Grab your smartphone, hoist your binoculars, and observe the natural world around you. You can be a boots-on-the-ground observer/data collector for a local research project.
There are scientists among us. Some of them gather scientific data while wearing lab coats, others while wading hip deep among fish, and still others while peering into a microscope. Increasingly, large-scale scientific studies are using information collected by everyday people armed with little more than sunscreen and good observation skills.
Enter the citizen scientist
These everyday people are known as “citizen scientists” and they play a very important role in gathering data that scientific researchers can use to monitor climate change, species distribution, pollution, tracking of invasive species, and more. Citizen scientists make and record observations such as freeze and thaw dates of rivers and lakes, blooming time of spring flowers, the amount and type of litter that washes up on a beach, the number and types of birds observed in a given area, and other natural phenomena.
When collected over a large area over a long period of time (years or decades), this information shows patterns that tell research scientists a great deal about the health of a given ecosystem or a particular species. What makes citizen science so special is that formal training in the sciences is never a prerequisite for anyone who wants to participate. All that is required is an ability to observe and a willingness to learn.
Data collection at our fingertips
With smartphone technology widely available, it has become even easier for people—experts and amateurs alike—to collect data that researchers can then access. Apps such as Leafsnap and iNaturalist have been developed for this purpose and are available for free. Leafsnap uses photo recognition software to identify tree species based on leaf shape, while iNaturalist allows people to submit photos and GPS coordinates of species sightings to a centralized database. This information, which would otherwise be very difficult to gather on such a large scale, can then be analyzed by researchers to make decisions for wildlife management and conservation.
“Trained scientists can’t be everywhere,” says James Pagé of the Canadian Wildlife Federation. “Tapping into the immense capacity of citizen science allows a vastly larger area to be covered. The beauty of current technology is that you don’t have to be an expert to take a photo and GPS coordinate. Vetting this through the experts via a system like iNaturalist can provide a definitive ID by the experts, which can be a much more efficient process. People will inevitably stumble on amazing new occurrences, simply because no one has looked there before.”
Collecting fringe benefits
Obviously, researchers benefit from having the general public participate as citizen scientists. But what about the participants? As it turns out, being a citizen scientist is a great family-friendly activity filled with many tangible benefits. Citizen scientists are able to
- deepen their understanding of natural phenomena and of their local environment
- gain insight into the scientific process
- develop leadership skills and confidence
- build a sense of community by meeting like-minded people
- reap the benefits of being outdoors and physically active
Inspired to get involved? Canada is home to several fantastic citizen science programs. Here’s a small sample.
During a bioblitz, biologists and the public come together to inventory all flora and fauna in a specific area over the course of 24 hours. Although largely based in Ontario, the bioblitz is slowly becoming a hit across Canada, so you don’t have to live in Ontario to participate. Plans are underway to formally expand the blitz in order to launch a nationwide program for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Want to help build the blitz? Check out ontariobioblitz.ca.
How can we make the most of our yards while also helping our feathered friends? That’s one of the questions the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is hoping to answer through its YardMap program. “People often don’t realize how much power they have to make a positive impact,” says Rhiannon Crain, YardMap project leader.
“YardMap works by giving participants tools to examine their yards and by creating a community of gardeners with whom you can share ideas and advice, and work together to increase bird habitat across the country. It’s easy to use—if you’ve ever used Google to look at a satellite image of your house, you’re well on your way to mapping your yard,” says Crain. Get mapping at yardmap.org.
Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup
Run by the Vancouver Aquarium and the World Wildlife Fund, this shoreline cleanup program runs year-round from coast to coast to coast. It’s easy to find and join a local cleanup or lead your own. Check it out at shorelinecleanup.ca.
This nature monitoring program includes PlantWatch, FrogWatch, IceWatch, and WormWatch. The data collected from these programs have been published in many scientific publications over the years and have been instrumental in helping scientists monitor the rate at which climate change is happening in Canada. Learn more at naturewatch.ca.
“No longer can science and scientists expect to answer the ‘big’ questions without crowdsourcing to some degree; there are just too many questions to answer, too much data to gather, and far too few scientists,” says Dave Ireland, managing director of biodiversity at the Royal Ontario Museum and the chair of the Ontario BioBlitz program. “Those who embrace citizen science, and ensure programs are rigorous, will reap the benefits of an engaged society.”
So, what are you waiting for? Become a citizen scientist today!
More ways to engage!
Check out these other citizen science programs:
- Bird Studies Canada’s Christmas Bird Count for Kids: bsc-eoc.org
- Bumble Bee Watch: bumblebeewatch.org
- British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network: wildwhales.org/sightings
- Monarch Watch: monarchwatch.org
- NatureHood: naturehood.co
- Nova Scotia Bat Conservation: www.batconservation.ca
Citizen science success stories
The experts agree: citizen scientists across the country are making a difference!
“What started as a simple one-off bioblitz in the Rouge Park [in Toronto] in 2012 has now grown into the biggest bioblitz program in Canada, perhaps the world (save National Geographic’s program in the US). As of spring 2015, some 15 other Ontario communities are doing their own events, and several young students who started within our program in 2012 have now become leaders in their own communities,” says Dave Ireland, chair of the Ontario BioBlitz program.
Cleaning Canada’s shorelines
The Great Canadian Shoreline cleanup “started over 20 years ago with staff from the [Vancouver] Aquarium doing a cleanup in Stanley Park. Since then it has grown to stretch from coast to coast to coast and last year engaged almost 58,000 Canadians,” says Dolf DeJong, vice president of conservation and education at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
In 2014, participants collected and catalogued 136,036 kg of waste from 2,563 km of shoreline. “The data collection component is critical to the success of the Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. The ongoing systematic monitoring also helps people see changes in litter composition over time [so they can] work to address problem areas,” says DeJong.