Just What is Citizen Science?

By Oliver Moore (Updated 09.45 CET on 04/02/2019)

GROW Observatory has another free online course coming up called Soil to Sky. In this short course, which starts on 11th February, participants will learn how to understand their soil and explore global environmental soil issues. This course will also introduce the idea of the citizen scientist. So just what is a citizen scientist?

Imagine being able to do something about a seemly intractable problem in your community? About decades of increasingly dirty air in the street you live on; or about ever increasing noise pollution, as the square you grew up beside gets taken over by late night revelling?

More broadly, we’ve seen biodiversity collapse — the death of nature, from microbes to insects to birds to mammals - at levels unparalleled since the dinosaur extinctions.

But here too there is a way for people to get involved, to not just bear witness, but to track changes, to develop and present evidence of just what is happening.

Welcome to the world of the citizen scientist, where people and the scientific community come together.

“Citizen science projects involve non-professionals taking part in crowdsourcing, data analysis, and data collection. The idea is to break down big tasks into understandable components that anyone can perform.” Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson is a researcher involved in Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal full of interesting initiatives you can get involved with. There are dozens you can get involved in:

What’s interesting too is the emergence of approaches which get people involved beyond mere counting — utilizing the latest sensing technologies and participatory methodologies to connect people, best practices, data and issues up.

Citizen sensing also has the ability to bring people of shared interests together at local and wider levels — and this is important in an increasingly atomistic age.

If all of this sound grand or grandiose, really, it’s just that people are now using affordable and increasingly interconnected technology to connect with each other, with researchers, policy makers, designers, activists and more — to develop and present evidence of exactly what’s happening in their surrounds.

People can chronicle impacts and changes, and collectively, start to shape how the(ir) world is. Below are some more real life examples of citizen science and citizen sensing.

“The Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the world’s largest such repository, says that it gets half of its billions of data points from lay sources. The group estimates that it has supplied data for more than 2,500 peer-reviewed papers in the past ten years.” Aisling Irwin

Making Sense

Making Sense engaged citizens in monitoring real time levels of air, noise and other forms of pollution all over Europe.

Air pollution in Europe is responsible for more than 400,000 premature deaths each year , while 30% of the European population is exposed to noise levels exceeding what is deemed healthy limits. Noise pollution can have detrimental effects on health including: increased in blood pressure, illness or fatigue from sleep deprivation, and decreased capacity for learning and creativity caused by stress.

People are more aware of these problems, yet can also feel helpless and disempowered about how to deal with them. And this is where citizen science projects like Making Sense come in.

Through Making Sense, neighbourhoods have found ways to get involved in shaping where they live, in real time real life situations of pollutions. One example was of the Placa del Sol — a square in Barcelona that was negatively impacted by noise into the night and early morning.

Noise pollution has numerous negative impacts, including hearing impairment, hypertension, heart disease, anxiety and sleep disturbance.

In this situation a community of citizen-sensing participants took “an active role in codesigning the methodologies and technologies” while deploying sensors to monitor noise.

Developing and deploying the sensors can be seen here:

This has brought people together, and has given clear evidence of noise levels above the legal, permitted norm to local authorities; in turn, there have been changes to the layout of the square to reduce noise and change congregation patterns. While management of these public places is an ongoing process, empowered and engaged citizens have more clout when armed with data than they would otherwise be.

Making Sense brought together a range of innovations — open source software, open source hardware, digital maker practices and open design, as well as participatory methodologies.

This includes the super-affordable smart citizen toolkit developed by the Fab Lab Barcelona.

A handy toolkit was developed for communities and other actors:

Making Sense Toolkit

Making Sense stands out for its exceptionally participatory methodology, where residents were involved in framing the problem and the strategies for making progress.

In this toolkit you can see a best practice trajectory: Scoping; Community Building; Planning; sensing; Awareness; Action; Reflection; Legacy.

And you can find out how people got involved in addressing air pollution and other problems in different parts of Europe.

For the Birds

While these new citizen sensing initiatives have been developing ways to engage communities in local issues, citizen science projects have been enrolling people in scientific research for at least 120 years.

What’s great about these initiatives is that so much more information, over a wide area and a long time, can be submitted that would be the case via any other means.

Winter sees bird counts in many parts of the world, such as the Christmas Bird Count in the US which started in the 19th Century.

The British Trust for Ornithology also engage citizen volunteers in birdcounts and surveys. In fact, they’ve run 250 since the 1930s, most recently on owls.

While half a million people take part in the Royal society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) #BigGardenBirdwatch each year, which is on now. Sparrows seem to be the most abundant, will they top the poll for 2019?

Much was made of the stark ‘insect armageddon’ research from Germany. This found that there were really severe declines in insect populations in that country over a short time frame: a 75% reduction in flying insects in nature reserves over the last 27 years.

What makes this information especially robust and longitudinal is that the sampling was taken on 64 locations over 27 years -a level of data collection is simply beyond the scope of typical university based funding cycles. However, this information is available to and useful for researchers because of the 27 years of work done.

These insect and birds population counts are important in helping with understanding the levels of biodiversity loss we are encountering.

There are of course concerns — as well as reliability, legacy and fatigue considerations, “researchers and participants are also encountering challenges with ethics, data use and privacy” as Aisling Irwin points out. Irwin cites surveying in Kenya that can be as useful to poachers as to conservationists as an example. Data uploaded by health monitoring apps would certainly be of interest to insurance companies not involved in the research.

Secure data and privacy standards are important in this regard, as the citizen science movement gains ever more momentum.

Nevertheless, citizen science, despite occasional teething problems, shows enormous potential — and is already impacting in the real world.

You can sign up for #GROWSoil2sky at the link below:

Find out more about GROW’s progress so far, as well as other aspects of the project by watching this short video:

Check out the get involved part of our website:

GROW Observatory is one of the four Citizen Observatories that make up WeObserve. Citizen Observatories (COs) are “community-based environmental monitoring and information systems, that invite individuals to share observations, typically via mobile phone or the web.”