Open Reef heads west partnering with Smithsonian Institution on new $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant

August 21, 2018

A new collaborative $1.3 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation will support the Open Reef initiative of Citizen Science GIS at University of Central Florida. The Open Reef team led by Timothy L. Hawthorne, assistant professor of GIS in the Department of Sociology and College of Sciences GIS Cluster at UCF, will collaborate with MarineGeo researchers at the Smithsonian Institution to drone map eelgrass meadow sites along the west coast of North America from California to Alaska. The collaborative grant entitled “Collaborative Research: The role of a keystone pathogen in the geographic and local-scale ecology of eelgrass decline in the eastern Pacific” was awarded in July by the NSF Biological Oceanography Program to a team of researchers led by Principal Investigator Dr. Emmett Duffy of the Smithsonian Institution. Hawthorne serves as PI of the UCF portion of the grant work.

Hawthorne and the Open Reef team will provide drone mapping expertise and training for community partners to use consumer-level drones for citizen science in west coast study sites. Hawthorne’s team will also help to create an open and freely accessible mapping portal through Esri’s ArcGIS Online of all drone imagery collected from the project to support greater scientific discovery in the field sites. The drone imagery will be processed with Esri’s Drone2Map software.

“Through this major NSF award, we are genuinely excited to launch a new portion of our Open Reef work along the west coast of North America with the MarineGeo team at the Smithsonian Institution. A collaboration of this magnitude is exciting for us as UCF researchers, but it should be equally exciting for the general public and citizen scientists as the results we aim to generate through the collection of drone imagery and related mapping data could revolutionize the way in which we understand these complex and important marine ecosystems,” said Hawthorne.

The collaborative grant includes faculty and students from a variety of universities and organizations, including MarineGeo at the Smithsonian Institution, Cornell University, University of California-Davis, and University of Central Florida.

Hawthorne and his Open Reef team already had an existing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution as part of their UCF Citizen Science GIS NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site. In the REU Site, Hawthorne’s team works in Belize to drone map Smithsonian MarineGeo sites along the Mesoamerican Reef (pictured below). That first partnership with MarineGeo through the REU Site led to the inclusion of the Citizen Science GIS at UCF team in this new grant.

Carrie Bow Caye Belize, home of the Smithsonian MarineGeo Site.

Hawthorne’s funding from the UCF portion of the new NSF award will allow the Open Reef team to expand research opportunities to the next generation of community-engaged scientists.  Funds will help support a new interdisciplinary post-doctoral scholar along with several undergraduate students. The UCF Office of Research is providing additional matching support for the new post-doc position.

“This major NSF grant is a testament to the fact that dynamic teams of scientists and social scientists can work together to explore some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. We are excited to work with the world’s foremost marine scientists and the next generation of scientists in the use of drone technologies for understanding these ecosystems, while I also exposing science’s next generation to the opportunities of working across disciplines in a project of this magnitude,” said Hawthorne.

To view the NSF public abstract of the collaborative project, please visit:

For more information about Open Reef and Citizen Science GIS: please visit Citizen Science GIS is a 2017 Esri Special Achievement in GIS Award winner. The mission of Citizen Science GIS is to change the way communities and scientists work together across the globe to visualize local knowledge through geographic information systems, maps, apps, and drones.




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