I’m sad to hear BowerBird’s technological troubles proved insurmountable. I’ve enjoyed reading the BowerBird Bugle newsletter occasionally since 2015. Around then I came across BowerBird and added it to this list of platforms like iNaturalist. I have always been so impressed with Ken’s entomological insights and enthusiasm. I think some of the anecdotes in the BowerBird Bugle are some of the best importance-of-museum-specimen stories I’ve read (you can find them all here). The Bugle also highlights amazing insect photography (including from @reiner!) and the value of associated records in great detail. Ken was a great advocate for BowerBird, and these kinds of projects really need deeply knowledgable champions.
It’s a shame about the orphaned data that didn’t make it to ALA. For easy reference, I’m copying the portion of the newsletter that lays out the struggles.
BowerBird was always offered for free and I have since learnt
that it costs money to offer something for free. The main yearly
cost of BowerBird is hosting it in the Amazon cloud. The
BowerBird programmers argued that it needed two virtual
servers – one for the software and one to store the images.
We initially tried using just one server for both software and
images but the website ran very slowly. So, hiring two virtual
servers is more expensive than hiring one. I have been able to
manage to secure sufficient funds to support delivering
BowerBird. However, the situation changed when software
problems occurred about 12 months ago. The first was the
decision by Google Maps to charge for the use of their maps –
previously Google Maps had been a free service. The second
software problem occurred with data uploads to ALA. Every
night, BowerBird creates a complete data dump for all of its
records. Then weekly on a Sunday afternoon, ALA would
hoover up these records and display the BowerBird dataset on
ALA. By uploading the complete BowerBird dataset meant that
any identification that had changed or been updated took only
one week to be corrected on ALA. The software programmers
created a data dump program that had an expiry time of five
hours. At the time of releasing BowerBird, that seemed like a
reasonable if not excessive time limit. As we have now
discovered, the five hour time limit times out at about 70,000
records but there are now over 120,000 records on BowerBird
and so not all data can be downloaded from BowerBird nightly
to be uploaded to ALA. This has been the case now for over 6
I raised over $50,000 to fix these and other BowerBird software
issues – that was the amount the programmers told me was
needed to fix these issues. I paid the programmers these funds
but when they began working on the problems, they realised
the issues were much bigger than they had initially considered
and would cost at least double what I had paid. I was not able
to raise double these funds and so none of the BowerBird
problems have been resolved.
It took quite some time for me to be told there was insufficient
fund to resolve the BowerBird issues. So, I waited for problems
to be fixed but nothing happened despite assurances from the
programmers. Finally, the time has come to say enough.
I believe that the Google Maps and ALA data upload issues will
not be resolved. To me, a core component of BowerBird is the
data uploads to ALA where the data is permanently stored,
added to millions of other data records and displayed for all to
I am now recommending that if you want your citizen data to
reach ALA, you should stop using BowerBird and start using
the iNaturalist citizen science website
(https://www.inaturalist.org/ ). Many BowerBird users have told
me that they have already made this change.
Finally, I have no idea how much longer the BowerBird website
will continue to be delivered. I believe it will stop sometime in
the next six months but I cannot get an answer from the
programmers on when BowerBird supporting funds with run
This is all somewhat disappointing news for everyone involved
in some way with BowerBird. The website really has made
some amazing discoveries. On ALA for many species,
BowerBird records provide the only distribution points and
species images. Several fascinating magazine stories have
been published about BowerBird records.
We should all be very proud of the legacy that BowerBird
contributors have built and the many lessons that citizen
science has learnt from BowerBird.
Thanks from me to everyone involved with BowerBird. It has
now run its course but there are other websites where new
discoveries can be made and shared with the world. I do hope
that BowerBird users will now engage with other citizen science
websites and continue making valuable contributions about our
Thank you all and happy photographing nature. Citizen science
is now a well-accepted and valued part of natural sciences.
BowerBird and your contributions have helped to secure this
status. Best wishes – Ken Walker
I went back a couple of issues in the Bugle to find earlier mention of the technological problems. In October 2018 Ken wrote:
The Google Maps issue
I’m sure you have all seen the recent Google Maps issue. If
you click the OK button you do actually see a map but that’s not
really a fix.
The problem has come about due to a change at Google. They
have provided free access to their Google Maps software for
over a decade and now they have decided to charge for that
service so they changed the code. The charges are very
reasonable as the first 25,000 maps per day on a website are
free. BowerBird currently has over 100,000 records so I am not
sure whether we would be charged each day for all 100,000+
possible maps that could be opened or whether the charge only
applies to maps that are generated when someone creates a
new record or opens and existing record. If the charge is for all
100,000+ possible maps, then the first 25,000 maps per day
are free leaving 75,000 maps per day at $0.50 per map making
the charge $37,500 per day – at least! Yikes – we could not
afford these costs.
I have spoken with the old BowerBird programmers. I employed
these two people for two years when they developed BowerBird
back in 2012-2013. Unfortunately, that funding has long since
been fully expended and sourcing new funding is challenging.
However, funding will not easily solve this problem as one of
the programmers explained to me. First up, the BowerBird
software was compiled and made live back in 2013. Any
changes now to the BowerBird code base would require the
programmers to reuse the 2013 compiler. The Microsoft
compiler code has been upgraded each year since and so the
2013 complier is no longer readily available. The programmers
would have to rebuild a 2013 compiler program on a separate
machine and that will take time … and funding.
The other problem is the so called “knock-on” effect.
Programmers hate going back to old software to make changes
as you can never predict the possible knock-on effects of
changing something that inadvertently affects some other
pieces of the code.
So, we will look into the actual costs which will either be $0 or
at least $37,500 per day and then factor in the “gamble” of
changing the code.
Nothing is ever simple is it? Thanks for your patience.