People power: how citizen science is changing the face of environmental research

27 August 2014 by Lucy Anderson, posted in Citizen Science

Bird watching: just one of the many ways in which citizen scientists are collecting valuable environmental data. Credit: Shutterstock

Zooniverse is my new favourite form of procrastination. In seconds, I’m transported to the wilds of the Serengeti to search for warthogs and wildebeest and note down what they’re up to. Moments later, I’m skimming the ocean floor to identify and measure exotic sea creatures, without the ungraceful task of donning a wetsuit.

And I’m far from alone.

Across the globe, a growing army of volunteers are taking part in citizen science. They don’t wear white coats and they rarely have PhDs but they’re helping environmental researchers learn about topics as diverse as the distribution of invasive species; the locations of disease outbreaks; and the impacts of extreme weather events, at unprecedented geographic scales. Such is the interest in this growing phenomenon, I was recently asked to write a briefing for Parliamentarians on the subject.

Recent advances in technology are driving interest in citizen science -- including the use of smartphones (now owned by 51% of the UK population), crowd-sourcing (one million volunteers on Zooniverse classify more images and audio files than a professional scientist could ever achieve) and remote sensing technologies. And with volunteers reportedly motivated by the opportunity to gain employment skills, use their expertise and meet new people, it seems both parties stand to gain from these collaborations.

Empowering communities

Over the last six years, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project has encouraged more than half a million people to explore their local green places, many of whom were from disadvantaged communities. By inviting the public to monitor their local trees, lichens (a measure of air quality) and even earthworms (their numbers were highest in people's back gardens: somewhere inaccessible to professional scientists), communities across the UK have reconnected with the natural world and taken part in science for the first time.

But it’s not all about observing wildlife. Citizen science is also helping communities collect the necessary evidence to lobby local government. Upset at the noise from a local scrapyard, residents in the London borough of Deptford took data collection into their own hands. They presented the local authority with evidence that the operation violated noise limits and, as a result of their environmental activism, the Environment Agency revoked the scrapyard licence.

Too good to be true?

There are still some hurdles to overcome, as my mother unwittingly demonstrated the other day. “Let’s do the Big Butterfly Count when you visit next weekend” she said. “Let’s do it at the National Trust gardens, there’ll be more butterflies there”. Unsurprisingly, if people only measure butterflies in the areas where they know their numbers to be higher, their results might give a false impression of the state of butterfly populations across the country. Similarly, volunteers have differing levels of expertise and equipment which may affect the accuracy and consistency of results.

That said, research by the University of East Anglia has demonstrated that volunteers and professional scientists can yield very similar results in a study that compared coral reef fish surveys conducted by the two groups. To improve data quality, many citizen science projects now offer volunteer training courses and species identification guides, add filters to prevent data entry errors on websites and smartphone apps; and encourage participants to upload photographs to confirm more obscure sightings (for example, a rare species outside its typical range). But the perception among some of the potential users of citizen science data (such as policy makers and academic journal editors) is still one of poor quality data: a source of frustration for many working in the field.

I'm certainly a citizen science convert. The opportunity to conduct valuable environmental research while simultaneously enthusing people about the natural world is a clear win-win. Not to mention the fact that my mindless meanderings on social media have now been replaced by Safaris in the Serengeti. Seriously, check out Zooniverse.

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