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People monitoring the planet: Helen Roy discusses citizen science

September 2, 2014
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Citizen scientists recording butterflies in the Mt. Rainier National Park, USA. Image: Kevin Bacher, Flickr CC

Citizen science projects are flourishing across the world, with ordinary people collecting and contributing scientific data about Earth’s natural environments, particularly aided by advances in technology which allows for easy identification and recording of plants and animals.  For example, the multidisciplinary Citizen Science Alliance run online citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo – where galaxies in space are classified by their shape, Old Weather – where archives of historical weather observations made by ocean-going US ships are explored and digitised to contribute to climate model predictions, and Whale FM – where recordings of whale calls are grouped together.

The iSpot project uses smartphone apps and forums to help citizen scientists collaborate to identify and digitise ecological data, and the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum in London taps into a historical tradition of UK amateur naturalists by inviting the public to bring in unusual plant, animal and fossil finds for identification.   Citizen science is booming across most fields of science, and can potentially provide real-time data across study areas that might be unfeasible for scientists to cover alone.  Indeed, the Galaxy Zoo project has published a number of scientific journal articles where citizen scientists have contributed to research.

Helen Royhelen-2-staffpage is the Head of Zoology at the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a UK public sector research centre.  Through her work with the BRC, and particularly with the UK Ladybird Survey, Helen is known a leading advocate and practitioner of citizen science in the UK.  We spoke to Helen about her work, to ask about the current state of citizen science, and what potential the field has to study freshwater ecosystems.

Freshwater Blog: Could you tell us a little about your work, and what you see as the value and potential of citizen science projects?

Helen Roy: I am an ecologist with a passion for communication and public engagement with science. My research encompasses community ecology and the influence of environmental change on complex interactions between species. As Head of Zoology within the Biological Records Centre I work closely with over 80-volunteer recording societies (small to medium-sized NGOs) supporting their activities to ensure the collation of wildlife data to national databases for subsequent analysis and interpretation.

Indeed, these datasets are instrumental in providing an overview of the ways in which the distributions of plants and animals are responding to environmental change, such as the arrival of invasive alien species (IAS) and climate change. As such biological records are a critical component of the evidence-base for biodiversity surveillance for the UK and currently inform 7 of the 24 Biodiversity Indicators published by Defra. I thoroughly enjoy working with the volunteer recording community to maximise the use of the data gathered for science, public understanding and policy. Biological recording is perhaps one of the oldest examples of citizen science.

Citizen science is a diverse approach to science and involves people with varying degrees of expertise – from the amateur experts (as recognised by the schemes and societies) to members of the public. The development of citizen science has been integral to my research and provides a method for testing research hypotheses while engaging people with complex scientific concepts. Citizen science has the potential to be a primary tool, linking to public engagement, for involving people in science.

As a volunteer I have the pleasure of co-leading the UK Ladybird Survey The UK Ladybird Survey receives approximately 25,000 observations a year and has contributed to the understanding of ecology of ladybirds and alien species in Britain. The 60,000 harlequin ladybird observations accrued through public engagement and the contributions from tens of thousands of people across the country have resulted in one of the most comprehensive datasets on the spread of an alien species globally.  The harlequin ladybird survey inspired the development of an on-line surveillance system for other IAS in Britain, which I lead for Defra. Citizen science has considerable potential to inform scientific research and policy while engaging the public actively in the scientific process.

In your opinion, what are the most interesting, innovative and useful citizen science projects going on in the world right now?

The volunteers who lead national schemes and societies inspire me. Their enthusiasm and willingness to share their expertise results in really exciting citizen science. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland not only involve volunteers in field surveys but also through exciting initiatives such as Herbaria@home, which involves people in digitising the information linked to Herbarium specimens.

The apps developed by NatureLocator are excellent and provide people with the opportunity involvement in citizen science in a straightforward way while giving assurance of data quality by involving experts behind the scenes. I am extremely excited by hypothesis-led citizen science and would be delighted to see more collaborative approaches to developing such initiatives than has been the case so far.

What is the potential of citizen science for monitoring freshwater environments?  How much of a barrier does water provide to volunteers looking to survey what goes on beneath the surfaces of rivers and lakes?  How might this be overcome?

The Riverfly partnership is a fantastic example of citizen science in a freshwater environment.  There are many people who use freshwater environments for recreation who could be interested in citizen science. There are always potential barriers to participation in citizen science whatever the environment but there are also ways to overcome them. Training and mentoring are effective methods for increasing participation and enhancing the quality of data gathered.

What counts as citizen science?  Does it require people to go out into the field and record data, or can it be things like archive research or oral histories?  

Citizen science combines excellent engagement and “real” science. There are many diverse and inspiring ways of going about the scientific process (the systematic study of the natural world) – indeed data can be gathered and analysed in a variety of ways.  The exact approach will depend on the question being tackled.  Additionally citizen science usually involves teams of people – some may be involved in every step of the process (from establishing the question and gathering data to interpreting and publishing findings) and others may use their expertise for one particular part of the process.  It is the diversity, flexibility and adaptability of citizen science that is so exciting and amenable to all.

How reliable is citizen science data?  What does it offer to researchers working in academia and policy?

Citizen science data is reliable.  Of course it is essential that participants have the tools and support to ensure the data gathered is of known quality. It offers everyone so much – the opportunity to share ideas and make discoveries in a collaborative way is simply amazing. Science is so creative and citizen science enables people to work together in new and exciting ways.

What role does technology have in the recent citizen science boom?  Where do you think developing technologies could (and perhaps should) take citizen science in the future?

Technology has played a huge part. The use of smartphone apps has increased participation in wildlife recording. Twitter and social media enables rapid feedback and dialogue amongst the citizen science community. On-line databases allow many people to explore and interact with datasets, while complex rules and filters assist in enhancing data quality.  Analysis of this so-called “big data” places demands on technology and it is tremendously exciting to see the novel and eloquent ways in which technology is used to ensure the best use of the data.

The citizen science community will embrace emerging technologies in innovative ways.  Linking analysis to real-time data capture will provide people with the opportunity to get involved with every step of the scientific process. There is a real need to effectively communicate concepts of “uncertainty” and getting involved in the scientific process will actively encourage discussions on this important topic. I hope that the focus will be on ensuring data quality and maximising sharing of data for the benefit of everyone.

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