Pros: community engagement in your research, from the local to the global scale; data collection at a scale far beyond you or your teams’ capability, 10s to 1000s of people providing temporal and spatial coverage; intense surveys over a short-term period; sparse surveys over a long-term period; generational participation from primary school kids to great grandparents; media engagement in your research.
Cons: not all questions can be answered using citizen science methods; community engagement takes time (time = money), and needs to be done well; community engagement is (and should be) an on-going component; data biases (temporal and spatial coverage); some projects fail to attract community engagement; funding required for equipment or technology (postal survey, website, app, built infrastructure, other).
So what is citizen science?
Let’s define “citizen science” or “community science” as ‘people reporting information to contribute to answering a question’. This activity is nothing new: we traditionally called such people “naturalists”. The revamping/rebranding/redesigning of “people reporting information” has well and truly been given a 21st century injection through the smart phone, mobile data and cheaper cameras/videos/drones. Technology allows people to report photos, videos, and/or sound recordings accompanying their observations, which are linked to their identity, geolocation, contact details, date and time. Existing platforms primarily utilise websites and apps to enable quick and easy data reporting, and use email, social media and traditional media to encourage participation. In general, citizen science projects collate observations from multiple participants. However, some projects engage people around the world to work together online simultaneously. For example, Missing Maps enables citizen scientists to collaboratively improve maps of infrastructure and services to support developing countries and real-time disaster responses – indeed, citizen science has very few boundaries.
Is citizen science the right method for me?
If you have a question that would benefit from data being contributed by the community and you can utilise* or create an easy reporting method and engage people to participate – then maybe the answer is yes. There are a number of factors to think about.
*I specifically wrote “utilise” as there are many, and I mean many, projects out there. This means that you may not need to re-create the wheel but that you can engage with and ideally utilise existing projects. The benefit of collaborating with existing projects is that the project is already up and running, which means the reporting technology has been developed, the community is being engaged, and data should be flowing-in. By collaborating, you may have already solved a major hurdle: sourcing start-up funding. Building apps and websites can be expensive. Importantly, assessing existing projects and their methods, reporting, and communication platforms allows you to decide if collaborating is an option, and to learn which methods work for similar projects. You may find that the key piece of information you are interested in isn’t being collected by an existing project. This could be your opportunity to add-value to an existing project with the resources you can contribute.
Ok, you’ve researched existing citizen science projects and you’ve decided to draft what your unique idea requires: an app that works on iOS & Android; website; communication plan; project name (see below); budget; liaise with colleagues and enthusiast groups to discuss the project concept; communication plan; animal or human ethics approval (as required); timeline for delivery and launch; communication plan; project staff; data quality vetting process; communication plan; ongoing project management plan. It is worth noting that many projects haven’t gone to this level of planning, they have stumbled along with the science as their starting point and the citizens as an afterthought; but if the project connects with the citizens it can succeed. Equally, some projects have lots of planning, exciting aims to conduct sound and important science, and have institutional support, but they fail to connect with the citizens and therefore they fail.
Let’s work through two (extreme) examples.
No budget – if you contribute a wealth of time, you can get started. Depending on the data you want citizens to contribute you may be able to operate completely using free software e.g. gmail, social media, wordpress. In this scenario you have a large workload: engaging community participation; entering data submitted via email (including photos); vetting data submitted; sharing stories to attract additional citizen scientists and maintain the interest of existing participants. This can work, but it is likely to take more time than you anticipate, possibly more time than you have available to allocate (which means extra hours). Your project is a success.
Big budget – your lab employs an experienced full-time project officer on a multi-year contract. All stakeholders meet over several months to plan the project. The resulting data collection, storage and vetting platforms are commissioned to be built: apps and website, including data visualisation. Budget exists for updates and annual maintenance. Institutional communications teams are collaborating to engage the community, they draft multiple weekly messages and images for the first year to be approved (content more than style) by the scientists. The comms team routinely pay for social media promotion, brand institutional emails/vehicles/signs to spread the word, information flyers/stickers/t-shirts for community talks/events, and organise periodic traditional media (tv, radio, print) interviews to aid and reinforce spreading the word. The project launch sees broad uptake of the tried and tested technology, including testing the databases functionality and vetting process. The project is such a success you’re desperate for additional funding to employ staff so you can keep-up with the volume of data coming through. You struggle to find time to analyse the data (which is a vital component of making your project scientifically meaningful). The comms team are maintaining a high-volume engagement strategy, citizen scientist involvement is increasing, high quality data continues to flow-in. Your project is a success.
A few examples
Arguably the biggest and most successful citizen science project is eBird, a global project run by Cornell University. As the name suggests, this project focuses on birds. There is a simple lesson to learn here: naming your project is an important aspect of community engagement. “Birds” I hear a lot of you say, “pffft, they’re easy, lots of people already watch birds and have done so for decades” – lightbulb moment, yes engaging an existing community of enthusiasts is an excellent starting point for your citizen science project. As with all communities, there are many different groups and networks with various methods of collecting and recording data. This means that engaging existing communities also comes with many challenges such as converting participants to use a consistent data capture method. Nonetheless, eBird is growing and is collecting huge amounts of data that are publicly available to query or to use as part of your research.
Another lesson from eBird is to be flexible. This project allows participants to report the birds they encounter anywhere in the world, 24-hours per day, 365-days per year using the app or website to submit data. Participants can note details about their report, whether they were travelling, stationary or the encounter was incidental. Additional layers of detail can be added if you choose: length of observation period (hr:min), distance travelled, number of observers, if birds were nesting, mating, feeding young, etc., and you can add photos. For all citizen science projects vetting the accuracy of the data is an important process, eBird’s starting point is a list of the likely species based on the geolocation of your survey. If you report rare species or surprisingly large numbers of a species a regional coordinator (a volunteer) will email you to verify your report before it is accepted as accurate.
Two other global projects are QuestaGame and iNaturalist. Both require participants to submit photos of species with a known or suggested identification where possible. The submitted photos are then verified by citizen scientists (another way to participate) and the record is added to a global biodiversity database with the submitted data automatically incorporating the: geolocation, date, time, and user ID. QuestaGame, as the name suggests, incorporates a “gaming” element where participants receive points based on the rarity of the species they report. This project markets itself as the biodiversity equivalent of Pokémon GO. iNaturalist, again as the name suggests, aims to engage people to collect information on biodiversity akin to that of a naturalist of yesteryear.
Both projects have developed ways to allow participants to run a BioQuest or a Bioblitz, respectively, for a set period of time in a localised area with the aim of increasing community awareness of biodiversity and increasing local records of biodiversity – there are many holes in global atlas data and therefore our understanding of species distributions. As noted, a key outcome of these projects aims to increase community awareness of biodiversity and to increase the spatial and temporal records of biodiversity. With sufficient data the potential exists to increase our understanding of species phenology, distributions, and how these may be changing. Furthermore, these projects have discovered new species and recorded the presence of exotic species in new countries.
There are many other interesting large-scale citizen science projects. Two examples that facilitate a range of projects are Zooniverse and DigiVol. Projects they have facilitated are as diverse as digitising museum collections or cataloguing space telescope pictures of the universe.
From the global scale to the national scale FrogID, again a simple and clear name, asks people across Australia to record frog calls with their phones. Participants can select from a list of the likely species based on their geolocation by listening to each species’ call within the app. The calls are verified manually by the research team, although they are working towards a digital processing solution. This project is increasing the understanding of the phenology, distribution and behaviour of frogs.
The Wingtags Project has been a learning experience for the researchers and for the participants. We have been pleasantly overwhelmed by the communities’ interest in Cockatoo Wingtags. Prior to this study I didn’t appreciate how frequently so many people actively sought interactions with wildlife. I was very familiar with bird feeding in urban parks, but the interactions with cockatoos was an eye-opener – mainly because they were commonly occurring at home (including unit balconies). (Note, feeding wildlife is generally discouraged within Australia, although it occurs more frequently than people realise: see The Birds At My Table.) Shortly after tagging cockies we were regularly being contacted by people who had been feeding birds for years, “a bird has turned-up with a numbered yellow wingtag, it’s great to learn about your research project”. People loved that we named each bird, we’d receive emails (before the app was built – who knew we’d need an app in 2011) reporting that they had observed ‘Partyboy’, ‘CockaMel’ or ‘Piña Colada’ and I’d have to look-up the wingtag that corresponded with the name (027, 003, 005). Through this project we have interacted with tens of thousands of people, whether reporting a sighting or sharing information through social media or community/scientific talks. (If we add traditional media and documentaries we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people.) Key messages we share are the importance of habitat for biodiversity and how people can participate as a citizen scientist. In a recent questionnaire we found citizen scientists participating in our studies appreciated local wildlife far more than members of the community that had not participated. This finding isn’t a big surprise, a primary challenge with community engagement is reaching the people that are not ‘already interested’ in the topic of your project. Another challenge is to maintain community interest, we have heard far too many times “oh, the birds are here all the time, do you want me to report them?” “Yes, we’re continuing to learn about these beauties’ and we’re interested to understand cockatoo behaviour and habitat use over multiple years; believe it or not, very little is known about this large, loud and common native bird.”
Citizen science is a method that offers great potential. A hugely difficult aspect to assess is the human element – will the citizens be interested and participate? Do yourself a favour and look into existing projects with the aims of researching opportunities to collaborate or informing the design and delivery of your concept. Finally, a warning: many scientists haven’t worked that closely with citizens, and they can have very different expectations to you the scientist and a key to success is establishing and maintaining good communication.