Trends in digital communication are supporting the advancement of the citizen science field.
Here are some examples of projects these are using these tools used at various phases of the citizen science project lifecycle – from collecting data to engaging volunteers. We’re increasingly also seeing tools that work across multiple phases.
If you already are running a citizen science project, or looking to start a new one, I hope this will spark some ideas about how you can leverage these tools.
In terms of data collection tools, we now have almost ubiquitous use of online forms and smart phones to collect data (replacing paper based forms).
These can now be supported on an increasing range of free online platforms, such as iNaturalist and Bowerbird.
One of the key benefits of this is that data is automatically geo-referenced (i.e. the observers located is precisely recorded). This can be used to enhance data quality – for example, for filtering out records of species that don’t occur in those locations.
Smart phones can also be used for more sophisticated sensors, such as recording sounds that aren’t even audible to humans! This is well illustrated by the UK’s iBat project, where, ultrasonic microphone plug-in allows volunteers to detect and record more than 900 species of bat.
Observations can also be validated by the upload of digital photos – this can improve the accuracy of species identification and overall data quality.
Thanks to new technology, species identification is becoming increasingly automated. Earlier this year The Cornell Lab of Ornithology released the Merlin app. This allows people to identify bird species by uploading a photo (and answering three simple questions). It’s based on Google Technology and claims to have over 90% accuracy rate.
These identification tools can also improvement volunteer engagement – because they provide real-time feedback and training.
Gamification is also starting to be used for this purpose, and I expect this to be a huge trend going forward. A digital badge or patch is another online acknowledgment of a volunteer’s skill or accomplishment that can increase gaming behavior. Project Noah currently issues citizen science merit patches
Happy Match is a citizen science game that challenges players to answer questions about moths, sharks or rays. Players score points at the end of each game to compete with friends and see who makes the best citizen scientist.
As well as leveraging volunteer’s competitive spirit, this also builds a sense of community.
We are also starting to see social media tools being used for this purpose. As well as connecting project members for their peers, social media communications can also be used for data collection and quality checking.
A really interesting project is Aurorasarous. Citizen scientists tweet about sightings of the Northern Lights. These are then validated by other citizen scientists via Twitter, and displayed on map that predicts where the aurora will appear.
YardMap is another Cornell project that does a great job of integrating social media content with maps. Yardmap invites citizen scientists to log bird sightings and bird habitat on their yards. It integrates a social media with attractive maps. Volunteers can interact with like-mind folks in their neighbourhood, and share tips and tricks on what’s working in terms of bird habitat in their yard.
As well as a great tool for data display, some projects are taking an extra step and encouraging their volunteers to interact with maps – to interrogate and analyse the data, and to examine trends.
Once of the best maps I’ve seen do this is FieldScope, a join initiative of Esri and National Geographic. Here’s an example from the Great Lakes project. It allows users to turn on and off map layers, filter for specific data, and run data queries and comparisons.
Volunteers are also encouraged to share data with others – another key technology trend.
An important future trend will be the development of framework that to allow datasets to be integrated at larger scales – nationally and internally. In Australia, data collected on Atlas of Living Australia’s Field Data application is uploaded into the Atlas itself, where it can be aggregates biodiversity data from multiple sources and makes it available and usable online.
At the international level, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is an international open data infrastructure that allows encouraging and helping institutions to publish data according to common standards.
Data standardisation and is essential to ensure proper data aggregation. This can obviously benefit from, simplified by using standards data collection platforms and protocols, which brings us back to data collection – we’ve come full circle now.
This is just a small sample – the range of digital communication tools to support citizen science citizen science projects is growing at a phenomenal pace.
However, it must be noted that these are just tools. Every citizen science project is unique. And not all these tools will be appropriate for each project. Projects should first define their objective and target audiences – and then find tools that suit these needs.
This blog post is based on a research report I produced as part of a research project for my Masters of Environmental Management.
Read the full report (3MB PDF file)