Sunday, September 8, 2019

Post #165 - Should eBird charge platform users?

While hanging out with eBird staffers Brian Sullivan and Mike Kelling on a recent Alvaro's Adventure's pelagic trip, I asked if the eBird brass had ever considered a user fee. There aren't plans for one, but I couldn't help wonder more about the benefits and drawbacks of that proposition. This post explores those thoughts.
Let me start by professing my undying admiration (love?) for eBird. An ingenious and intuitive interface, the open-access database organizes my sightings, outputs lists for every imaginable geography, and functions as a permanent record of my birding history. Synergy guarantees that every user - active or casual - benefits at a level greater than his/her individual contribution, and the pooled data are an invaluable resource for trip planning and list building. The platform has become an integral part of my birding experience, and I wish it had existed when I started birding as a seven-year-old Philadelphia pinhead. I am envious of generations who have their entire birding histories archived in one electronic place.

My goal is to color in this map with birds,
experiences, and personal connections.

Given the utility the platform offers, I find it surprising eBird hasn't asked data depositors for a direct financial contribution. Wait, why depositors? Well, folks who deposit data usually want their sightings curated into nicely organized lists (that takes engineering dollars, right?) Data depositors are also the most likely to use the platform's advanced features - Target Species, Top 100, etc - to further their own birding interests (more engineering dollars). Sure, eBird needs depositors to exist, but most birders deposit their birding data in the database for their own benefit, not eBird's. Fortunately, the interests of users and platform are coincident, and putting data anywhere else - local hard drives and pieces of paper included - is a comparative waste of time and synergy. And yes, eBird has outsourced the cost of data acquisition (i.e. optics, transportation) to users, but any user who wants to be credited for that unavoidable birding overhead is smoking hella crack. Synergy assures eBird does more for each data depositor than vice versa, so we're all getting more than we put in anyway.

Collecting eBird data in Colombia

So, tell me data depositors: What is eBird worth to you? Forget the obvious favor you're doing the platform and put an annual value on the user side of the admittedly-symbiotic relationship. I'd happily cough up $50/year to deposit my data, have it curated, and benefit from eBird's many user-specific features. I know, I know - eBird has thrived without charging users, so why start now? Well, here are  two hypothetical benefits of implementing a user fee.

1) Revenue could be used to engineer additional features into the platform. A person-to-person contact feature into which users could opt, a carbon-free checklist designation to encourage 'green birding', and voice-responsive data entry for the phone app are some ideas. I'm sure readers have dozens of others, and I love to hear them in the comments section (much better than emails since everyone can read comments).

2) I've long thought a 'birding license' an interesting idea. Hunters and fisherman need licenses, the fees often going to support conservation, so why shouldn't the same be required of birders? (And yeah, I realize hunting and fishing extract biological resources whereas birding does not.) I know an eBird registration/maintenance fee wouldn't have the same conservation value, but an eBird fee - and having one's name, sightings, and numbers show up in the database - would signify a person's desire/willingness to contribute to citizen-science and facilitate the community synergy I described.

Great Egret - Adrea alba
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/8, ISO 800

There are, however, an equal or greater number of reasons why a user fee would hurt the platform. Here are a few (feel free to mention others in comments). 

1) A fee structure will motivate some percentage of current users to quit the platform and therefore contract the amount of data deposited. If input drops 1%, then it doesn't matter; if it drops 30%, then that's a problem. I suspect most data comes from loyal users - the sort who would sacrifice a lot if they abandoned the platform - so it's doubtful the loss of even large numbers of casual users who submit 6 checklist a year (or only accept shared checklists) would be significant. eBird is like cocaine; it doesn't take much to get addicted and there aren't a lot of casual users.

2) I realize any fee will hit birders at the lower end of the economic spectrum hardest, but the vast majority of American birders are in a financial position to afford $50/year. More concerning for me is how any hypothetical fee would hit international birders, specifically in developing countries where $50 might be a more significant sum. The loss of those users would be a big blow to the database.

3) I imagine some of eBird's current funding is contingent on the platform remaining open-access (i.e. free to all). It's really cool that anyone can use the platform as is, but I wonder it would ever make financial sense for eBird to institute a fee. Someone at Cornell has probably done the cost-benefit analysis, but their financial situation might change in the future.

So where does all this leave us? Well, there's an easy way to reconcile everything I've discussed above; in lieu of a user fee, financial-able eBird users should donate to The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Alternatively, it's also possible to become an official lab 'supporter' for just $44/year (link for that honor here). While the lab should not be reduced to a single project, I'm going to look at the maintenance of my newly-established membership as my annual eBird user fee. I'm honestly a bit embarrassed it took me so long to make the connection between eBird's value and my individual ability to support the lab, and I hope this post will help others from making a similar mistake. If you're an eBird user and already donate, then I'm sorry for dragging you through this! If a few people donate as a result of this silly post, then all users will benefit, right?

Next up? More distractionary drivel from my feeble bird brain, in some form or other........

If you missed the last post, check it out - it's loaded with photos of Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers. 

American Oystercatcher - Haematopus palliatus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 640
Extreme bokeh - all blurring in camera, not in photoshop

Black Skimmer - Rynchops niger
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640
Just kept that upper/right wing!


  1. ...but an eBird fee - and having one's name, sightings, and numbers show up in the database - would signify a person's desire/willingness to contribute to citizen-science and facilitate the community synergy I described.

    What, in a way that actually contributing the data as a "citizen scientist" doesn't? Sheesh. :eyeroll:

  2. I understand your point, but the huge majority of birders contribute data to eBird for their own interests (i.e. personal record keeping), not for the database's benefit. Fortunately, the interests are coincident, so it's a bit of a moot point. However, birders don't inconvenience themselves - at all - to enter the data, and I don't think users deserve 'credit' for doing something so natural, easy, and with such huge return benefit. I facetiously proposed the fee as a way to start a discussion on how I value eBird and why I will be donating money in the future. Though some might disagree, I see a difference between using eBird and using eBird AND donating to support the platform. I hope all who are financial able fall into the second category, and I hope this post motivated some to join those ranks.