Technological advances have spurred the increasing popularity of citizen science projects. GIS-enabled web applications allow the collection of large volumes of data; smart phones enable observations to be validated by digital photos; and online portals provide free data sharing. A raft of free online resources also allows rapid and inexpensive project initiation.
This blog post reviews some creative uses of technology tools at each stage of the citizen science project lifecycle.
Tools for planning
Always at the vanguard of the citizen science movement, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have provided a free citizen science toolkit since 2007.
Citizen Science Central offers practitioners a variety of resources to assist with program planning, initiation, development, and evaluation. Toolkit resources are arranged in a step-by-step framework, and supported by a section featuring real-world case studies and citizen science projects.
Tools for funding
Crowd funding allows projects to be funded by asking a large number of people each for a small amount of money – usually via an online platform. There are now a number of platforms available for projects to source funds this way, including KickStarter, Pozible, and GoFundMe.
Crowdfunding has great potential for projects that raise strong public interest.
Following the Fukushima disaster, RadiationWatch used crowd funding to develop the Pocket Geiger – a plug-in radiation sensor that uses the capability of the GPS via a smartphone.
The project was funded by backers from around the world via Kickstarter, and is now supported by volunteer scientists, engineers and designers. RadiationWatch have shipped over 12,000 Pocket Geigers (mainly to people in Japan).
Tools for Data Collection
Websites provide a vital communication platform for many citizen science projects, and can fulfil a number of functions:
• Online data entry forms for collecting citizen’s observations
• Promotional and educational content
• Databases for information storage
• Data visualisation and dissemination
• Collection of participant feedback
A variety of free and / or open source online tools are available to assist with website creation and maintenance. These include content management systems such as Drupal or Joomla!; free blog platforms such as WordPress; and free online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey.
An increasing number of end-to-end online platforms are now also available for citizen science projects.
Indicia’s open source “cyber infrastructure” platform has been designed to support biological recording in the UK. It provides a base kit for website construction, including recording forms, photo upload, reporting, mappings and record verification. Each component is highly configurable, allowing custom used user experiences be developed at a low cost.
Indicia is used by the UK Mammal Society for citizens to submit mammal sightings via a simple online form. These sightings will be combined with other data to produce mammal atlas with vital new baseline distribution data. This will be continually updated through ongoing monitoring to effectively inform future conservation decisions.
Closer to home, the Atlas of Living Australia’s FieldData software is an open source plug-in that can provide data collection and management facilities to an existing websites. It offers a means for citizen scientists to submit sightings, photos and other files.
FieldData is used by Museum Victoria’s Biodiversity Snapshots project to assist students and teachers to report local fauna observed during school field trips.
The increasingly wide availability of smart phones is enabling a revolution in data collection. Location sensing – via a GPS chip – is now commonplace on smart phones, allowing them to be used as sensors. Plug-in devices and apps also provide more advanced sensor technologies.
The iBat programme has developed a smart-phone plugin to assist with global bat monitoring programme. With the help of an ultrasonic microphone, iBat allows volunteers to detect and record more than 900 species of bat. The captured sounds files are uploaded to a website that identifies each of the calls to build an accurate picture of bat populations.
Tools for Data Analysis
Citizen science can generate vast quantities of data, that takes time and resources to analyse. One of the technological responses to this problem is the emerging field of digital image and sound analysis.
In such projects, people act as collectors of samples – images or sound recordings – from which information can be extracted in an automated and systematic way.
Leafsnap uses visual recognition software to help identify plant species from photographs. Citizens submit photos of leaves via the Leafsnap mobile app, which are automatically identified via a pattern-matching algorithm that compares the photo with photos of known leaves. The identification is passed back to the users.
Leafsnap’s images, species identifications, and geo-coded stamps of species locations are shared with scientists who will use the data to map and monitor flora across the United States.
Tools for Data Display
A range of tools are also available to help with data visualisation. This provides a key way to motivate volunteers, as it enables them to see their contribution alongside those of other participants. It can also engage new participants, by allowing them interpret the data and validate the project’s activity. Google Maps is the most commonly used tool for this purpose.
Programs are now also being developed that allow participants to create and interpret visualisations or analyse data themselves.
FieldScope is a web-based platform that provides participants with the ability to visualise and analyse their own data using GIS software. It offers an easy-to-use interface and a set of analytic tools that are either familiar or easy for a novice to grasp.
FieldScope was used by school students to study water quality in Chesapeake Bay tributaries. The FieldScope application displays student-collected water quality data alongside data layers describing land use, permeability, and nitrogen yield. Charting tools allow student to create time plots and scatterplots for the data that they have collected; hydrologic analysis tools help them understand the underlying watershed dynamics.
Beware of technological overload!
These are just some of the existing and innovative ways that technology can be used to support and extend citizen science projects. The wealth of technology available is rapidly expanding.
However, those designing citizen science projects should be wary of over-using technology.
Whilst cutting-edge technology can be exciting, it can also be costly – as well as alienating and exclusionary. Some people may not have access to particular technologies (such as smart phones), may choose not to use them, or may face physical barriers to use (such as poor signals).
Projects aims should be defined without a specific technology in mind – the “what” should come before the “how”. Data collection methods must be suited to the target audience. The value of traditional scientific data collection should not be underestimated.
Similarly, the field risks being a victim of its own growth. The rapid evolution of citizen science has resulted in project duplication, isolation, and competition. Volunteers may become confused and overwhelmed by the number of available projects. As the citizen science field matures, it requires increased process standardisation, and sharing of best practice and data.