Empowerment Through Climate & Biodiversity Citizen Sciences

As an undergraduate student, contributing to data that can be used by scientists at a global level is not something that I considered likely. At Earthwise Aware, I was introduced to an opportunity to do just that in the form of citizen science. 

Disregard even being a student, citizen science is something that my family and I could have begun to practice when I was growing up. Although it has existed long before now, this movement has been growing in recent years thanks to technology.    

Scistarter, an online community dedicated to improving the citizen science experience for project managers and participants, defines citizen science as “the public involvement in inquiry and discovery of new scientific knowledge”. This effort is one that has been used worldwide but is not often acknowledged in the United States. In the US, it is still emerging, and people are increasingly participating in projects all over the country on many various topics.  

Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, collecting and uploading data is faster than ever. Also, because it is so accessible, it opens doors for everyone to contribute. You can now collect data when out on a walk with your dog or enjoying a hike in the woods. Not only will you be contributing to a database but you will be cultivating a lifelong skill for yourself. With applications that assist with data collection like iNaturalist, eBird, and Nature’s Notebook, there are step-by-step instructions so that we can all be learning to collect reliable information. 

Citizen Science is becoming critical to science. Even with advanced technology, we cannot always have researchers in the right place at the right time to gather the necessary data. This is where citizen science is crucial. For instance, in the United States, we have a project organized by NASA to help document local landslides that you witness. This has helped inform decisions and give researchers a better idea of which areas are of higher and lower risk of landslides. This is very important information when it comes to means of needing to evacuate or not.  

As valuable as the research is to the scientific community, it is also inherently beneficial for the citizen scientists gathering the data. Part of making the experience fulfilling for the participants is to make it useful and help people build a community.     

EwA Pollinator Record (July 2019) > Swallowtail

At EwA, through a summer internship, I had the opportunity to experience what it takes to develop citizen projects which are geared to advance climate and biodiversity sciences and build a community of skilled citizen naturalists to do so. Along with this internship, I conducted interviews to hear from a range of professionals who run citizen science projects to crowdsource successful retention tactics to learn about how we can make citizen science projects more intriguing and keep volunteers coming back.    

EwA Citizen Science projects are focused on filling critical biodiversity and phenology data gaps and revealing the ecology of the Boston area’s urban parks and ecosystems. 

One of the resources that EwA uses is Nature’s Notebook. This is a field tool that helps track the timing of natural phenomena of fauna and flora (a.k.a. phenology). This program is owned by the US National Phenology Network that aggregates various datasets nationally, which are then used by scientists. To date, EwA citizen scientists have collected more than 15,000 phenophase records of species that they monitor. 

EwA also uses iNaturalist to help scientists learn about and record biodiversity in these areas. As of November 2019, EwA Massachusetts citizen scientists have amassed around 18,000 biodiversity records on that platform, representing over 2,300 distinct species. iNaturalist is tied to global databases that are consulted by scientists worldwide. 

Citizen science is something that can be fun while contributing to research. It also helps to learn about our local habitats and organisms. Another great thing about the accessibility of citizen science is that, if getting out of the house and moving is challenging for you, there are still ways that you can participate online. For instance, because researchers often have too much information to deal with, they can use the help of citizen scientists to process it. 

Whichever avenue suits you, there is a lot of research to be done and you can help get it done! There are tons of opportunities to participate in scientific research, and you can start learning today.

Further Reading

 ⓘ EwA Citizen Science: Co-Creative Conservation in Action

Human Impact: Our Relationship with Climate, the Environment, and Biodiversity. Keyles, S. (Ed.) (2019)

The Rightful Place of Science: Citizen Science. Darlene Cavalier (2016)

A Green paper on Citizen Science: Towards a Society of Empowered Citizens and Enhanced Research. European Commission (2014)

Citizen Science Isn’t Just About Collecting Data – Nonscientists should take part in discussions about research priorities and more. Jason Lloyd (2016)

Nov, 10th 2019 | by Sarah Haughney

The biodiversity photos in this article are iNaturalist records from EwA citizen scientists. They are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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