Citizen science – using people power to fill the conservation data gap

Children birdwatching
Children birdwatching (Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Public domain images)

Effective conservation strategies require a detailed understanding of ecosystem functions and trends. However, these occur over such large scales that it is often impossible for scientists to gather enough information to understand them. Scientists are increasingly recruiting members of the public to help fill this data gap – resulting in a boom in the popularity of citizen science projects.

The rise of citizen science

Over the past two decades, ecologists and other scientists have realised the data gathering potential of a vast untapped resource: the general public.

This had led to a rapid increase in the number of citizen science projects.  Also known as “public participation in scientific research”, citizen science involves members of the public collaborating with researchers to collect data.

With a long history in the field of ornithology, citizen science projects are now enjoying mainstream media attention.  Earlier this week, The Age published an article on the use of volunteer birdwatcher data to develop Melbourne’s water policy.

Citizen science offers a number of advantages to help fill the conservation data gap:

1. Large scale monitoring

Many ecological processes occur over huge geographic areas and long time scales. These include migration patterns, disease spread, and species’ demographic changes.

Gathering the required amount of data on such changes is virtually impossible using traditional research methods – particularly given limited time and funds. Recruiting volunteer researchers from the general public offers a low cost way to expand the reach and frequency of data collection.

One of the most successful large-scale monitoring initiatives is the National Audobon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, which has been running since 1900. Each year up to 80,000 volunteer birdwatchers collect data on bird observations over 1 day in the Christmas period.

This program is a major source of information on North America’s bird species, providing long-term population data over a vast geographic range. It has shown that over 40 years, populations of 20 common bird species have reduced by almost 70%.

In the marine field, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation has been engaging volunteer scuba divers to conduct fish surveys since the 1990s in order to better understand tropical coral reefs. Data from these surveys has been used to report on reef health and to develop monitoring plans.

2. More eyes are better than less

Nine-spotted ladybug
Nine-spotted ladybug (Photography by Tiwago, via Flickr).

Because citizen science provides “many eyes”, it’s an effective way to find rare species, track invasions, and detect boom and bust events.

In 2011, a volunteer from citizen science initiative found an insect species that was thought to be extinct.

The Lost Ladybug Project uses photos and specimens submitted by volunteers across the United States to track changes in ladybug species abundance and distribution.  In July 2011, a project volunteer spotted a nine-spotted ladybug (cocinella novemnotata) on a Long Island farm – the first nine-spotted seen in New York State in 30 years.

3. Local-scale monitoring

Citizen science can also be used very effectively at the local level, such as fine-scale measurements of water quality.

Streamwatch volunteers have been monitoring the health of Sydney’s waterways since 1990. Community volunteer groups collect samples from local waterways to monitor water quality and the presence of macroinvertabrates. Streamwatch data provides a detailed historical record of waterway changes that is used by local councils and other authorities. It can also detect pollution issues and evaluate the impact of remediation projects.

4. Rapid research team assembly

One of the key advantages of citizen science is that it allows rapid mobilisation of on-site volunteer researchers.  These volunteers can also provide valuable local knowledge on emergent issues and long-term trends.

Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, local bird-watchers immediately reported the impact on resident bird species such as Brown Pelicans and Roseate Spoonbills. This information guided the region’s clean up and species recovery efforts.

Comparisons with baseline data – also collected by volunteers as part of the eBird database – has also helped understand the long-term ecological impacts of the spill.

Challenges and opportunities

Designing effective citizen science projects is challenging.  They must strike a balance between scientific credibility and volunteer engagement.

Specific challenges include:

  • Ensuring scientifically valid results – data collected by volunteers may been to be verified
  • Limited resources available to train volunteers in proper data collection methods
  • Lack of volunteer interest
  • Data collected may not be used in the decision-making process
  • Scientists and policy-makers may mistrust the data collected


In addition, the field of citizen science is growing so rapidly that it lacks defined approaches and methodologies. Most projects are forced to follow a “learning by doing” approach.

However, given the pace and intensity of environmental change, large-scale ecological monitoring is increasingly critical for conservation initiatives.

With careful project design, citizen science offers tremendous potential to help fill the conservation data gap and provide high quality and actionable insights.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ailin Sun says:

    Fascinating! Do you know of any technological breakthroughs in how volunteers can provide data in a timely fashion? I.e feeding data through mobile apps or online websites in real time? Perhaps more useful for situations such as oil spills in which urgent data response is crucial in assessing damage levels.

    Also, it would be interesting to understand the proportion contribution of data from volunteers vs. professionals in the field

    1. jlambert78 says:

      Thanks Ailin. Technology breakthroughs are currently huge in this this field! And your question is most timely, because they are the subject of my second blog post –

      The ability of smart phone apps to collect – and geolocate – data in real time poses a great opportunity for citizen science.

      I don’t have any details on the split between volunteer vs. professional data collection; but as citizen science becomes more popular, and more reliable (due to technology and robust data collection techniques)- I can only assume that this balance will begin to shift towards the volunteer collector.

      1. Ailin Sun says:

        Thanks Jane I saw your 2nd post go up just as I hit post lol. Will take a look now

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