At Rhizome, simplifying solutions for our customers is at the heart of what we do. When given the chance, we love to think outside the box and to come up with creative yet simple solutions that just work. Our latest project, a new website for Sound Water Stewards, allowed us to do just that (see our project Case Study here) through a reimagination of their EZ-ID Marine Species Identification tool.

The Sound Water Stewards are a group of volunteers committed to maintaining a healthy, sustainable marine environment through education, science, and stewardship in Island County, Washington. Each year, SWS volunteers spend a combined total of over 20,000 hours conducting citizen science experiments and monitoring not only the beaches themselves, but the flora and fauna that live there, too.


A Labor of Love

In order to distinguish and identify the hundreds of different marine species inhabiting the Salish Sea, volunteers relied on an online database called EZ-ID, which was created and managed by Periwinkle Press™, a non-profit run by stellar volunteer Jan Holmes.

With a master’s degree in marine biology, Jan was passionate about not just marine life, but also inspiring others through education. With the help of fellow steward and friend, Mary Jo Adams, the EZ-ID database was put together over a span of seven years as Jan and Mary Jo were able to find, photograph, and research different species of intertidal organisms. Jan’s education and incredible determination were instrumental to the success of the original EZ-ID, with it becoming a vital resource for even the most veteran beachcombers. Sadly, Jan passed away in 2011 and access to this software was also lost.

EZ ID Guide page from Sound Water Stewards

Since then, many scientific names have changed as genetic studies reveal new information about how different species are related to one another. Therefore, the information in the guide was in dire need of updating. With so much passion and pride poured into this project, we wanted to honor Jan and find a way to breathe new life into the EZ-ID guide for generations to come. In order to achieve this, we had to get our hands on the database first, and then understand its structure, which was no easy task. 

Not-So-EZ Identification

Unfortunately, due to its age, the database was cumbersome, unintuitive, and nearly impossible for current admins to maintain and update.

The EZ-ID guide was organized into four separate pages dedicated to Animals, Grasses, Seaweeds, and Shore Plants. Once a user selected a page, they were greeted with an enormously daunting table that listed each species and its corresponding scientific name.

With only two table sorting options and no pictures next to each species listing, users had to click into each species to view an image and further information about that species. This pitfall in the system made it difficult for citizen scientists to monitor species efficiently. If a volunteer discovered a worm on a field trip, but did not know which species it was, the volunteer would have to click through 25 different pages of listed worms until they were able to match the worm to the picture in the database.

Furthermore, since the database was created prior to the release of the very first iPhone, mobile optimization had yet to be invented. This meant that the tool performed poorly on mobile devices and was difficult for volunteers to try and use while out in the field.

From Obstacles to Opportunities  

We embraced our core values of “Be Curious” and “Navigate with a Moral Compass” to brainstorm how we could come up with a low-cost solution that could revitalize this database in a way that was engaging, interactive, and most importantly, easy. Sacred to the project for Rhizome was to keep the educational intent of EZ-ID, while paying homage to the wonderful volunteer who originally constructed this database. We wanted to ensure that her legacy shined on in a brilliant new way.

After some deliberation, the light bulb in our heads finally went off! We thought “Why don’t we use Airtable for this?” Airtable is a collaborative web-based application that combines the functionality of a relational database with the ease-of-use of a spreadsheet program, like Excel. In addition, Airtable offers several ways to “view” your data. A quick prototype with a smattering of data proved that we could indeed reimagine this legacy database. Since we couldn’t easily export the data, we had to manually copy and paste the information, but this went rather quickly.

This solution appeared to meet all requirements and since we already had experience using Airtable internally, we were able to save SWS time and money. We then trained Mary Jo how to manage the new system. She picked it up quickly, offered great suggestions, and even added a new section to the guide, called “Beach Mysteries.”

“I think Jan would be happy and proud to see how her work is still having an impact.”

Mary Jo Adams

Sound Water Stewards

A Database Designed to Delight

The first step in crafting our solution was to create a “Base” within Airtable, which served as the environment in which all of our data would be stored. We then created a “Table” within the base for each category of marine species. These tables hold the records of all names, descriptions, photos, and scientific names of each marine species, and can be easily accessed, customized and edited.

While Airtable excels in offering an easy-to-use interface for creating and editing databases, it truly shines in the way that the user can then view and share the data. Users can create “Views” for each table which act as a lens through which one can see the data. There are several views available, including Grids, Calendars, Galleries, and Gantt Charts. Furthermore, each view can be customized to show or hide certain records or fields, group records together, and even sort them according to certain criteria.

For the EZ-ID guide, we created a page on the new website for each marine species category. On each page, we embedded an Airtable “Gallery” view, which displays each individual species as a large card that provides its description, category, classification, scientific name, and photos all in one place.

Not only do these gallery views look great, they are also highly functional and optimized for mobile devices. Gone are the days of having to click through each species to find information. Volunteers can now scroll through the cards and sort, filter, and even use a search bar to find what they are looking for quickly and easily.

From Zero to Hero

At Rhizome we take pride in empowering our customers to be successful. Our goal was to transform the EZ-ID database into more than just a database, but a whole new interactive experience for volunteers to discover, enjoy, and most importantly, use! As a testament to our success, we are proud to say that since the launch of the new Sound Water Stewards website, the EZ-ID guide has become one of the top 5 most-visited pages.

By using Airtable, we were able to successfully embrace the original vision of the EZ-ID guide and reimagine it in a modern way that not only felt familiar, but was easier to understand, navigate, manage, and use.

Check out the EZ-ID Guide and learn a little more about our wondrous marine species!

Check out our demonstration of Airtable and learn how we use it for pretty much everything!