In the early days of formal scientific efforts, curious individuals would explore their world and publish their observations for the world to marvel over. Men – and a few intrepid women – would venture away from home or into the depths of their laboratories and reemerge with new discoveries, catapulting their names into fame and our history books. Individuals could make a splash because the nature of science was simpler. Science was interested in species, organs, and individual processes removed from the larger interconnected picture. Nowadays, science acknowledges the connectivity between everything, from ecosystems to interdisciplinary research projects, and with that realization emerged new tools and collaborations that increased the capacity and reach of scientific discovery. Researchers around the globe have access to immense data sets, created by close collaborators despite the miles separating them. One of the most exciting ways that those data sets are being created is with the use of citizen science.
Citizen science is the process of using members of the general public to collect data about our surroundings that can be used by researchers to answer big, complex, long-term, nuanced questions about our world. It often relies on volunteers who have been trained to participate in a certain part of the data collection process, often including fieldwork. For projects that rely on data about a large geographic range, large number of species, or data collected from inaccessible or privately owned places, citizen science has emerged as the golden ticket.
Julia Parrish, the founder of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), is one of the more well-known researchers who uses citizen science as the foundation of her research. In a recent essay on EOS.org, she detailed the events that inspired her to assemble COASST. In the aftermath of the Tenyo Maru collision off the northern coast of Washington State, huge numbers of seabirds were washing up dead, but there was no baseline understanding of seabird mortality against which to compare the mounting deaths. Fast forward to today, COASST has over 800 volunteers along most of the West Coast surveying for dead seabirds and developing an incredible dataset to inform our understanding of seabird biology and the health of the ecosystems they rely on. More than that, they’ve developed a network of diverse people who care about the ecosystems they are a part of and are using that passion to better the world. We know that diverse teams produce the most successful outcomes in other fields, so why wouldn’t science expand to encompass this wonderful new resource?
COASST isn’t the only group using citizen science as their secret weapon. Around the world scientists are activating their communities to help answer questions about their local environments and add to our growing understanding of global change. If you can observe the natural world from some part of your life, there is probably a project that you could be contributing to. Earlier this week we highlighted Happywhale, which collects whale photos from around the globe and enables individual users to track their whale through repeat sightings. Even better, they are compiling a database of whale movements and migration patterns that can be used by scientists and managers globally.
If there is a species that you are particularly interested in, look around and see if there is already a citizen science effort set up in your area. Even if there isn’t already an established program, gathering a group of like-minded individuals to learn about and observe your favorite species will enable you to gather local knowledge and set you up to be a liaison for any future projects. For those of you who aren’t committed to any particular organism but are excited to get involved, there are loads of options to choose from. Start by checking with your favorite conservation charity to see if they have anything in your area, then get out there!
Here are a few of our favorite projects to get you started!
The Great Backyard Bird Count
The next Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 14-17, 2020. This project asks you to count birds for at least 15 minutes sometime during the weekend, and then share your counts with a database that has been going for over 20 years and has contributors from around the globe! This data is especially helpful to understand changing ranges due to climate change and other factors.
Happywhale asks you to submit ID shots of whales so they can update you on where else in the world they might visit. So far, over 150,000 photos have been submitted to their database, which is a great tool to help scientists understand migration and movement patterns for a variety of species.
Jellywatch allows you to upload observations and photos of jellies and other marine organisms to help scientists better understand blooms and occurrence patterns.
Journey North has multiple projects for you to choose from, spanning Monarch butterflies and hummingbirds to seasonal changes is sunlight and ice coverage. They provide updates and map visualizations to help you see where your data is going!
Zooniverse connects researchers who need help with interested volunteers. On their site, you can choose to help with projects in a variety of disciplines, from biology and climate to the humanities. Their selection is always changing, so be sure to check in frequently to see what projects you could be involved in!