What is Citizen Science? The GROW Observatory approach

Naomi van der Velden favours a two-way approach to citizen science

by Sarah Cossom, Permaculture Association

GROW educator Dr Naomi van der Velden explains what being a citizen scientist is all about and why GROW Observatory is planning on taking this kind of collaboration even further.

“Citizen science is really exciting from a scientist’s perspective as it means you get hundreds or even tens of thousands of data points from people that can really quickly amount to lots of information about a given topic,” Naomi explains. “It’s often something that would take one person days or months, or would simply be completely infeasible to do otherwise.”

And it’s not all about the scientists; it also gives participants the chance to feel good about themselves by contributing to important research. “People often find it really satisfying to provide data in this way,” says Naomi. “You’re helping to answer key questions, whether it’s about how climate change influences when certain plants grow, or which butterfly species are appearing in new locations.”

For some citizen science projects, you simply hand over your data, but for others, it’s much more two-way. This is where projects like GROW Observatory come in. “We want to make it really useful for people, so that by giving us data, you also get something back as well,” says Naomi.

The aim is for GROWers to be able to use their own and other people’s data from within the network in a more meaningful way. “We’re currently exploring ideas about what people want and what this might look like,” explains Naomi.

One of the possibilities is to link data about soil texture with information collected from soil sensors, which has so far proved promising in early trials.

“Simple tests for soil texture that you can do with a jam jar and some water are quite limited in how accurately they can identify a number of different soil types,” says Naomi. “Our soil scientists have been comparing tests done by growers in the field with tests done by experts and also lab-based analysis, to develop a method that is easy for people to use and gives a good level of accuracy.”

The idea is for GROWers to initially find out what kind of soil texture they have, which can then be added to soil moisture levels data from sensors.

“Total soil moisture doesn’t mean it’s all able to be used by plants, as the amount is influenced by soil texture,” explains Naomi. “By taking both measurements, we can calculate how much water is actually available for the plants.

“So rather than just seeing your basic data, you get back much more useful information as we combine it with other elements as we go along. Essentially, are your plants likely to be water stressed or over-watered?”

One of the most exciting future plans for the GROW Observatory is to train citizen researchers. This means someone who not only contributes useful data to help build up the bigger picture, but also understands and learns how to do their own research in their gardens and local communities.

Naomi explains that these people will be key to the project when GROW Observatory undertakes an interesting experiment into polycultures by growing different food plants and measuring the harvest. “GROWers will be able to do it in their own back garden and work out what works best for them, or what doesn’t work, as the case may be, which is often equally useful!”

The process of doing it, through a series of collaborative Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs (the first of which starts on 19 Feb 2018), explores different regenerative practices that can help build up healthy soils and ecosystems.

“We recognise there’s a big knowledge gap here. Much of the existing research which many of us base how we garden on is gathered on a large farm scale where operations and activities can be very different.”

“GROW is interested in bridging that gap to see what actually works in people’s gardens. You might plant and manage yours differently to mine; for example I’ve got lots of trees that give more shade, and clay soil. You might be in an allotment where you’ve got nice cultivated soil and more open space.

“What we want to know first of all is to understand what works for you and how does it work? Once we get this information from hopefully thousands of people, we can see whether something works in all locations equally well, or if there are bio-climates where it doesn’t work as well.”

All this data gathering will go towards providing information that is much better tailored towards small-scale growers. “We can then build up a picture of what works, what are the constraints of that practice and also the optimum conditions in which it might best work,” explains Naomi. “So it’s kind of a learning journey we go through together; you can see what works in your garden and how that compares with other people around your region, country and also the wider world.”

From this Spring, GROW Observatory will be taking people through the whole growing season, with the intention of gathering as many GROWers as possible together later in the year.

As well as sharing and discussing results face-to-face, there will also be another online MOOC in November to bring together and examine the results from the different activities and experiments. It will help teach people to understand their own data and results (beginning the citizen researcher element of the project).

“Ideally, people can see for themselves ‘hey, this worked and this didn’t’ and next year they will have the skills to design their own experiment with others in their own community,” says Naomi.

“By then, we will have a selection of tried and tested methods for people to pick and choose from and also they will have the skills to ask and define the right kind of question, which is often one of the hardest parts to get right. Then we go back to the very essence of this project: to come together with others in the GROW community, both in your local area and further afield, to answer those questions together.”

Get started on your GROW journey today by signing up to the first online MOOC - Citizen Science: From Soil to Sky, starting 19 Feb 2018.

A little history about citizen science projects

Peacock butterfly

One of the early citizen science experiments started in 1999, monitoring for signs of extraterrestrial life using radio signal software installed in the volunteers’ computers.

In Scotland, a call for people to help convert paper-based weather data from an old weather centre into digital format resulted in many willing volunteers just spending a few moments here and there updating a row of data at a time.

In the UK alone there are lots of other opportunities to take part in citizen science — from butterfly and garden bird counts to tree surveys and the first signs of Spring. All these projects help to build up a pattern of what’s happening across the country.

And if you’re into nature, you’ll love the i-naturalist app. Each photo you upload records where you are and you enter what you think it illustrates, Once a few people have verified it, your photo becomes a research data point. You can also say you don’t know what it is and people will come back, often within a few minutes, to suggest possible identifications.

“You build up your own knowledge and a constantly evolving map of what you’re seeing where,” explains Naomi. “It’s like keeping a personal repository. We no longer have to go out and pin butterflies to books or flatten flower samples, now we can have a digital record of what we see and where, and have other people help us to identify and understand what we see.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.