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Anywhere, anyone: Citizen science projects

Author: Vaishnavi Sridhar

Are you interested in the discovery of new species or tracking invasive ones? Have you ever wondered how you could contribute to important scientific advances?

So many questions need to be answered and we all need to join hands to enhance scientific discovery. This is where citizen scientists come in.

Citizen scientists are members of the public, like all of us, who work with scientists or research organizations and contribute to data collection and scientific research. Every year many people turn into scientists and help make observations worldwide. They do this right from their backyard or as a part of their daily routine. Comments collected from many people worldwide add to the study's strength and diversity. It also makes it easier to collect information over many years and helps scientists understand patterns in some phenomena.

How did citizen science projects start?

Historically, in many countries like Japan, citizen science projects were associated with cultural events. For example, the timing of cherry blossoms in Kyoto has been recorded for over 1000 years! This data helped scientists understand the changes in climate over the years. Most citizen science projects start with observing when some natural phenomena occur yearly, such as when migratory birds start appearing and when some plants start flowering or leafing. One of the earliest examples of citizen science initiatives in the USA, involved collecting data on bird strikes by lighthouse keepers. The Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society, began in 1900 to count early winter bird populations and continues in the present. However, despite the role of the public in these activities for a long time, the term citizen science itself was first recorded in 1989.

Over the years, citizen science projects helped us understand more about the migration patterns of birds, discover new species, learn about light pollution, track invasive species, improve conservation, and develop community health initiatives.

Lessons learned from citizen science projects.

Globe at Night is a recently completed citizen science project. It found that stars are less visible to us than when the project started 10 years ago. In this study, citizen scientists, mainly from Europe and North America, compared pictures of the night sky with what they could see by eye and submitted the data using an app. They made a note about the date, time and location of the observations. They also noted the condition of the sky, whether it was cloudy or clear, and then selected which star maps in the app matched what they saw in the sky with their naked eyes. The research scientists who set up the Globe at Night app found that the data collected by citizen scientists complemented that captured by satellites. The study concludes that as light pollution increases over the years, so has the sky’s brightness, making stars less visible to us.

In another example of citizen scientists at work, in the Netherlands, citizen scientists helped researchers understand how an increase in the temperature in urban areas causes a land snail to have yellow shells with black bands instead of pink shells. Citizen scientists used a SnailSnap app to take pictures of land snails and upload the images. This app helped obtain the shell colour data of almost 8000 snails nationwide. Results showed that snails could evolve their shell colour in response to the heat in urban areas. Similar studies can be done in other countries to understand how increasing temperatures in urban centres affects other living organisms. The researchers used museums, flyers, and radio adverts to recruit citizen scientists.

The list is endless. Over the years, countless citizen science projects have led to various essential discoveries.

Citizen science projects and networks currently ongoing

Every year thousands of bird lovers make records of the birds in their backyard during four days in February as part of the Great Backyard Bird count. You can be located anywhere around the world; you only need your observation skills and a love for birds. You can use the Merlin app to identify the birds that you see or hear. How does this help? It can track changes in migration patterns of birds and help understand how climate, food and other related aspects affect birds. For example, in the 2023 iteration, citizen scientists from 202 countries counted 7538 bird species.

iNaturalist has various projects all around the world. It is “an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature”. It can record observations of living organisms, get help identifying them, and works as a tool to collaborate with others. All you need is a computer or a smartphone. Projects involve observing butterflies, bats, and other organisms.

NASA has many interesting citizen science projects. Some include examining the cloud cover, reporting landslides, and monitoring the water level in lakes. The information collected from these projects, along with that from satellites, helps scientists understand how the world around us is changing. Some projects require using only an app on a smartphone or computer, while others might need more specialized equipment.

Citizen science projects have an essential social twist, as they involve the public in understanding the world around us. Like other scientific projects that aim to bridge the gap between science and society, participants interact with the environment, instilling a sense of responsibility: science is no longer out of reach. Still, it can be done from our home or backyard. So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for a citizen science project and observe the world around you.

If you feel inspired to share your science with the public, you can also look at the Native Scientists programmes.


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