Last week was Thanksgiving, and all of us at SciStarter contributed to a list of which citizen science projects we are most thankful for. Although a number of projects came to mind, one stood out for me because it actually pulled me into the field of citizen science. This was ten years ago, and at that time, if someone had asked me what citizen science was, I would not have had an answer. So, what happened to bring about this shift in my career interests?
I was working at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University, conducting research on invasive species, or species not native to an area and that harm ecosystems, the economy, or human health. At the time, our lab was trying to predict the potential spread of these species under present and future environmental conditions.
Much of the work we did required merging data from a variety of sources to get a better understanding of the current distributions of these species. Surprisingly, many local, state, and federal agencies and environmental organizations do not share data with each other. This results in “gaps” in our knowledge of species distributions, so our lab began looking at new ways to help fill these data gaps.
Enter citizen science. In 2006, my colleagues and I proposed an idea to the National Science Foundation to use volunteers to support existing professional monitoring efforts. To be successful, we would need to merge data from multiple volunteer organizations, all of which were collecting data in different ways and for different species. Following conversations with various groups already collecting these types of data, our vision for the website CitSci.org emerged.
CitSci.org allows project managers to create an online project using a pool of standardized metrics so data can be merged across projects collecting similar data. It allows local organizations to not only act locally but impact globally. The features available on CitSci.org are free, including customizable online data entry forms as well as data visualization and data analysis tools.
While the effort originally included invasive species data exclusively, the site has now expanded to all species and any variable of interest. Since its launch, the site now hosts 345 projects with 2,695 volunteers having made 627,005 observations at 62,528 locations using 1284 protocols.
Citsci.org recently received new funding from the NSF’s Advanced Cyberinfrastructure program to partner with another citizen science project called CyberTracker. CyberTracker works with indigenous communities in places like the Congo and the Kalahari, where people have been tracking wildlife for centuries. They’re experts at this in every sense of the word, but some communities they work with have no formal written language. To overcome this potential barrier, CyberTracker has developed a collection of apps for mobile devices that use an icon-based interface with which these trackers can record and share information about animal behavior.
By bringing the two projects together, the funding will “provide unique services that will integrate software and data not just across our two projects but across multiple citizen science projects over the long-term,” says Greg Newman, director of CitSci.org. He also indicated that “these services will provide much-needed tools for citizen scientists lacking resources to use for more complex data sharing services that often require understanding complex programming languages.”
Ultimately, sharing these data will expand the project’s initial vision of filling data gaps in invasive species distributions to better monitor disease outbreaks, understand biodiversity, track climate change, and even monitor street potholes. The new project will make any number of research topics more possible, efficient, and impactful.
As the project continues to grow and build new partnerships, I will continue to be thankful for the opportunities CitSci.org afforded me to enter into the field of citizen science and contribute to the needs of the volunteer community. And, as the holidays approach next year, I look forward to seeing how these projects and the field of citizen science have continued to grow and provide opportunities to further engage diverse communities in science.
Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!