Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: The power of citizen science

Imagine you’re running a project to map the distribution of a species or observe a phenological event such as the spawning of frogs. How is one person (or a small team of people) going to be able to collect data in real time, from multiple locations around the country at once? Unfortunately, even us scientists can’t break the laws of physics to collect our survey data, although I wish we could! One of the easiest solutions is to call upon citizen scientists. So what is a citizen scientist? Simply, they’re a member of the public who has engaged with a piece of scientific research. Seeing as non-scientists make up the bulk of the population, getting them involved can be a huge help in understanding your research question on a national scale.

Think about this logically, there are over 40 million adults in the UK – that’s 40 million extra pairs of eyes that you could harness to be on the look out for whatever it is you’re studying. One of the best examples of a national citizen science project is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, an annual event where people spend an hour over a weekend in January counting the birds they see. I recently had the idea for this very blog post whilst conducting a count for the Big Garden Birdwatch with my partner, you can find our results below. Not every project is going to get the same level of engagement and depending on the taxonomic group in question, the amount of participation may be lower than you expected.

We recently took part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, you can find out more about our survey here.

If you’re undertaking a citizen science project, it’s important to keep those that have undertaken surveys (or plan to) in the loop with things. By giving participants a feeling of ownership and importance, you can keep them engaged in the long run. This may also help reconnect people with nature, something which is severely hampering the efforts of conservationists globally. Data management and citizen scientists management are also crucial, you need to ensure that tasks aren’t too complex so that everyone can undertake them. At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that a simple portal for people to submit data is a lot more effective than a complex one. I’ve often thrown the towel in because a website has been confusing or hard to navigate – avoid this if possible.

If you’ve managed all of that, you should hopefully have some interesting and meaningful data – congratulations! One of my favourite citizen science projects is FrogID, based in Australia. Not only does it include frogs but it’s simplicity is also a huge contributing factor. Among other tasks, participants are asked to download an app and then go off and record the calls of frogs. Australia has ~240 frog species and so there are plenty to record! So far 199 species have been identified and over 213,000 recordings have been submitted, this is an amazing achievement and is aiding in the understanding of a number of Australia’s frogs – research that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to be undertaken.

All of the projects so far have assumed that you’re able bodied, well if you’re restricted to home for whatever reason then don’t despair! Zooniverse is probably the right place for you, if you want to get involved with a project. Conversely, if you have a large dataset that you’d like assistance with in terms of transcribing or identifying, perhaps uploading it to Zooniverse could help. I’m been involved with a number of projects and I’ve found it extremely fun, there is such a diversity of projects to choose from. This to me highlights the advantages of citizen science, anyone can help support a project from the safety of their own home (or local area for an applied project) in an area of interest that helps that spark flourish. At the same time, they’re helping us understand more about the world around us.

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