August 2016

Read an edited version of this article on “The Conversation Africa”.

“Science with, for and by the people.” This is how Geoff Haines-Stiles, producer and director of the original COSMOS television series, describes citizen science.

“It is truly a revolution in the way science is done”, he said during an online seminar organised by the Berlin Museum for Natural Science on 18 July 2016. “It allows people who are not traditionally involved in doing science and gathering data, to become active contributors to real science.”

Haines-Stiles is currently producing “The crowd and the cloud”, a new television series featuring citizen science case studies from around the globe, set to air in the US towards the end of 2016. The series trailer provides a glimpse of how a combination of smart phones and social media make it possible for millions of people around the globe to join big science projects.

This scientist-citizen coupling is delivering benefits to the public and scientists alike. People – young and old from all walks of life – find reward in the thrill of participating and making a difference. Scientists get their hands on continuous streams of data, often from remote locations. Due to its spread and popularity, citizen science is filling gaps in scientific knowledge that scientists could not manage without the extra hands, eyes, computers, cameras, smart phones and vehicles that the citizen scientist armies bring to the table.

Historically, citizen science has its roots in scientists working with ‘ordinary’ people to gather data on wildlife, in particular counting birds.

One of the earliest examples of citizen science – dating back to 1900 – is the ‘Christmas Bird Count[1]’. Every year, on a specific day between 14 December and 5 January, thousands of volunteers gather in more than 2 000 specific locations in the Western Hemisphere to count birds. Conservation biologists use the data to assess the health of bird populations and look at long-term trends. Another stalwart of citizen science is the ornithology lab at Cornell University, famous for their long-term bird counts, with thousands of Americans now also recording bird nests and eggs.

In recent years, the data generated by these science-public partnerships have become much more diverse, including gathering data or water and air quality, traffic congestion and the incidence of extreme weather phenomena, such as tornados.

Gathering environmental data is a key focus of citizen science in Africa. In countries like South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, volunteers monitor and record data on mangrove ecosystems, beach erosion and a variety of animals and insects such as sea turtles, bats, owls, frogs, lizards and butterflies. Cape Citizen Science asks nature lovers to become “pathogen hunters” while on nature walks – by recording dying fynbos plants and collecting samples of the dead plant material. From time to time, visitors to South Africa’s Kruger National Park are asked to help monitor endangered species like wild dogs and cheetahs by submitting their photographs.

Prof Les Underhil of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa is a pioneer of citizen science on the continent. Over the last 25 years, his research group has integrated citizen data into ambitious research projects across southern Africa. In addition to contributing to red data lists, data from citizen scientists are feeding into atlases and distribution maps of birds, dung beetles, frogs, scorpions, spiders, butterflies, dragonflies, lace wing moths, sea stars, mushrooms and orchids. The ADU’s innovative virtual museum contains more than 6 000 photographic records provided by hundreds of citizen scientists. Most of their bird ringers are amateurs (i.e. not professional scientists) who spend their own time and money to contribute valuable ringing data. Twice a year – on the last Saturday of January and July – avid birders take part in their annual CAR (Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts) project, counting terrestrial birds such as cranes, bustards and storks in agricultural areas along 350 fixed routes.

“Each data point the ADU’s citizen scientists collect is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of biodiversity”, Underhill says. “It is our job to turn the myriad bits of raw data into information that can support conservation policy and action.”

From time to time, citizen science reveals unusual and unexpected results. In 2014 a member of the public submitted a photo to “iSpot”, a project run by the South African National Biodiversity Initiative. It was subsequently identified as a species of butterfly that has never been recorded in southern Africa before.

Some citizen science projects are specifically focused on young people. One example is “S’Cool” (Students’ Clouds Observations On Line) – a project run by NASA – inviting students to observe and document clouds – type, cover and thickness – at specific times, thereby helping NASA to confirm the accuracy of their satellite network and contributing valuable climate change data.

With internet access, it is possible to contribute to citizen science projects around the globe without leaving home. For examaple, “Wildebeest Watch” invites you to help explore collective intelligence in these animals. “Snapshot Serengeti” asks your help to sort photos gathered by hundreds of camera traps in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. “Weather detectives” calls on people to help unravel logbook entries made by ship captains who sailed the seas around Australia more than 100 years ago, thereby helping to shed light on Earth’s climate history.

The contribution of citizen science goes beyond gathering or unravelling data. Enthusiastic volunteers also bring their computer equipment and technological skills to assist with number crunching and data analysis.  As such, citizen science has become a lifeline for several big research projects.

Despite the undeniable contribution of citizen science – and the enthusiasm from both the scientific community and the public – there are some lingering questions to consider. Key concerns relate to the validity and legitimacy of data gathered by ‘non-scientists’. In an article written for SciDev.Net, Nigel Winser (executive director Earthwatch Europe) and Raghu Saxena (country director for Earthwatch India) argue that citizen science is an untapped resource that can make a real and highly valuable contribution to science: “With a well-planned project, a list of tasks suitable for untrained people, and a strong leader who can ensure that volunteers are productive, citizen science can work.” Inclusivity is another challenge for citizen science projects, since it is sometimes difficult to involve people who don’t have their own transport and access to smart phones, computers and internet.

But not all scientists are equally excited about the idea of amateurs doing science. “Citizen science” is an oxymoron”, is the view of Dr Rob Little, a biologist at the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. “It is not possible to be a citizen dentist or a citizen lawyer, so why citizen scientists?” he asks. “Being a scientists require a minimum of MSc-level training.”

Science communication researchers are taking note of the growing significance of citizen science, but also the challenges. They explore people’s motivations for getting involved, and the opportunities for learning and social innovation that it presents. The Journal of Science Communication, an open-access journal on science communication research, recently published a special issue focused on citizen science research and case studies. In his contribution to this special edition, Prof Bruce Lewenstein, science communication scholar (Cornell University in the United States) with a long history of involvement in citizen science, calls it “one of the most dramatic developments in science communication in the last generation”.

Despite its limitations, citizen science present novel prospects of achieving many of the aims of public engagement, such as creating linkages and dialogue between science and society; inspiring people to take an interest in science; enthusing young people about careers in science; and making science part of everyday life. It is a step towards democratising science.

[1] “People-powered science is the strapline for Zooniverse, a global citizen science project.

[2] The Christmas Bird Count – a project of the Audubon Society – started on Christmas Day in 1900, when Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, proposed it as an alternative to hunting birds on Christmas (Source: National Geographic, 2014).