A small insight into the ever-expanding world of citizen science - what it means, how it started, how it's expanding, and what you can do to help.
What Does It Mean?
The official definition of citizen science is "the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public; typically, as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists." The unofficial definition is "regular people who contribute to science by telling scientists about every interesting thing they find." In today's world, we suffer from a serious lack of data from the natural world - and how better to overcome this than deploy millions of people globally to collect it. It is a revolutionary way of extracting and processing information and has become a very essential tool in almost all scientific fields, and the benefits of citizen science are astounding.
How Did It Start?
The history of citizen science begins in the 21st century. Before then, science was seen as a practice only undertaken by self-funded, research-oriented people like Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton. However, by 1970, there was a movement for the "democratisation of science". It was a shift of science to be held by nature-loving amateurs instead of "money-biased technical bureaucrats", according to biochemist Erwin Chargaff. Since then, there has been a lot of projects that aim to involve the public in basic data collection and monitoring. Since as early as 1975, butterfly monitoring systems cropped up in the United Kingdom and the United States of America, in which opportunistic sightings by people help study butterfly-specific ranges, habitats and migration. A scientometrics meta-analysis study in 2016 indicates that citizen science has benefitted biology, conservation and ecology the most due to its help in classifying and collecting data.
How Has It Changed Over Time?
Technology, as you can imagine, has had a massive impact on the way citizen science is carried out. The options for recording data increased with the invention of the internet, smartphones and other easily accessible mobile devices. Mobile recording was a game-changer for opportunistic spotting — whether that was asteroids or animals. Citizens could easily take a picture and record the data, time and location of the subject of interest. One of the most popular ways to explore biodiversity data collection in citizen science is by using the open-source website GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) - shown below.
Each dot above represents a sighting by a satellite, human, camera trap, scientific project or more — all laid out for free access to anyone. The screenshot above shows the sightings from 2020 so far only. They can be adjusted according to date, observation type, plant/animal species type and many more filters. Thus, one looking for a global or local population of a certain plant or animal only has to apply these filters and search. Of course, works better the more people use it. Note the disparity in sightings in biodiversity-rich areas like the tropics. This is due to the lack of internet access, technology, language barriers, education and awareness in these areas. Scientists are now trying to find ways to make citizen science more accessible all over the world so that we can collect important data from these regions.
What Can You Do?
Research. That's all. Find out what apps or websites you have ease and access to use, create an account and spot-away. See a cool bird? Take a picture, find out what species it is and upload it. These websites and apps will automatically geo-tag your photo. See some roadkill? Take a picture (yes, gross) and upload it. Surprisingly, the conservation world is very interested in what animals are killed on motorways and where. See a museum specimen? Yes, even that can be a valid entry - fossils are accepted. Apps like iNaturalist, Zooniverse, eBird and more exist on various operating systems for this exact purpose.
The world of citizen science is a beautiful way to contribute to the ever-expanding world of research, and you can do so for free, with things you already own. It is of unimaginable help to the scientific community, especially in conservation — and in 2020 we are in dire need of help in the conservation sector. So what's stopping you?