Book Review: The Intersection by Tom Cole

By November 21st, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Comment

eBird is a citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Step back to 1995. You have a paper address book – family, friends, business – but it’s too big. You’ve been so many places and met so many people that you can’t distinguish John Smith the college buddy from John Smith at the office. It’s time to get organized with a computer program.

You buy one off the shelf, meticulously enter the data, but over time find it wanting. What to do? Write your own program of course, then a few years later, do it again.

This is what Tom Cole, ESL teacher and game programmer, did with his birdwatching data. After decades of keeping a bird rolodex on paper, he went digital in the 1990s, and never looked back. His self-published edition, The Intersection: Seventeen Years of Bird Processing on One Street Corner of the World, tells this story.

The corner is in Gilbert, AZ, in the not-so-natural-looking Phoenix metro area. As a city birder, I feel great affinity for a person who birds a tough urban spot and finds treasure year after year. The resulting data collection is astounding. Much like baseball enthusiasts, not all birders keep a strict set of scorecards, but Tom Cole did, and still does. The value of that data, and its extreme organization, cannot be overstated. Professional ornithologists would seek grants and graduate students to forge such a dataset, but this man did it simply because he wanted to.

Newer birders are extremely fortunate. We have any number of software packages and apps and DVDs and CDs to add to our field guide collections, to use with or in lieu of our notebooks. That is, if we take notes at all.

We also have eBird, a citizen data collection and sharing site by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This data is ultimately shared with the Avian Knowledge Network and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an open source font of information for conservation biologists worldwide. Our statistics are pre-packaged, remixed, lush with functionality, instantly available, and constantly growing.

But before this embarrassment of data and visualization riches, there was pencil and paper, and by the 1990s, there were spreadsheets and comma delimited files and FileMakerPro and HyperCard and more. Cole chose a number of pathways through the young field of personal data management, and has emerged with what amounts to a long-term, unfunded, citizen science project, in a perfect, usable data format. Entire citizen science projects exist to extract valuable information from written texts, but Cole saved the world from having to do this with his records.

The Intersection is the story of a man’s passion told through his data. He starts with a short essay on his data journey, presents summary statistics (life list for that location, most numerous birds), then launches into a bird-by-bird summary, much like a field guide.

The bird entries reveal the true story of Tom Cole. Intermingled with bar charts and summary numbers is a personal note for each bird. It can be the best look he got at the bird, a funny thing that happened looking at that bird, or the best thing he ever saw that bird do.

It is this aspect that drives me back to this book time after time. As a Philadelphia birder, even I find this odd, but it’s a testament to the universal experience of being a birdwatcher – how we all spend time out there doing this thing, often alone, and struggle to explain why we do it.

I came home recently after seeing my first pie-billed grebe (a duck) of the season, under a bridge behind FedEx and a trash dump, a favorite spot on the Schuylkill for local fishermen. Birding can be such a solitary experience, and city birding is no exception. Often you’re exploring these out of the way spots where other people, let alone birders, are scarce.

Then Tom crossed my mind. I picked up his book, flipped to pie-billed grebe, and read his personal note. It was like standing next to another birder in the field, sharing a story. I was, and remain, entirely charmed.

I wouldn’t recommend plowing through this book end to end unless you’ve got a bit of a case of monomania, as Tom suspects he may well be both afflicted with and blessed by. The narrative is not easily consumed in a linear way, but rather in these sort of single-serving moments. It’s for this that I’m glad to have it in my collection as another voice, an extra friend on the shelf.

I’d strongly recommend that every Phoenix-area birder have it on hand for the invaluable patterns it reveals for that urban ecosystem. And I’d encourage folks out that way to go see if Tom is at The Intersection, where he is still birding, and still recording.

You can purchase The Intersection at Amazon.com.
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Post-script: Tom Cole is exploring adding his valuable data to eBird, for the good of science, for the good of us all.

About the Author: Kate Atkins is an IT Analyst at University of Pennsylvania Libraries. She has an MES is Natural Resource Management from Penn, and is a Certified Land Preservationist. As a master’s student in 2008/09, she was sponsored by the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership to trek in Antarctica with Wharton Leadership Ventures. In 2009/10 she developed the trek’s environmental curriculum, and was delighted to return to King George Island – but this time, to teach. Since then she’s turned her attention to her home town, Philadelphia, and occasionally guides for Camp Sojourner, a girl’s leadership development camp with Philly roots. An avid birder, Kate is often found birding by bike in West Philly, Cape May, and everywhere in between. She writes about her adventures at http://birdingphilly.wordpress.com.

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