James Borrell explains how the burgeoning field of citizen science may give us the means to acquire vital data for research and conservation purposes.
Citizen science is in essence public participation in research. The concept might be modern, but the practice dates back to the great Victorian naturalists of old whom spent their spare time organising, categorising and investigating the natural world.
The growth of information and consumer technology in the last decade has enabled a sudden revolution, with new uses and applications emerging every year. Central to this is the ubiquity of smart phones and global connectivity to databases.
This could not come at a more important time, with more than 50% of Earth’s wildlife having disappeared in the past 40 years, global CO2 emissions creeping inexorably higher and our ecosystems under increasing pressure.
In the UK this has been manifested in a flurry of plant diseases such as ash dieback and bleeding canker, on-going concern about pollinator declines and growing public health needs such as improved air quality and decreasing urban noise pollution.
Citizen science is ideally placed to respond to these challenges at a speed and scale simply not possible with traditional scientific inquiry. Within days of ash dieback being detected in the UK, experts at the University of East Anglia released ASHTAG for identifying and mapping the disease was released. It gave interested members of the public the skills and pipeline to identify and report their observations directly to experts, and crucially it allowed data to be gathered nation wide.
The applications are increasingly diverse, too. From the NoiseTube app that uses GPS and microphones already built in to your smartphone to help track and map noise pollution in towns and cities; to the Sapelli app built by the ExCites group at UCL in London which enables illiterate societies to map land of value and importance to them in the Congo.
The biggest challenge in citizen science seems to be keeping up with the staggering variety of projects and platforms, and channelling the momentum to improve user experiences and research outcomes. But either way the future is clear, without doubt empowered citizens will revolutionise the way we do science.