The Importance of Descriptive Locale

With today’s technology that can drop a pinpoint within of few meters of an observation (e.g., cell phones, handheld GPS units, and online maps), you may wonder: “Why is a written description of the locality of an observation important?” Written locality descriptions serve as quality control for the PARS team when reviewing the data. Even with the accuracies of today’s technology, errors can and do happen. For example, a cellphone’s GPS may report the location of the closest cell tower if the signal is poor, handheld GPS units may not be connected to enough satellites to provide a precise locality, or the user may manually type a coordinate incorrectly (e.g. 40.890 vs 41.890). If errors go unnoticed by the submitter, the record will convey incorrect information, and if too many errors are discovered by a reviewer, the validity of all the submitters’ records may be called into question.

While double-checking the accuracy of the recorded GPS coordinates on a map is always a good practice, an important way for the PARS team to validate the accuracy of the submitted coordinates is for the submitter to additionally provide a written description of the locality. Although contacting through email is quick and easy to check on a record that is in question, this task is a bit more time to consume and difficult when you consider the quantity of records PARS receives. Additionally, errors may not be noticed immediately, and this can lead to questions weeks, months, or even years after a record is submitted. Therefore providing good locale information when submitting the record will lead to higher quality data.

When writing locality descriptions avoid ambiguity and are descriptive as possible. A well-written description will lead 10 people to about the same locality with high precision. For example, “1 mile ENE of Harrisburg” is much more precise than “near Harrisburg” or even “E of Harrisburg.” Follow the suggestions below when providing locality in PARS or other distributional data.

Some examples of precise locale notes:

Try to avoid using terms like: near, the center of, or between when writing of geographic locations.

Using nearest known point with miles and direction:
“Vernal Pool complex 1 mile southeast of Lopez, Sullivan Co., PA.”

Using specific names and locations that are mapped:
“West side of Meadow Grounds Lake, State Game Lands 53, Ayr Township, PA”.

Nearest intersection:
“Trent Road, 1 mile south of the intersection with Hwy 31. Somerset Borough, Somerset Co., PA”

Using two locations:
“1 mile South of Jones Mill, PA and 0.5 miles East of Champion, PA.”

Some examples of ambiguous locale notes:

Unspecific named areas:
e.g. Park, SGL, Woods, Woods near Pittsburgh, My house (unless you also provide an address). Be specific in the names of known areas.
e.g. “SGL 151, 5 miles South of Grove City. Mercer Co. PA“ or “Pine Park, Butler, PA, Butler Co.”

Long roads or large areas:
e.g. “I-79”, “Allegheny National Forest”. Generally, long roads should include a closest intersection and direction, large areas should include other locality descriptors (e.g. “Red Bridge Campground in Allegheny Nat. For.”, or “East shoulder of I-79, 1 mile N of I-80 intersection”)

Local Names:
(e.g. “Brick Pond”, “Blue Hole”) Many local names for locations are not on maps. Finding information about these areas can be difficult, and often local names refer to several places throughout the state that have the same or similar names. Add a nearby city and include the miles and direction from the city. “Brick Pond, 5 Miles SW of Greensburg, PA”. Even better, tell us a little more about the site: “East side of Brick Pond, 100 yards north of the dam, 5 miles SW of Greensburg, Westmoreland County, PA.”

Temporary locations:
These are areas such as store names and buildings. While the structure may remain,names can change frequently.