Photo from the Octopus Foundation

A Passion for Discovery

The natural partnership between exploration and citizen science

Andrew David Thaler
Jan 9, 2017 · 3 min read

The last half decade has seen the emergence of two powerful, grassroots movements. One, citizen science, seeks to democratize the collection of data and the production of scientific knowledge. The other, variously referred to as open exploration, citizen exploration, or connected exploration, seeks to make exploration accessible to anyone who wishes to explore their world, from backyard adventures to deep-ocean journeys.

What drives citizen science? What drives exploration?

Both movements are driven by a shared passion for discovery, for digging a little bit deeper into the mud of the universe, and trying to understand how everything fits together. There is a natural partnership between explorers and citizen scientists, and both movements can benefit tremendously from incorporating the knowledge and expertise from each other into a comprehensive, intersectional Citizen Science and Exploration movement.

None of this should come as a surprise. From the Voyage of the Beagle to the Challenger Expedition, science and exploration have always gone hand-in-hand, with complementary goals and contrasting strengths. When citizen science is approached as a journey of discovery, it becomes more than just the manufacture of data. This is especially important within the citizen science movement, which frequently deals with the misconception that citizen science is about generating huge amounts of unvetted data. When expeditions are approached in term of the larger intellectual frameworks that guide the adventure, it becomes more than a walk in the woods, with tweets. This is especially important with the open exploration community, which struggles under the misconception that expeditions are just vacation blogging.

At their hearts, both movements are about taking what were once practices reserved for the wealthy or well-connected and making them welcoming to all. This is achieved by not just reducing the cost of the tools-of-the-trade, scientific instruments like CTDs and niskin bottles or the vehicles of exploration like the OpenROV, but by creating communities to support and nurture the fundamental curiosity that drives both movements.

There are several great projects that have taken a scientific approach to exploration (or an exploratory approach to science). The CSU Channel Islands’ Pacific Institute of Restoration Ecology: Air and Aquatic Robot Research Lab (PIRatE AARR, for short) uses ROVs and expedition planning to lead coastal monitoring trips to California’s Channel Islands. One People One Reef is harnessing traditional knowledge and modern science to drive sustainable, community-based ocean management in Micronesian outer islands. Lost Sharks of San Francisco Bay is surveying the San Francisco Bay for lesser know species of sharks, using SCUBA divers and citizen explorers to collect data.

Perhaps most famously in the OpenExplorer community, a team from OpenROV partnered with state archaeologists and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to explore the steamship Tahoe, catalog changes to the wreck in the last 20 years, survey the debris field, and test new exploration hardware. There is perhaps no better recent example of connected exploration facilitating scientific discovery while working towards a common goal.

Explorers and expedition leaders will do well to think like scientists, with a methodical approach to adventure that asks the important questions: Why does this expedition matter? What questions do we hope to answer? What do we already know? What do we think that we’ll discover? What will this expedition contribute to the broader exploration community? At the same time, citizen scientist will do well to think like explorers, focusing not just on the collection of data, but on the journey towards that data, how our teams come together, the challenges we faced and overcame, what stories the data tell, and how to share those stories.

Successful expeditions and successful citizen science initiatives can benefit immensely from integrating these two complementary approaches into a project, taking a scientific approach to exploration and an exploratory approach to citizen science.

Find more expeditions on OpenExplorer

Open Explorer Journal

A digital field journal for explorers

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