Citizen Science in Australia : Achieving Collective Impact

Citizen science in Australia
The citizen science field in in Australia is rapidly expanding and shows great potential for improving conservation outcomes. However, the collective impact of the field will remain limited without appropriate institutional-level change. This includes scientist and policymaker acceptance of the validity of citizen science, centralised technology platforms, standardised evaluation methodologies, and network support.

With the emergence of new technologies, citizen science projects can now be initiated at lower cost and greater reach.  This has resulted in an explosion of new citizens projects in Australia over the last few years.

ClimateWatch iPhone app
ClimateWatch iPhone app

Citizen science allows large volumes of data to be collected over vast temporal and spatial scales, providing opportunities to widen the scope of ecological research. For example, over 10,000 Australians have submitted species sightings to ClimateWatch – that will be used to help understand how plant and animal lifecycles are being affected by changing climate patterns.

As well as these research benefits, citizen science can increase the public’s scientific literacy and ecological knowledge. Using citizen science to engage volunteers can increase their appreciation for nature and foster pro-environmental behaviours.  For example, an evaluation of the Birds in Backyards project showed that almost 70% of contributors took further action to protect native birds, including planting more native species and increasing vegetation density.

Despite this potential, the citizen science field in Australia is still quite immature. Key challenges preventing citizen science projects from achieving their potential include:

  • Failure to be taken seriously by scientists and policymakers
  • Lack of long-term funding opportunities
  • Project duplication and fragmentation – limiting collaboration and synergies
  • Lack of standardized approaches to project design, data collection and evaluation

The potential of the field is unlikely to be realised without appropriate institutional reforms and cultural shifts.

These include:

  • A national citizen science strategy and roadmap
  • State and/or local government oversight of community-based projects
  • Training and support from educational institutions
  • Private sector funding and partnerships
  • The development of a nation citizen science network to provide guidance and innovation
  • Further development of low cost, standardised cyberinfrastructure
Capacity building framework for citizen science
Capacity building framework for citizen science

Policy and Governance

With the current policy focus on cost savings, citizen science may be an attractive win-win proposition.

Government and policy actors must recognise the potential of citizen science to provide high quality and practical benefits, at lower costs than traditional methods.

The field would greatly benefit from a national citizen science strategy, as is currently being explored in Europe.

This would:

  • Ensure citizen science efforts are focused on strategic issues of critical importance
  • Integrate citizen science with other conservation polices and strategies, such as Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy
  • Provide a development roadmap for the citizen science field as a whole
  • Provide targeted funding opportunities
  • Link citizen science to enhanced environmental management

At the regional level,  community-based citizen science projects need more assistance from local councils.  Some Councils are already quite proactive in this area. For example, the Blue Mountains City Council’s Environmental Levy (an annual ratepayer charge of $43 per year) supports over 500 dedicated community conservation volunteers across Bushcare, Landcare, Streamwatch, Trackcare and Bush Backyards.

Additional support would be useful to set local strategy, coordinate volunteers and reduce project duplication.

For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has coordinated a community based monitoring network since 2004. The Department provides start-up grants (of $5,000) for high-priority projects. The Department also provides support via CBM advisory Council, access to Department scientists, project resources, a project register, and a volunteer register to assist with project recruitment.

Screen capture from the Wisconsin Community Based Monitoring Network site
Screen capture from the Wisconsin Community Based Monitoring Network site

Integration with traditional science

All citizen science projects face one enormous challenge that jeopardises their success – acceptance by the wider scientific community.

Many scientists and policymakers question the integrity of data collected by nonprofessionals. For example, in 1993, the US House of Representatives voted in to ban the National Biological Survey from accepting the services of volunteers – arguing that volunteers were incompetent and their data would be biased.

A growing body of literature shows that data collected by citizens can be comparable to data collected by professional scientists. A recent study by researchers from Australia and Palau compared data collected by divers with acoustic telemetry data from tagged sharks, and found that the divers’ data was equally accurate. It also included additional details linking shark abundance to current strength and water temperature.

To remove the stigma associated with citizen science, conventional science must accept that citizen science as a legitimate and necessary approach.  This includes:

  • Regularly integrating citizen science data with other data sources
  • Considering how citizen science can be embedded in monitoring and research
  • Clearly acknowledging datasets that include citizen collected data
  • Increasing scientists involvement in citizen science project design – to improve data quality and connect data to critical research questions

Achieving the necessary culture shift in the scientific community requires a revised approach to scientists’ evaluation and incentives. The traditional focus on data gathering for the sake of building scientific knowledge must be replaced be replaced by a focus on more practical benefits and outcomes.

Support from academic and learning institutions

Academic and learning institutions – such as Universities and Museums – must recognise citizen science as an important developing field, and:

  • Develop new training programs that incorporate the interdisciplinary skills required by citizen science project coordinators (data visualisation, data analysis, publicity, volunteer engagement, etc.)
  • Provide educational opportunities to enhance the skills of volunteers
  • Assist with the development of open-source GIS and cyberinfrastructure tools and platforms
  • Provide access to scientists
  • Integrate citizen science into existing outreach projects

A number of institutions in the United States – including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science – have developed spaces for children and adults to directly engage in science.

Institutions can also showcase existing projects. For example, the Lake Katherine museum in suburban Chicago recently developed a dedicated citizen science area where visitors collect observations to submit to Project Feedwatcher, iNaturalist, and Project Budburst.

Cross-sector partnerships

Creek Watch iPhone app
Creek Watch iPhone app

The private sector is starting to play a bigger role in citizen science, through the inclusion of citizen science projects in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

For example, Earthwatch partners with HSBC on Fresh Water watch – a global research programme that engages 7,500 HSBC employees as citizen science leaders. These employees are trained to conduct scientific research, contribute data to a global database, and be ambassadors for the programme – engaging colleagues, family and friends.

The private sector can also assist with the development of cyberinfrastructure.

IBM Research created Creek Watch – an iPhone application that allows citizens to monitor and evaluate local waterway levels and pollution. Creek Watch was developed in partnership with the California State Water agency to help monitor drought conditions.  The city of San Jose is using Creek Watch data to prioritise pollution cleanup efforts on its waterways.

For corporations, this provides a great way to test the potential of crowd-sourced data collection and analysis for use in commercial applications.

National citizen science network

Many citizen science resources are already available, but are dispersed, duplicated, and non-standardised.

A national network body is required to provide focus, build capacity and foster innovation. The creation of the Citizen Science Network Australia in May 2014 is a promising step in this direction.  This network must:

  • Lobby government bodies and policy actors to recognise the value of citizen science
  • Provide a register of citizen science projects
  • Facilitate access to scientists
  • Provide guidance and support – including best practice guides, case studies, and training resources
  • Provide a register of tools, vendors and technology platforms
  • Develop standards for data collection and project evaluation
  • Conduct research to further the field.

The network must have strong links with governance and learning institutions, as well as other citizen science associations that are now being formed in Europe and North America.

Cyberinfrastracture

Citizen science projects in Australia can choose from a variety of data collection and management platforms, including BowerBird, FieldData,iNaturalist, and CitSci.Org.

However, these separate and isolated systems limit the opportunity to collaborate and share data across networks, reducing the effectiveness of the citizen science field. The proliferation of technology platforms has resulted in volunteer confusion, data inconsistencies and unnecessary competition.

A unified approach to citizen science requires an industry-standard data collection, storage and dissemination platform. It seems likely that this will be the Atlas of Living Australia’s FieldData software. Whilst this software offers good functionality and ease of use, it must be enhanced to include an smart phone plugin. The installation process must also be simplified to allow non-technical users to set up. Much could be learnt from the excellent Indicia platform available in Europe.

A centralised data sharing tool will allow rapid project initiation, greater efficiencies of scale, greater standardisation of methods, and improved data quality testing and sharing.  This must be a priority for the Citizen Science network.


Citizen science is an exciting field that offers great hope for the future of the conservation.  Involving citizens in ecological research has the power to build knowledge and drive behavioural change. For this possibility to be realised, the field requires a collective approach to build capacity as outlined above.

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