. This is totally awesome! I know that I have seen reports of unusual birds in parks and wished that I could get more information. I think that this will be one of the best improvements that ebird has made.

  29. Good grief! I've recently started making more species comments but not just on rare or unusual birds. People will be bored to tears reading them all.

  30. eBirders

    Thanks very much for your insightful comments on these matters. It sounds like we'll need to be sure to consider some expanded privacy options as we move forward, and perhaps rethink the way we currently define locations in eBird. Your input has been invaluable.

    Brian Sullivan
    eBird Project Leader

  31. I just found this discussion. I am concerned that my name and birding locations appear on maps. I think this could be a safety issue. Better to give a birder an ID number or something. Also, locations should appear as a smeared blob that hides an exact location, unless the location is a hot spot or designated public.

  32. There is a way to resolve whether to make non-hotspot locations public or private by default: your eBird profile could specify which default behavior you wanted. Likewise, your eBird profile could specify whether you wanted your species comments to be published or not by default.

    The default values in your eBird profile should favor PRIVACY (that is, "hide" not "show"). The information that announces the new features should instruct eBird users on how to edit their profile to set up their new defaults. Better, this could be done via some sort of "wizard" that walks you through the process (sort of what Google does when you set up your iGoogle preferences).

    On the "hotspot" topic: I, too, am torn between lumping all my observations into a "hotspot" so that good site lists can be assembled and splitting all my observations down to the exact GPS coordinates of each sighting.

    In the short run, I don't really see a solution. For common, widespread birds it might not matter; however, for rare or locally uncommon birds, knowing the exact location can be vital for both scientific reasons (habitat) and recreational reasons (finding the bird).

    If you don't have GPS information (which I suspect is the case with the vast majority of eBirders), it is certainly handy to have the public hotspots so that you can submit your sightings from your trip to Ecuador. I don't think we should give up that convenience. If we do, I expect that we would get many fewer submissions especially from countries where it is not easy to locate on Google Maps exactly where your group was birding.

    In the longer run, I share the view articulated earlier in the blog by some that the concept of "hotspot" has to be DRIVEN BY THE DATA and not by the submitters of the data. Now, a compromise might be as follows: keep "hotspots" for data entry for the reasons given above, but for data retrieval/display, use the location area boundary to search the database for all sightings (hotspot and private location) that fall within the boundary. These stored area boundaries would often have the same name as the data entry hotspot, but might also include disjoint named locations like IBAs (Important Bird Areas) which can be rather large regions and encompass multiple hotspots.

  33. The "hotspot" tag is misleading; they're birdable, perhaps, but not all are stellar. my "personal/private" spots are just that. Not Public. I don't want the maps further cluttered with Aunt Sue's yard if I'm not going to be able to access it. Likewise, this is TX, people are liable to be shot for trespassing if a rarity is reported on private land. Don't encourage it!

    How about we have "hotspots!" that are easily birdable, "public" meaning the location is there but not SuperAwesomeBirdy nor caters to access... and then "private" meaning nobody sees the location but the birder, the ebird editor and God* (of your choice).