Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. Usually this participation is done as an unpaid volunteer.
Collaboration in citizen science involves scientists and researchers working with the public. Community-based groups may generate ideas and engage with scientists for advice, leadership, and program coordination. Interested volunteers, amateur scientists, students, and educators may network and promote new ideas to advance our understanding of the world.
Scientists may create a citizen-science program to capture more or more widely spread data without spending additional funding. They often work with community groups that are already collecting such information, such as birders or weatherbugs, to expand their studies and databases.
Volunteers have varying levels of expertise, from kids in their backyards to members of high school science clubs to amateur astronomers with sophisticated home equipment. Modern advances in technology make citizen science more accessible today than ever before. The success of any citizen science project depends on the establishment of a well-devised monitoring program and the dedication of its volunteers.
Citizen-science projects may include wildlife-monitoring programs, online databases, visualization and sharing technologies, or other community efforts.
Though citizen science is a relatively new term, people have been participating and contributing to scientific research for years.
Wells Cooke, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, developed arguably one of the earliest formal citizen-science programs in the country in the late 1800s. Cooke began a program that looked at the patterns of bird migration. It expanded into one of the first government programs for birds—the North American Bird Phenology Program—and one that private citizens could join. A network of volunteers began collecting information about migratory bird patterns and population figures, and they recorded that information on cards. Today, those cards are being scanned and recorded into a public database for historical analysis.
One of the oldest examples of citizen science is the Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Since 1900, the organization has sponsored a bird count that runs from December 14 through January 5 each year. An experienced birder leads a group (called a circle) of volunteers as they collect information about local populations of birds. More than 2,000 such circles operate across the United States and Canada. This wildlife census informs bird conservation efforts.
Use of Technology
Historically, when professional scientists wanted to gather more information, they would use pre-existing citizen science networks of birders, weatherbugs, and other amateur groups. With the widespread availability of the Internet in the late 1990s, it became easier for people to share and contribute information, and the number of citizen-science programs increased.
In the last few years, the field of citizen science has expanded even more rapidly with the development of smartphones, allowing more information to be shared through digital media.
Armed with phones that have built-in GPS receivers, volunteers can readily provide geo-location information about species or situations in real time. New networks and communities of interested citizen scientists are created each day to learn more about the world and how we can contribute to understanding it.
In the future, more phones could be outfitted with smart sensors, which would let people measure and record environmental data, such as air-quality levels and temperature readings.
Citizen Science at National Geographic
With the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society has sponsored hundred of bioblitzes. A bioblitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time. A bioblitz is also known as a biological inventory or biological census. The primary goal of a bioblitz is to get an overall count of the plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that live in a place.
In 2011, for instance, BioBlitz was held in Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, Arizona. More than 5,000 people combed the area. The 24-hour event added more than 400 species to park lists, including 190 species of invertebrates and 205 species of fungus previously unknown to the park. At least one species of bryophyte discovered was new to the park and potentially new to science.
Other Citizen Science Projects
Citizen science projects cover a wide variety of topics, from astronomy to zoology.
Climate and climate change are the focus of Project BudBurst. Project BudBurst is a network of people across the United States who monitor the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants. This project fosters collaboration among gardeners, scout troops, hikers, botanists, ecologists, government agencies, and educators to monitor climate change and its impacts on plants.
BugGuide is an online community where naturalists share their photos and observations about a variety of creatures, including spiders and other insects. They use the in-house expertise of scientists and amateur experts to collect information and identify a diversity of bug species in the United States and Canada.
FrogWatch USA is the leading citizen-science program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This program allows groups and individuals to learn about wetlands in their communities by reporting the mating calls of local frogs and toads.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative is a citizen science project with a narrower focus than national efforts such as FrogWatch USA or Project BudBurst. Focusing on the watershed of the Potomac River in southern Maryland and Washington, D.C., this project considers the environmental implications of economic policy. Participants actively clean up the river banks, and provide assistance to businesses creating “Trash-Free Facilities” through software and a free online greenhouse gas reduction calculator. The initiative reminds consumers that plastic bags make up a huge portion of the trash along the Potomac. The Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative supports a fee on single-use plastic bags, which encourages the use of recyclable bags.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology plays host to many citizen-science programs. It has a variety of bird programs, including NestWatch, which teaches people how to monitor nests and collect breeding information to track reproduction among North American birds. NestCams is a series of online webcams that observe the nesting behavior of breeding birds.
Zooniverse is an online aggregator that supports a wide variety of citizen scientists. Unlike natural history projects, which typically take volunteers outdoors, Zooniverse exists as an online community. With Zooniverse’s space-related projects, armchair astronauts virtually explore distant galaxies, study the surface of the Moon, and investigate solar explosions—all just a click away on the computer.
Citizen science also includes humanities projects. Ancient Lives provides more than 100,000 fragments of ancient Egyptian papyrus. Using an online tool, citizen scientists can help transcribe and catalog these fragments of Greek texts—including the works of Sophocles and Sappho.
History, too, has a citizen-science component. Old Weather is a project that aims to catalog the climate-related entries of nearly 300 Royal Navy ships of the World War I era. These historical data help climatologists improve their models. The ships’ logs also include political and social information, which are invaluable to historians.