New tools for citizen science


A 'citizen scientist' in action, using the iNaturalist app to input data.
A 'citizen scientist' in action, using the iNaturalist app to input data.

‘Citizen scientists’, amateurs or members of the public who voluntarily engage in scientific work already contribute a great deal to environmental science, but they have the potential to do much more for regional and global assessments of biodiversity, says a study published in the journal Biological Conservation (3 November).

“We have seen a wide range of participants being able to make really important contributions, including student groups and local community members,” notes Mark Chandler, lead author of the study [Contribution of citizen science towards international biodiversity monitoring] and director of research at the non-profit Earthwatch Institute, who also identifies several key pathways to tapping citizen scientists’ energies to collect data

For instance, research institutions may work with local communities to help monitor biodiversity on habitats and species that the volunteers care about, such as forests, and species they hunt for food, economic or cultural reasons; the locals often have good knowledge of the diversity where they live.

The use of global apps for electronic devices, such as iNaturalist or eBird, with urban people or groups, park managers and tourists can be promoted to help capture photographic records and species in certain locations.

Support may be extended to local groups and institutions to increase their capacity to develop citizen science programs, says the study. This local support will be essential, it explains, to scaling up local efforts via citizen science portals and data repositories in addition to increased technical expertise. 

The study adds that part of this investment in citizen science may be in a small number of institutions that can help manage, assess and share the data. There are also regional biodiversity observation networks that could be useful.

In order to ensure security and safety, Chandler says, there may be a need to first assess what likely risks occur and set boundaries around no-go areas because of the high risk.

“You also need to have a trained team ready to manage problems should they arise,” he explains. “When the data comes in, it needs to be vetted by a local expert and if the data collectors are willing, shared locally and globally through organisations, such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.”

Elisabeth Holland, director of the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development in Fiji, says that some countries in the Pacific already have citizen science programs, but that they can be scaled up and expanded across the region.

For instance, in Vanuatu, local community members are collecting precipitation measurements which, if expanded to other countries in the region, would be very useful “because we have a very sparse network of meteorological measurements that help us describe climate change”, says Holland.

“Having a more formalised network would also be useful because it would help collect the data in a single place and would make it more accessible,” Holland tells SciDev.Net. “Ideally, that data then becomes accessible to the community and to the larger world so that so we have the capability of doing metadata analysis and looking for larger regional patterns.”


Mark Chandler and others. Contribution of citizen science towards international biodiversity monitoring (ScienceDirect, 2 November 2016).

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This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk (Manila, Philippines). It has been republished courtesy of SciDev.Net under its Creative Commons attribution license. Find the original article here.


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