Before starting my PhD I worked on a project called Open Air Laboratories (or OPAL for short). The project focused not just on getting people interested in nature, but also enabling them to collect information about the natural world that scientists could use to assess the state of the environment. They developed surveys looking at earthworms, pond life, air quality, and more, where members of the public can collect data and send it in for scientists to interpret. The OPAL surveys were (and are) a huge hit, especially with school and community groups looking for fun, educational outdoor activities for children. They have also been a hit for the scientists who receive data from all over the country which they never would have been able to collect for themselves.
This was my first exposure to ‘citizen science’. Citizen science refers to any project where members of the public help to collect data for scientific research – basically it is crowdsourcing science. By harnessing the enthusiasm of thousands of people, huge amounts of data can be generated very quickly. It helps scientist to do their research and tackle problems they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to study, and it gives those involved an insight into how research works and an opportunity to contribute their skills. Of course there are potential pitfalls to having inexperienced people collecting data (notice any sampling bias in the results collected by children pictured above?), but this can be overcome by piloting the project with a small group of volunteers, comparing a proportion of the results that are returned to those collected by professionals, offering training materials or courses, testing the skills of volunteers, and limiting tasks to things that can be easily learnt – like asking volunteers to count the number of bees they see rather than trying to identify them to species level. Of course, errors can still creep in, but if there is enough participation, these will be far-outweighed by useful data.
It turns out ‘citizen science’ has been going on for decades in the field of ecology, though not under that name. Studies where members of the public have been asked to contribute sightings of birds or butterflies have been around for a long time and contributed to our understanding of their population ecology and migration patterns, as well as providing the baseline data needed to study changes over time. The earliest example of this may be the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has now been going for 113 years allowing scientists to track changes in bird populations over the last century.
Of course citizen science isn’t just a tool for ecology. Members of the public have also been asked for their help with compiling historic weather data, exploring the seafloor, tracking clouds, studying how galaxies form and much more. In fact, it was a couple of citizen scientists who recently found a planet with four suns as part of the Planet Hunters project.
There’s a great list of citizen science projects at Scientific American. The Citizen Science Alliance will link you to a number of projects that you can contribute to from your computer. If you’re more the outdoor type, then maybe check out OPAL, iSpot, Evolution MegaLab, or search for recording schemes for whatever your favourite wildlife may be (e.g., butterflies).
Whether you are a scientist or not, I urge you to get involved with a citizen science project. You can contribute as little as a couple of minutes in some cases and still make a valuable contribution. I’ve found that they can be a lot of fun, I almost always learn something new, and it’s great to know you’re contributing in some small way to our understanding of the world, or even universe, around us. For any scientists who may be reading, if you need a big dataset for your next project, or have one and need support sifting through it, think about whether citizen science could help you. Check out some of the projects above and you may be surprised by what can be achieved.
While writing this, and thinking about how much I’ve enjoyed participating some of these projects, I just decided to create a page with a list of all the citizen science projects I can find. It will take me a little while to compile it, but if you have any recommendations, please put them in the comments!