From protecting the future of our bird populations to discovering how RNA technology can help with challenging health conditions and everything in between, scientists are doing some incredible things for our world. But science is not something only for universities or researchers. Science is for everyone, and you don’t necessarily need to shake a lab coat to make a meaningful contribution.
Amateur researchers, known as ‘citizen scientists’, often collaborate with professional scientists to help them learn more about our world. The term itself is relatively new, but ordinary people have been participating in and contributing to scientific research for centuries – and you can too.
crowdsourced data collection
One of the main ways citizens can contribute to science is through data collection. For scientists, gathering the amount of data needed to conduct a study is often quite a challenge. This is where they call on their civilian counterparts to help with tasks such as monitoring and recording, which they would not be able to accomplish on their own.
“Often, we need very rapid data on large spatial scales. For example, after a fire, we needed to know the impact on biodiversity in the affected area,” said Dr. Dr., a veterinarian at UNSW Sydney and the Australian Museum. Jodi Rowley says. “There’s no way we scientists can collect all this data ourselves – we need help. We are forever grateful and recognize all the participants for their hard work.”
Dr Roli is lead scientist at FrogID, a citizen science project improving our understanding of Australia’s unique frog species. Thousands of people across Australia have recorded frog calls through the free FrogID app to help build a massive database of frog records – nearly 700,000 to date.
Through the FrogID project, scientists were able to find and describe two new, much faster frog species from eastern Australia, thanks to citizen scientists helping to record frog calls.
“This database has revolutionized our understanding of frogs in Australia and is being used by me, other researchers, land managers and conservation agencies across Australia,” says Dr Rolle.
Dr. Michelle Harley from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering leads the innovative community beach monitoring program, Coast Snap, where citizens generate shoreline data using social media photos. Each day, community members share their shoreline snaps to help researchers better understand how our coastline is changing over time.
“With CoastSnap, citizens are contributing to the expansion of a dataset every day that we would not be able to access otherwise,” says Dr. Harley.
CoastSnap began as a small community event on Sydney’s North Beaches, but thanks to public enthusiasm, it has become a global project. More than 20 countries around the world are now actively tracking changes in their coasts.
“We couldn’t have anticipated the incredible participation level and it would have gotten as big as it is. It is thanks to the community,” says Dr. Harley.
The data produced through projects is often incredibly accurate as well. With Coast Snap, this is almost comparable to that collected by professional shoreline monitoring instruments.
“We are able to use the data to help monitor coastal erosion risk, identify hotspots that need special attention, and it also helps us predict how changing waves and How the coastline changes in response to storms,” Dr. Harley says.
improve public understanding of science
Dr Harley says citizen science helps increase public awareness of science and its important role in decision-making. Projects involving the public can help bridge the gap between decision-makers and the community.
“Involving the community in data collection helps to remove some of the barriers that exist between coastal managers, government and citizens,” says Dr Harley. “The project helps to obtain high-quality coastal monitoring information while simultaneously educating the public about beach dynamics.”
Some citizen science projects also help improve scientific literacy by giving participants practical experience with the terminology, skills, and methods used by scientists.
“Citizen science projects helped get me interested in becoming an environmental engineer,” says Dr. Harley. “I remember when I was little, going to my local creek and measuring the phosphate and pH of the water.”
Giving people a taste of what it’s like to be a scientist also helps foster interest and enthusiasm for science and can inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM.
“It’s great to have people be a part of projects and make them fall completely in love with frogs, or at least notice frogs a little more,” says Dr. Rowley.
“Certainly, one of the hopes of citizen science projects like Coast Snap is to inspire more people to become environmental engineers and environmental scientists, because we need more in the world,” Dr. Harley says.
engaging in responsible citizen science
It can be tempting to dive right in and start walking around the bush. But it is always important to consider the ethics of engaging with science, especially when it comes to projects that involve animals or the environment.
“The FrogID project is designed to securely collect critical data without any inadvertent impact on frogs – such as not handling frogs – and we have a ‘Safe Frog Pledge’ that we all need to take. call for,” Dr. Rowley says.
Take the time to read the project guidelines to make sure you’re contributing in the most useful way.
“It is important to carefully follow any instructions to make sure that we can use the data you are collecting and that you are going to collect the information securely,” says Dr. Harley.
If you’re interested in becoming a citizen scientist but don’t know where to start, it may be a good idea to find an established project that matches your interests.
“Of course, you may not know if you are interested in frogs, echidnas or leaves until you start paying more attention to them and become a citizen scientist collecting data on them. So, trying out different projects is also a good way to start,” says Dr. Rowley.
Here are some of the ways citizen scientists can help UNSW researchers today.
Record Amphibian: FrogID
Collect audio recordings of frog calls across Australia to help monitor frog populations.
Citizens have recorded about 700,000 frogs that have been used by scientists to make many discoveries, including new species of frogs.
Members of the public can download the FrogID app and continue counting Australia’s frogs to help scientists with further conservation efforts.
Read more: Many Australian frogs do not tolerate human impacts on the environment
Monitor Beach Change: Coast Snap
Become a coastal scientist to help predict changes to our beaches.
CoastSnap turns phones into powerful coastal surveillance tools using photo-point cradles and image processing. Over time, community photographers have created an accurate record of how beaches erode and recover.
No matter where you are in the world, if you have a smartphone and are interested in Coast, you can participate.
Read more: Revolutionizing coastal surveillance, one social media photo at a time
Identify an iconic Australian species: the dingo? Bingo!
Help scientists better understand and manage dingo populations.
Dingo? Bingo! The camera solicits the public’s help in locating dingoes and other animals from images obtained from a network of traps.
complete collection of Dingo? Bingo! Photos are now available and ready for classification, so jump right in and help the research team learn more about dingo behavior.
Read more: Dingo? Bingo! How you can help with dingo research from your home
Track Bushfire Recovery: Environment Recovery Project
The Environment Recovery Project invites citizen scientists to share their photos of bushfire recovery.
The project, nominated for the Eureka Prize, has mobilized 1600 volunteers who have made more than 25,000 observations to help track damage, loss of biodiversity and collect critical recovery data.
To contribute data, participants can download a mobile app, available through the global citizen science platform iNaturalist, take a photo and upload the image.
Read more: Post-bushfire environmental reform: Citizen scientists capture thousands of observations
Restore Underwater Grasslands: Operation Posidonia
Collect pieces of seagrass used to rehabilitate seagrass meadows, one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth.
Posidonia Supports seahorses, blue swimmer crabs and snapper and is being successfully rejuvenated with the help of volunteers from the local community.
If you’re a dog walker or a local beach goer, join the local ‘seagrass storm squad’ and be part of the solution.
Read more: Making Poseidon work: how citizen scientists are helping to restore endangered seagrass