Taking Research to New Heights
Jennifer Hinds came to the University of Idaho in 2002 as a researcher, providing hydrogeological site characterization for a multi-institutional research team studying extreme geothermal environments.
As the project on biocomplexity progressed, she saw the need for a data-sharing platform, where collaborators across Idaho could showcase the results of their research. Her colleagues agreed, and she built her first website.
Other researchers took notice of the site and began requesting her help. It quickly snowballed into a new career.
Today, Hinds is the research applications architect for ORED’s Northwest Knowledge Network (NKN), creating visualization tools, web applications, and mobile apps that help researchers collect, analyze and share their data. NKN operates under ORED’s Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST).
“Most U of I researchers know NKN as the place to store their research data,” said Hinds. "That’s true, but it’s also a place where we’re actively developing tools for researchers to extract greater value from their data.”
Hinds shared several recent projects where she used her drone piloting experience, programming skills, geographical information systems (GIS) expertise, and other talents to assist researchers with data-driven applications.
Vegetation Fuels Modeling with Drones
In summer 2019, Hinds traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, where she assisted U of I Ph.D. candidate Amanda Stasiewicz. The NSF HazardSEES project, led by Travis Paveglio, assistant professor of natural resource sociology, and Crystal Kolden, associate professor of forestry, rangeland and fire sciences, helped the researchers understand the levels of social tolerance for different vegetation management strategies to reduce wildfire risk near residential areas.
Using her camera-fitted drone, Hinds collected aerial imagery of forest and shrub habitats adjacent to select neighborhoods in Sun Valley. She then processed the imagery to produce highly accurate 3D models of present-day vegetation.
“The goal of the drone flights was to map terrain and capture the spatial distribution and density of vegetation,” Hinds said. “The resulting 3D models are now being altered by computer to reflect a variety of management strategies and fuel-reduction intensities intended to reduce wildfire risk. Researchers will show different virtualized scenarios to residents and other stakeholders and ask which management solutions are the most acceptable, if any.”
Hinds said drone-mapping technology can uniquely bring stakeholders together in land management studies.
“These new tools help foster collaborations and involvement between researchers, land managers, stakeholders and the general public.”
RangeSAT for Real-Time Grazing Land Management
Hinds is currently working with Vincent Jansen, U of I post-doctoral researcher in rangeland ecology, and Roger Lew, research assistant professor in virtual technology and design, to develop RangeSAT, a collection of web tools to help ranchers and land managers make more informed land management and livestock grazing decisions.
Their work is part of a larger effort supported by The Nature Conservancy, USDA Northwest Climate Hub and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and led by Kolden and Jason Karl in the College of Natural Resources.
“Over the course of this project, researchers have designed models that integrate field measurements with Landsat satellite imagery to produce spatial metrics about vegetation health and plant biomass on a pasture scale,” said Hinds. “My role is to further the development of front-end web maps and charts used to visualize these metrics through an interface tailored to an individual land owner.”
Hinds says RangeSAT users can query different dates and compare vegetation metrics per pasture with historic climatological records, and they intend to capture livestock behavior and grazing patterns in the future.
“The ultimate goal is to provide a real-time decision support system that allows ranchers and land managers to make informed decisions about when and where to graze their cattle so that their practices are more sustainable,” Hinds said.
Mobile Apps to Support Citizen Science
Hinds said that researchers increasingly want to integrate mobile applications with their research efforts.
“Mobile apps are a great way to connect with various stakeholders and interest groups, as well as have these groups contribute to a greater research objective.”
Hinds collaborated with staff from the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute (IWRRI) to develop a mobile app for engaging citizen scientists in water-quality assessment campaigns.
“The idea is to send sampling kits to participants located throughout a watershed,” said Hinds. “Then on a specified day, these citizen scientists would collect a water sample from a nearby river or stream, perform some simple tests with their kit and record results via the mobile app.”
The app captures the spatial coordinates of the sampling location, and the data collected across the watershed is stored in a GIS database. Maps and other analytical tools can then be developed from this database.
Hinds noted the app will help researchers pinpoint areas of interest: where higher-than-acceptable levels of impurities are found in the water. “As more water quality data gets added through the app, it creates a clearer picture of water quality in that area.”
Hinds says NKN staff members have a passion for helping researchers take their data to the next level with tools to enable new knowledge. Contact NKN at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or needs regarding data applications or data management.
Article by Phillip Bogdan, Office of Research and Economic Development