NRCan In-spire: Citizen Science

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Overview

Citizen science is a research technique that utilizes local citizens as resources to gather information for scientists in a large research project. Citizen Scientists do not necessarily have any scientific background, but they volunteer their time to observe, record and report data for scientists. Typically, volunteers do not analyze data or write scientific papers, but they are essential to gathering the information on which studies are based.

Citizen science is not limited to one field of research and it is not a new concept either; the National Audobon Society began its Christmas bird count in 1900 and weather monitoring programs extend back to the 1800s. Volunteers are usually trained by scientists and they conduct activities that range from observation and identification (e.g., of animals, plants and weather), to monitoring and measuring using scientific equipment.

Citizen science is often the only practical way to assess environmental issues that span large spatial and temporal scales such as broad-scale population trends of species and climate change. With smart phone technology, just about everybody can monitor live-feed videos or use an app to report observations in their local environment. Data quality and validity are key concerns with citizen science, but technologies such as mobile apps and remote sensors have the potential to improve data collection and control data quality by limiting the level of interpretation that volunteers have to make in their observations.

Other names for citizen science include crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring or networked science.

Advantages

  • Making use of the human capacity for puzzles and pattern recognition
  • Allows for very large datasets to be analysed more efficiently
  • Capitalizes on human resources, and can save scientists time and money
  • Enables the scientific study of issues occurring at a broad spatial and/or temporal scale
  • Encourages public understanding of science
  • Encourages local stewardship and engages citizens in local management and policy decisions

Limitations

  • Suitability of projects for citizen science
  • Training requirements
  • Risk of bias and/or false data being introduced into the dataset
  • Need to manage data collection, quality control, and volunteers throughout the project

Policy Opportunity

  • As government transparency increases, citizen science provides a mechanism to go beyond transparency and include the public in research to inform government policies.
  • Opening up scientific research to a broad audience creates space for the inclusion of local knowledge, which can help address capacity gaps and limitations in government programming and make policies more robust and innovative.
  • Can improve the likelihood of the science and policy being accepted by the public and helps to create dialogue to further enhance collaboration between Canadian citizens and government departments.

Considerations

A major consideration of the approach is sensitive data and bias/false data inclusion:

  • It is important to have a specific question for which volunteers are collecting data. Many citizen science projects lack a defined question, so they are more citizen engagement projects rather than citizen science projects.
  • Volunteer training should be minimal. To ensure that the advantages of citizen science are achieved (e.g., cost savings, large useable datasets, etc.), volunteers should be able to easily accomplish what they are asked to do (this may also result in the self-sustainability of the project, leading to further cost-savings and benefits).
  • Technology makes citizen science possible. Volunteers also like to celebrate themselves and their contributions, so enabling the sharing of data through social media helps to motivate volunteers and recruit others.
  • There may be instances where a portion of the dataset that has been separated from the sensitive data can be released, but ensuring that national interests are not at risk of being compromised is paramount.
  • The introduction of bias and/or false data into the research process can compromise the results, thereby compromising any decisions taken based on the research results. Using appropriate training, technology and quality assurance mechanisms are vital to protecting data validity.

Government of Canada

  • NRCan is leading the Healthy Forest Partnership, a four-year research initiative that started in 2014 that engages the public in collecting data on spruce budworm migration and spread throughout eastern Canadian forests.
  • NRCan’s Great Lakes Forestry Centre is collaborating with the Laurentian Forestry Centre to create a user-friendly citizen science tool to report the presence of tree diseases and insects using TreeTaggr. The approach is to send a picture of a diseased tree, accompanied by specific information, using Twitter.
  • Parks Canada organizes habitat monitoring and conservation activities throughout Canada’s national parks. Some examples are Waterton Lakes National Park’s bird, butterfly, and flower counts throughout the year and Kouchibouguac National Park’s Index of Biot ic Integrity event.
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada as a partner with the Vancouver Aquarium maintains the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network which monitors whale sightings in B.C. waters.
  • National Research Council Canada’s Search and Rescue Citizen Science uses citizen science to assess new sensor technologies for airborne Search and Rescue operations.

Best in Class

  • NatureWatch is a Canadian organization which monitories ecological systems for biodiversity and conservation purposes.
  • Galaxy Zoo classifies galaxies and has a number of publications.
  • Networks Canada operates the world-leading Neptune and Venus cabled ocean observatories from the University of Victoria in BC. They collect data on physical, chemical, biological, and geological aspects of the ocean over long time periods, and employ mobile apps and live-feed videos to engage citizen scientists in data collection and observation.
  • Nature’s Notebook is an online observation program run by the USA National Phenology Network that collects information from the public on the annual timing of important life cycle events such as when birds migrate, when plants flower in the spring and when leaves turn color in the fall. Data are made freely available to scientists, resource managers and the public to support decision-making, study the impacts of climate change on ecological communities, predict the severity of western wildfires, etc. In May 2012, citizen scientists contributed over one million observations

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