Science with Impact: Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

01 October 2018 - By: Alex Evans

Science with Impact: Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

Martin Brocklehurst speaking (Credit - Simon Callaghan)
Martin Brocklehurst from the European Citizen Science Association (ESCA) speaking at SEB Florence 2018. Photo: Simon Callaghan


By Alex Evans

From sharing individual experiences to collecting data on a global scale, members of the general public are playing an increasingly important role in the way that we gather information for research. At this year’s SEB Annual Main Meeting, a panel of researchers, policymakers and media professionals shared their diverse experiences and thoughts on how we can best utilise this unique and important resource.

There have always been enthusiastic volunteers interested in science, but only recently have they been given a name,” said session co-convener Sue Broom, welcoming attendees to the annual Science with Impact session. Along with SEB+ Section Chair George Littlejohn, Sue felt that the time had come for a thorough examination of this increasingly relevant topic featuring an experienced panel of experts in citizen science. “It could be easy to dismiss citizen science as an exercise best suited just for schools or groups interested in surveying local wildlife,” Sue explained, “but once you scratch the surface, you realise that citizen science projects involving astrology, cancer research and climate change are regularly making valuable contributions to scientific research.” One such example that Sue provided was the Zooniverse1; an international citizen science platform with over 1.6 million participants that has contributed to 180 published research articles across a broad spectrum of topics since the project’s inception 8 years ago and perfectly demonstrates the phenomenal value that citizen science holds.

THE POWER OF PEOPLE

Martin Brocklehurst from the European Citizen Science Association (ESCA) was the first panel member to share his insights into the world of crowdsourced research.

As a representative for the ESCA, an important institutional framework for citizen science, Martin began by explaining that one of the major benefits of citizen science is simple - the vast economic value it offers. “Citizen scientists can help researchers to collect a level of data that is simply not possible with conventional scientific approaches and funding,” explained Martin. For example, a study by the University of Washington estimated that the organised use of volunteers to collect biodiversity data in the USA was saving upwards of 2.5 billion dollars in research labour every year2. It is recognition of facts like these that led to Martin representing the citizen science movement at last year’s UN Science Policy Forum and starting an international effort towards a ‘Citizen Science Global Partnership’ that will aim to include a network of institutions from countries beyond those currently featured, which come mainly from Europe and North America.

Many of the citizen science projects Martin described have potentially wide-reaching social and environmental impacts, such as the identification of specific problem areas for urban air pollution and the mapping of human and native wildlife diseases. One such example doing great work with publicly collected data is the Global Mosquito Alert Consortium3 (GMAC). “The GMAC arose out of a real need to understand the changing distribution patterns of disease-carrying mosquito species that can transmit Zika, yellow fever, chikungunya, dengue, malaria and the West Nile virus,” explained Martin. “Citizen science programmes such as this have the potential to deliver data from those most affected and exposed to the disease and help them to manage that risk.”

Martin also adds that it’s important to make sure that the data collected by citizen science projects are relayed back to the public in accessible and understandable formats, so that people can benefit from the value that their contributions hold. “At certain times of year in the Netherlands, for example,” explained Martin, “information provided from citizen science programmes is routinely provided as part of the weather forecast, highlighting w here t he greatest risks of getting bitten by mosquito and ticks occurs.”

Similarly, recent citizen science projects concerned with monitoring the air quality in Belgium have successfully identified previously unknown pollution hotspots and further help to demonstrate the enormous research value provided by crowdsourced data. Martin highlighted that citizen science projects like these not only benefit researchers but also offer new opportunities and solutions for the communities that get involved. “By involving local people in our research, we empower them with the knowledge to manage risks and build pressure for change,” concluded Martin. “When 20,000 people engage and understand the risks from urban air pollution, it becomes much more difficult to ignore the issue.”

MAKING A SPLASH

Scuba survey Credit - Stefano Goffredo
Scuba survey. Photo: Stefano Goffredo


Next to speak was Steffano Goffredo, a researcher with the Marine Science Group at the University of Bologna, Italy who had a refreshing take on the theme of citizen science. As a marine biologist concerned with the ecological health and diversity of marine environments, Steffano’s research requires a great number of wildlife surveys that span large underwater seascapes accessible only by trained divers. This task may sound daunting, but luckily Steffano has a trick up his sleeve. “The last two decades have seen a rapid increase in recreational diving activity,” he explained. “This has prompted researchers to involve recreational divers as volunteers and make use of their interest in marine diversity.” Not only does this recruitment of citizen scientists have enormous economic benefits in saving time and money through free research labour, it also helps to increase scientific literacy and the public awareness of the issues facing marine biodiversity. “Environmental education provides a long-term solution to the sustainable management of the environment,” explained Steffano. “Several studies have demonstrated how this type of education can be a proactive method for preserving our natural resources.”

Over the last two decades, Steffano has completed a number of successful citizen science projects thanks to the sterling efforts of recreational divers. These fascinating projects have included spatial surveys of seahorse populations, large-scale coral reef health checks in the Northern Red Sea and, most recently, an extensive four-year study of Mediterranean marine biodiversity. Each of these studies was the result of tens of thousands of hours spent diving by recreational divers, a feat that would simply not be possible with only a small team of researchers. In addition to collecting wildlife data, these studies also served as effective validations for this crowdsourced approach to data collection. “Our projects have provided successful case studies of collaboration among researchers, local authorities and the public, showing that with appropriate recruitment and training, volunteer-collected data are qualitatively equivalent to those collected by professional researchers,” said Steffano. Finally, he adds that these projects are quickly becoming fundamental tools for informing large-scale and long-term marine management in a rapidly changing world where climate change and the harvesting of natural resources are challenging the status quo of our precious marine ecosystems.

SCIENCE ON THE AIRWAVES

Deborah Cohen, Editor for the BBC Radio Science Unit, spoke about how the general public can be an abundant and enthusiastic source of data when accessed through popular media and entertainment channels. “In the BBC, we often use radio, TV and online platforms to tell the lay audience about ways that they can get involved in scientific research,” she explained. Deborah’s unit is especially keen on working with research institutions and groups in order to bring their big research questions to the masses via the airwaves. Many of these collaborative efforts, such as the BBC’s Lab UK TV channel, have led to impressively large crowdsourced data sets and impactful publications. “We recently collaborated with the Wellcome Collection to carry out the largest ever survey of loneliness,” explained Deborah. “Around 55,000 people completed the Anatomy of Loneliness questionnaire and we will be bringing the results and potential solutions to BBC Radio 4 listeners in October.”

Speaking to Deborah after the session, she recalled that one of the highlights from her time working with citizen scientists was the ‘So You Want to be a Scientist’ show on BBC Radio: “One of the winners of the show, Ruth Brooks, wanted to know how far you needed to move snails out of your garden before they came back, so we helped her to find out the answer.” Interactive TV and radio shows such as these give people real experiences of conducting evidence-based science experiments and help to demonstrate the crucial but less well-publicised aspects of research such as data analysis and statistics. “Ruth and her research received a lot of publicity and the work that she did inspired further research into our understanding of snail homing behaviour!” Deborah added. Finally, she reminded us that in an increasingly connected world, getting involved with science is easier than ever, and there are likely to be elements of citizen science that will appeal to anyone and everyone: “I would encourage anyone to give it a go as it can be great fun as well as enlightening!”

CROWDSOURCED QUESTIONS

Finally, there was time for questions for the panellists, with attendees raising discussions of topics such as the support for open and shared data policies, and the ‘gamification’ of science projects to increase public engagement. Speaking with Sue and George after the session, they were pleased with the informative discussions but noted that there were fewer questions from the floor than during the purely scientific sessions: “I think this reflects the relatively low involvement of scientists with citizen science and emphasises the need for this session. It’s ever more important for scientists to communicate their work with the public and citizen science is a great way of doing that,” Sue concluded. “We hope that people left the session more willing to think of ways they might collaborate with the public in future!”

References:

1. https://www.zooniverse.org/
2. Theobald E, Ettinger A, Burgess H, DeBey L, Schmidt N, Froehlich H, Wagner C, HilleRisLambers J, Tewksbury J, Harsch M, Parrish J (2015) Global change and local solutions: Tapping the unrealized potential of citizen science for biodiversity research. Biological Conservation, 181, 236-244
3. https://ecsa.citizen-science.net/global-mosquito-alert

Category: Science Communication
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Alex Evans

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.

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