‘Electronic owls’ to monitor Edinburgh’s park use and wildlife in 2019

Alfred the Owl will be engaging park users to shape the future of our parks. Picture: contributed
Alfred the Owl will be engaging park users to shape the future of our parks. Picture: contributed
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Those hoping to spot owls out and about typically must wait until the sun goes down. However, this will soon change as plans have been revealed to install electronic owls to monitor and interact with users of four Edinburgh parks.

The City of Edinburgh Council and the University of Edinburgh are currently working with the National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts (NESTA) on the “Parklife” project, which will see the devices fitted onto trees at Inverleith Park, Leith Links, The Meadows & Bruntsfield Links and Saughton Park.

Inverleith Park. Picture: Scott Louden

Inverleith Park. Picture: Scott Louden

Park users will be able to connect through wi-fi to the android owls, before being taken to a dashboard displaying real-time information about the park’s wildlife and number of users.

The project’s developers hope the public will engage by allowing their movement to be tracked while they are in a park so that data can be collected about the number of people typically using parks around the city and what they’re being used for.

High-frequency audio sensors to monitor bats’ activity will also be installed.

The data collected will then be reviewed by a number of parties involved with the management and preservation of Edinburgh’s parks including the council, and other interested parties.

In turn, it is hoped that the data can be used to paint a clear picture of each park’s uses and variety of wildlife.

Project leader and Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Edinburgh University, Jonathan Silvertown said: “Parks are under threat from local authority cuts. People use them, but are they really appreciated?

“Our aim is to co-design and test a viable and relevant toolkit with the key people involved with these parks.

“We shall use different kinds of sensors in the four test parks to count the people using them and to monitor bat activity. We are also examining the potential of social media to connect with park users in various ways”.

The installation of the devices is part of a UK-wide project which aims to use technology to better understand how parks are used and valued. The five projects under way across the country will “explore, prototype and test ways to address parks’ challenges”.

“This will include increasing donations to parks, generating income from renewable energy and better managing existing resources through using data to understand how parks are used”, according to NESTA.

Councillor Karen Doran, Parks Leader and Vice Convener of Transport and Environment, said: “Edinburgh’s parks and greenspaces are among the city’s most important and best-loved assets.

“The ParkLife project involving the Council and University of Edinburgh is a fantastic opportunity to gather information from park users that will prove invaluable as we help shape the future of our parks. Thanks to the funding from NESTA, we’ll be unlocking a fascinating trove of data on how people use parks, helping us tailor our plans to best meet their needs.”

A similar initiative, using gnomes rather than owls, was tested in London’s Olympic Park and proved popular amongst park users and was successful in collecting data.

While empathising with people’s reservations about installing data-collecting technology in parks, Jonathan insists that the research being carried out is non-intrusive and for the greater good of the outdoor spaces.

“People are right to be wary, but everything we are doing is going through an ethics panel. We have no interest in who is participating but that there is a person participating.

“Ultimately, we expect this information to feed back into greater public appreciation and support for Edinburgh’s parks”. The owls are set to begin their “roost” later this year.