Yearly Archives: 2018

New Zealand Wikipedian-at-Large

I’m excited to announce that from the end of June I’m on a one-year contract, funded by the Wikimedia Foundation in the USA, to be Aotearoa’s first ever Wikipedian-at-large. Who? What? Read on.

Who and What

The Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit based in San Francisco that runs Wikipedia, as well as Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, and a handful of other projects. They don’t write or edit Wikipedia: that’s all done by hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Their job is to run the servers, fundraise, and administer outreach programmes and community grants worldwide. This funding round they gave out US$355,473 to 11 successful grant proposals, one of which was me. It’ll cover my salary and travel and some conference fees for the year while I’m a Wikipedian-in-residence at institutions all over New Zealand.

Me helping beginning Wikipedians at the NZ Insect Cards workshop last year. Pic: Lanipai CC BY-SA

A Wikipedian-in-residence is based in an institution or organisation for a fixed term, and their job is not to just sit and edit Wikipedia. Again, that’s done by volunteers. The Wikipedian trains staff about editing, copyright, and how to make collections more freely-usable. They run public events, like Wikipedia workshops and edit-a-thons. And they help the organisation develop a Wikipedia strategy, figuring out how to engage with this amazing resource—because after all Wikipedia is the first place most people go for information, and if your institution’s mission is to communicate you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist.

New Zealand currently doesn’t have a strong community of Wikipedia volunteers, and the coverage of New Zealand topics in Wikipedia is a bit dire. We’ve fallen behind. Another part of my job description is working out how to boost the number of editors, by organising regular editor meetups, running training sessions, and encouraging institutions to support the editing groups in their community. The Wikimedia Foundation is especially keen to recruit from under-represented groups, such as women and Māori, to help counter some of Wikipedia’s biases.

Where and When

Lots of institutions are keen to have me as a Wikipedian-in-residence, so I’ll be travelling all over New Zealand for a year (that’s the “at-large” part). I’ve enjoyed the last four and half years at Whanganui Regional Museum, but it’s time to move on. The timetable for the next year has to be negotiated between all the interested parties, but at this stage it might be:

  • June–August: Auckland, based at New Zealand Geographic magazine, Auckland Museum, and Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua
  • August–September: Dunedin, to give a talk at the SPNHC conference and work at Otago Museum
  • October–March: Wellington, in residence at Zealandia, the National Library, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, DOC, and Forest & Bird
  • I’ll also be working with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition in Christchurch, the Nelson Provincial Museum, and other organisations as time and funding permits.

For more information, see the news story by Farah Hancock back when I first applied for the grant, and the detailed Project Page, which has timelines, reports, details on upcoming activities and so on. I’ll be blogging the highlights of each month here, filed under Wikipediana. You can also join the Facebook group Wikipedia New Zealand to keep up with the news, or subscribe to the Wikipedian-at-large mailing list, so you can hear about what events I’ll be running in your area.

How you can help

Are you part of an institution that might be interested in hosting me as a Wikipedian-in-residence? Would you like me to come and give a talk on Wikipedia to your colleagues or run a workshop? Get in touch and we can find a space in the calendar.

I’ll be putting my possessions in a storage locker and being a digital hobo for a year all over New Zealand. Do you know of any house-sits, writer’s residencies, spare rooms, sublets, visiting-scholar accommodation, or DOC huts in need of a warden in your area? All suggestions and offers gratefully received, as long as they have wifi.

Are you just interested in Wikipedia and want to volunteer to help? We have a good team of volunteers and can always use more.

The Whip Scorpions of Bali

I’ve done field work in lots of places, but this was the first time I’d had to wear a purple sash.

The sash and sarong were hired for 5,000 rupiah (about 50c) from a shop by the main road on the island of Nusa Penida, near Bali, Indonesia. I was about to venture into a cave to look for endangered crabs, but because the cave is also a popular Hindu temple I needed to be properly attired.

At one point the Giri Putri temple would have just been a smallish hole partway up a cliff face; you have to crouch, clamber, and shuffle to enter, before the ceiling rises and you’re in one of several roomy caves. Today, there are steps, buildings, white-clad priests praying, and a visitor’s book for you to sign and donate about Rp 20,000; I was a bit more generous. Giri Putri has been a holy place for a long time, but it’s only recently we realised it was a biodiversity hotspot as well.

Giri Putri crab. Photo by the late Tony Whitten.

Back in 1993 Australian biologist Tony Whitten ventured into the cave when it was just a hole in the hillside. He was struck by the number of crabs scuttling about on the cave floor, and collected a few. They turned out to belong to not one but two new species, Karstarma emdi and K. balicum. Freshwater crabs like these can be found in several cave systems in south-east Asia: they have long legs for feeling their way about in total darkness. Isolation and time leads to speciation, and the two Karstarma species in Giri Putri seem to be found nowhere else but this one small cave system on this single island.

Unfortunately, they’re under threat. Giri Putri is now a busy temple, with artificial lighting everywhere, large fans to keep the air moving, lots of concreted and tiled floor, and benches and altars set up in several places. Whitten noted that every few years when he visited there were fewer crabs to be seen. In the hour I spent searching with a headlamp in the dark corners of the cave I didn’t see any at all. I asked one priest if the crabs were there; he told me “sometimes”. The IUCN is pushing for better monitoring of the crab population, and the temple authorities seem keen to work to minimise human impact, so let’s hope. But really there needs to be a resident biologist there studying the cave environment and ecology to come up with a management plan.

There’s plenty of other life in Giri Putri, though. In all the dark corners I was disturbing bats which zipped through my torch beam in silence, sometimes an inch from my face. I was very conscious that I hadn’t gotten a rabies vaccination before coming to Bali; killed by a rabid bat is not my preferred demise. The walls of the cave were crawling with invertebrates: large Periplaneta cockroaches, camel crickets that looked just like the cave wētā back in New Zealand, and good-sized tailless whip scorpions. I took photos as best I could with my phone.

Back home, I uploaded the photos to NatureWatch and tried to get IDs. I sent the whip scorpion photos to Mark Harvey at the Western Australian Museum to see what he thought. Mark placed them in the family Phrynidae, probably the genus Phrynus. This was interesting, because almost all species of Phrynus are found in the New World, through Mexico and Central America. The sole exception is a species Mark himself named and described: Phrynus exsul from the island of Flores, Indonesia, thousands of kilometres away from its closest relatives.

Only one problem: Bali is 400 km away from Flores. So either these beasties are Phrynus exsul and a new record far to the west of where they were first observed, or they’re an undescribed species of Phrynus, only the second known from outside the neotropics. A bit of quick searching reveals there are similar-looking whip scorpions at nearby Kentung Cave and probably other caves on Penida. Who can say how many species, and whether they’re endemic or endangered?

Whip scorpions are not especially inconspicuous. Giri Putri is right by the main road, and a popular tourist destination. Nusa Penida is a short ferry ride from Bali, which has millions of tourists a year. And it it seems that in over 20 years nobody has thought to collect one of these critters, take it to an expert, and find out if it’s an undescribed species or not. This is the plight of the tropics writ small: stuffed full of biodiversity, which is disappearing faster than we can discover and put a name to it.

Wikipedia as an Entomology Outreach Tool

(Notes for a presentation I gave at the 2018 Entomological Society of New Zealand conference in Whanganui.)

It all started when I wrote a piece for the local paper in 2015 on conservation funding for threatened species, lamenting how all the money goes to charismatic birds and not much to ugly insects and endangered leeches. Jesse Mulligan interviewed me on the radio, and wanted to know what he could do to help spotlight our more obscure threatened species, and Critter of the Week was born, a regular interview with DOC’s endangered species ambassador Nicola Toki. It’s been a great success, covering 120 critters to date – many of them insects, snails, fishes, shrubs, and other overlooked organisms.

My role has been behind the scenes, wearing my Wikipedian hat. Every week, when the critter is announced, I check to see if it has a good Wikipedia page – or indeed any page at all. With the help of other volunteer editors, I work on improving the article and adding photos. We maintain a list of all the species covered, with notes on which still need work. You can see the effect of the project by comparing the article for the New Zealand giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) before and after. Sadly, despite all this, Jesse Mulligan still calls me a Wikinerd. Sigh.

Critter of the Week is an example of how Wikipedia can be part of your science communication toolbox. Wikipedia is where people are getting their information, and anyone can edit it. it’s easy and quick to update it and correct mistakes or vandalism. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that scientists can work with Wikipedia and take advantage of its reach and impact.

  1. Lend your expertise, even indirectly on a Talk page. Every article has a Talk tab, and anyone can leave comments there, even if they don’t consider themselves a Wikipedia editor. Weevil researcher Chrissie Painting for example left some great suggestions on the giraffe weevil Talk page, noting inaccuracies and possible references for more information.
  2. Publish in open-access journals or make PDFs available in a repository. Everything in Wikipedia needs to be referenced, and so often when I’m trying to track down sources for an article I hit a paywall. It’s wonderful to find a repository or publications page that posts PDFs, even if it’s since been taken down and exists only in the Internet Archive. Open-access publications are 47% more likely to be referenced in Wikipedia.
  3. Lasiorhynchus barbicornis male and female
    Lasiorhynchus_barbicornis by Christina. J. Painting, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Donate images to Commons, and use Creative Commons licenses (not NC). That giraffe weevil illustration was taken from an open-access paper in PLoS, and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a repository for freely-usable images. This was possible because it was published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC-BY). Creative Commons, invented in 2001, is a great alternative to All Rights Reserved copyright if you want people to be able to freely use your work – here’s a book (released under a CC license!) if you want know more. There are hundreds of Wikipedia articles on New Zealand moths (like this one) because Landcare Research made its photo collection available under a CC-BY license. Some institutions don’t. Adding a “non-commercial” condition (CC-BY-NC) is too restrictive: Wikipedia is published under an open license so its content has to be usable by anyone for anything. Almost none of the thousands and thousands of photos in NatureWatch NZ for example can be used in Wikipedia, because NatureWatch’s default setting when you create an account is CC-BY-NC, and most users would never think to change it.
  5. The New Zealand Insect Cards edit-a-thon, banner by Emma Scheltema and photo by Leilani Walker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  6. Help your local editors. Wikipedia editors are all volunteers, often toiling anonymously. It’s nice to reach out, for example via the Wikiproject New Zealand noticeboard. You can offer to host an edit-a-thon, like the University of Auckland did. You could give editors freebies, like behind-the-scenes tours of your insect collections or the opportunity to help with a research project. And you can give them access to your expertise and your institutional library. Let them know their hard work is appreciated.
  7. Develop an institutional Wikipedia strategy, like you would for any other public comms or outreach. Effort put into Wikipedia pays off. This pūriri moth article, for example, is not very good, but it uses Landcare Research photos, and those photos are getting (as of April 2018) 560 unique views a month. Popular or timely Wikipedia articles (like “Kiwi”) can get thousands of views a day, far greater impact than newspaper stories or magazine articles. To help develop this strategy, you can host a Wikipedian in Residence, a short-term paid or volunteer position where an experienced editor teaches staff about Wikipedia, helps you move images to the Commons, and runs edit-a-thons and other events.
  8. And you can just edit Wikipedia yourself. Your advantage is you’re a subject expert, with all the literature at your fingertips. You still need to reference every sentence, as if you were writing a student essay – your authority doesn’t count here, and you can’t base an article on unpublished research. Like any other written medium, it has its own style and codes, so it’s worthwhile getting experience with small corrections and adding citations before you launch into new articles. Luckily there’s plenty on guidance and information available, in Wikipedia’s help pages, and even from other researchers. There are plenty of Wikipedians delighted to help a new editor: let them troubleshoot for you. Ask me if you get stuck.

If you want to get your research out there, and communicate with the largest number of people in the most efficient way, Wikipedia is a good tool to use. Institutions seem very keen to create information silos that proudly display their brand identity, but keeping these up to date can become a huge time suck, and they often just stagnate and die. Working with a community of editors and putting your effort into open resources is far more rewarding. Wikipedia is where people are already going, and you may as well meet them there.

Hunting Insects in Suburban Paraparaumu

I was asked to conduct an insect survey of Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, by Forest and Bird Kapiti branch. The purpose was to photograph an interesting selection of insect life that could be featured on interpretive boards, to accompany billboards already being designed for the birds and fishes of the reserve. I think it’s great when conservation groups take insect biodiversity seriously, so I was happy to help.

I also put out word on Twitter that I was doing the insect survey and invited people on the Kapiti Coast to come join in. There was plenty of interest, and in the end one couple came for the evening and again the next day, along with one more person and a family with two small kids. All the adults said they had a great time, and the kids got to play in the stream and chase butterflies and look at eels, so it was fun all around.

About

Kaitawa reserve is 7 Ha, a mixture of remnant coastal wetland forest and revegetation that volunteers have been adding to since 1996. It contains tōtara, rimu, kahikatea, puriri, kohekohe, titoki, tawa, hinau, rewarewa, kowhai, swamp maire, and turepo.

What We Did

Saturday Feb 3
8:30 pm – midnight: Light trapping
I set up a LepiLED UV light trap to attract moths and beetles in sheltered open area near the playground. The night was calm, warm, and a bit humid, excellent conditions for attracting insects. I was a bit concerned because there was almost no cloud and we were close to a full moon, but in the end it didn’t rise until shortly before we called it quits for the night.

The white sheet was quickly covered with caddisflies – unsurprising, as we weren’t far from a stream. I was hoping for dobsonflies, but no luck (although we did find a dobsonfly larva in the stream the next day). There were plenty of porina moths, loopers, and pug moths, and some orange Netelia wasps, which are caterpillar parasites. Reasonable diversity, though it would have been nice to see more beetles – such as huhu and other longhorns – and a wider variety of moths.

Richard Hall’s How to Gaze at the Southern Stars is evangelical about the value of stargazing just through binoculars, something I’d never tried. And it was extraordinary. The Pleiades resolve from a smudge to distinct stars, and you can see the shadows of the edges of the moon’s craters.

Sunday Feb 4
08:30 am – 3:00 pm: Insect hunting

  • Sweep netting in long grass
  • Beating vegetation with stick and beating sheet to dislodge insects
  • Hunting flying insects with butterfly nets
  • Looking under logs and stones
  • Completely disassembling rotten logs with the trusty butter knife
  • Searching the stream for aquatic larvae
  • Emptying pitfall traps I set two weeks ago

The next morning was fine and sunny, and straight after breakfast the reserve was alive with butterflies: yellow admiral, monarchs, cabbage whites, and common blues (no coppers or red admirals). Cicadas were calling, and tūī and kererū flapped noisily overhead. My volunteers ran to and fro chasing tiger beetles with butterfly nets, or thrashing bushes with a stick to see what was dislodged (the expected stick insects duly appeared).

I happened to have some fish nets, so we checked out the stream and almost immediately caught two small longfin eels and a school of īnanga. When we put them in an enamel pan to look at, a local family who’d been using the playground could contain their curiosity no longer and came over to ask questions. We ended up having a great conversation about biodiversity, fresh water, eel breeding, and the importance of reserves like this.

By mid-afternoon, we were fairly exhausted, but had managed to find enough colourful and obscure insects and spiders to fill an interpretation panel. Next time I run a survey like this, it should be something like a miniature BioBlitz, with a call for public participation: having multiple searchers was tremendously helpful, and locals would be fascinated to learn what was living in their backyard.

Box of pinned insects: butterflies, moths, beetles, a praying mantis

Insects collected at Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, 3–4 Feb 2018

After much work processing, pinning, setting, and photographing with the help of visiting Earlham College students Anna Carlson and Julia Freeman, here are all the specimens collected that day. Some still have to be identified to species level, but I was able to give Forest and Bird Kapiti a list of everything we saw, and it will all be accessioned to the Whanganui Regional Museum collection. From there it will go on NatureWatch NZ, and thence into GBIF so the data will be available globally. We’ll also be putting some of the insects on display as part of the Children of Tane section of the Museum’s revamped exhibitions. Waste not want not!