Did you notice how the cutting down of that one tree in your backyard reduced the number of birds, butterflies, snails, or frogs in your garden? Have you noticed the drastic reduction in the number of fireflies you saw in your childhood and you see now? These small changes that sometimes go unnoticed are part of the environmental changes that give rise to problems like climate change and pollution. One approach to bring these little changes to notice, effectively involve people in raising awareness, and understanding the dynamics of the environment and its conservation is through citizen science projects (CSPs).
Citizen science is an approach in which individuals who are not professional scientists are involved in scientific research, with or without professional scientists. They may collect data as well as analyze it. The type of study can vary from keeping a record of biodiversity to looking for asteroids in space. This approach helps scientists to get diverse and abundant data from various perspectives, reduces the cost of projects and allows people to pursue their field of interest, benefitting both scientists and the public at the same time. CSPs not only help individuals gain knowledge and experience, but they also increase scientific aptitude among the community by engaging people in scientific research and help them in acquiring new information plus skills. Here’s how CSPs play a crucial role in saving our environment.
Dealing with global problems like pollution and reducing diversity can become easier with CSPs’ help along with a copious amount of observations. Projects that involve monitoring the population density of a particular organism become more manageable with support from people, as these projects require a large amount of data that cannot be collected by scientists in a short period.
With great potential to contribute to research, CSPs are gaining popularity in India. The number of internet users in India has increased dramatically during the last decade. Following this, awareness about science and technology has also increased. This creates new opportunities for CSPs in India, which is an excellent way of involving the country’s youth in science and encouraging them to pursue science as their career. People with even the slightest inclination towards science can take part. Currently, CSPs in India involve mainly students of science who contribute to the projects organized by their institutes. The field in which the CSP is being worked on is entirely dependent upon the individuals. Different projects require different equipment, knowledge, and skills.
In India, several ongoing ecology projects need observers to take pictures of an organism and provide the location. Furthermore, organisms are identified and datasets are assembled. The researchers can use this data as per their requirements. Hence, CSPs are not only aiding the research projects but also giving a platform to the budding science enthusiasts.
CSPs have been organized since the 1800s. They began with people voluntarily observing weather in their local areas. This was then extended to other domains like watching migratory birds. In each case, birds of a certain region were observed to get an idea of biodiversity of the areas under study.
In earlier times, people communicated through letters and postcards, limiting their communication to a few people. Moreover, the absence of proper technology to provide researchers with accurate data produced error-laden data. Considering the present scenario, there could not be a better time for initiating new CSPs, since most people have access to smartphones. They carry all the necessary technology in their pockets, from GPS to HD cameras, all sorts of input devices which can feed into the database. Now the advancement in technology enables them to look into further details and have more comprehensive data than we could get earlier. Many ongoing projects depend upon this technology and are quite efficient in data collection.
With the freedom to upload data, there comes an additional responsibility of the contributors to provide genuine and correct information to the best of their knowledge. Also, as this data can be used for research, work and development, its authenticity is of great significance. Therefore, the members of such CSPs must provide reliable data with accurate information as far as possible.
The Christmas Bird Count, one of the longest-running citizen science projects, organized by Audubon Society is conducted with the help of volunteer birders and collects data to see the population levels of various birds. Another citizen science project, Indian Biodiversity portal aims to gather data through public participation and the data collected is open to everyone. These two CSPs were started at a small level by a few people in a small region and now have become major census programs with large numbers of participants.
Inspired by the work going on, the scope and need of CSPs in the current scenario, we, a group of students from IISER Tirupati, have created a website to build a community based upon the mutual interest of naturalists and conservationists. Currently, we are focusing on creating awareness about the importance of a certain phylum: Arthropoda, and the need to conserve the species belonging to this largest phylum. We plan to host some CSPs in the future and grow our community to contribute more to the conservation of different species. Hope to see you around at www.minuscules.org!
- Rick Bonney, Caren B. Cooper, Janis Dickinson, Steve Kelling, Tina Phillips, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Jennifer Shirk, Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy, BioScience, Volume 59, Issue 11, December 2009, Pages 977–984