In science, we rely on rigorously collected, tested, and criticized data to make the best informed decisions about natural phenomena that we possibly can. These data are most often collected by the scientists themselves (or, of course, their graduate students). However, one often untapped resource that has been emerging for some time is citizen science. Citizen science comes in many forms – public citizens can actively engage with scientists in the collection of data, can contribute data to online databases and participate in large-scale studies, or can bestow years of personally collected data to scientists, who can then analyze it to understand trends in (most often) small-scale phenomena.
Some larger examples of citizen science utilize online databases such as eButterfly, EyeWire, Digital Fishers, EteRNA,and Project Squirrel to name a few, in which citizens engage in specific tasks to help scientists answer interesting and important questions about various aspects of science. Indeed, smaller scale versions of these databases also exist. For example, in Nova Scotia, the provincial government has initiated an online database for people to record the number and species of bats that they see in the province, aiding in bat conservation in Atlantic Canada; an immediate concern given that white nose syndrome (a fungal infection) has devastated the abundances of 3 species of bats in the region, reducing their populations by 95-99% over the past 4 years.
Public citizens can also directly associate with scientists to help collect data regarding important scientific information. For example, in many countries around the world, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Taiwan, Trinidad & Tobago, the UK, and the USA, citizens can participate in BioBlitz projects, which involve intense sampling of biological data in an attempt to record all living species in a defined area, from plants and animals to fungi and lichens. Additionally, many geographic areas partake in annual Christmas Bird Counts, in which citizens and scientists count the number of birds in a defined area to understand their biodiversity and abundances. Other examples include the submission of data from citizens themselves for scientific use. In 2012, the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve in New Brunswick, Canada, initiated a citizen-sourced climate data project. One couple, the Whitneys, submitted 40 years of data that they had personally collected on their property, which was utilized by scientists at Mount Allison University to assess over 40 years of microclimatic data.
Although citizen science may sound like a universally useful tool, it does provide challenges. As stated earlier, science requires rigorous and often systematically collected data in order to answer specific questions. Using publicly collected data does not always meet these criteria. As such, measures must be taken to ensure the accuracy and validity of citizen collected data. Moreover, publicly collected data is often messy and inconsistent, making analyses quite difficult. Ultimately, data collected by public citizens is highly useful, but precautions must be taken and measures implemented to ensure that publicly collected data is accurately answering the question of interest.
Overall, citizen science can be a highly useful tool, aiding scientists in answering key scientific questions. Citizen science is particularly useful in studies of conservation and climate change, allowing scientists to understand the abundances and distribution of various organisms in response to a changing climate. With the proper measures to ensure the accuracy, validity, and usefulness of publicly collected data, the rate at which scientists can gain insight into large, broad-scale questions and trends can be emphatically enhanced; a feat which is critical in this period of immense and rapid global change.
If you would like to participate in or learn more about any of the above-mentioned citizen science projects, simply click the hyperlinks. Other projects do exist; visit SciStarter for more information, or if you would like to find out more about local citizen science projects in your area, contact your local university or science museum.