Power to the people: getting involved in citizen science

Chances are if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have an interest in nature, science, or the outdoors.  Maybe you are an avid gardener, birdwatcher, or hiker?  Whatever your interests, you may be able to put your hobbies to use for the greater good.  Citizen science, the act of everyday people contributing data to scientific research, is becoming more and more popular. Many scientific studies struggle to obtain adequate data due to financial, time, or geographic constraints. However, with a growing network of willing data collectors all over the world, researchers are increasingly turning to citizen science groups to aid them in their quest for better data. There are hundreds of opportunities for citizen scientists – a quick web search results in thousands of results – but here are a few interesting ways citizen science is being used:

Habitat Network

A partnership between The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Habitat Network asks individuals to draw maps of their backyards, favorite parks, farms, schools, and gardens. Using an online tool, users can draw over a satellite photo of their desired location, showing where turf, pavement, structures, trees, and perennials are. The program takes this data and calculates the percentage each aspect covers within the property. Users can also note elements such as rain barrels, nesting boxes, and bee houses. With this data, scientists from these organizations hope to gain a better understanding of what practices improve the wildlife value of residential landscapes, whether these landscapes have an effect on wildlife corridors, and how to measure the impact of these spaces. Visit their site today and try your hand at mapping your yard or favorite spot!

The Backyard Phenology Project:

The Backyard Phenology project is a collaboration of scientists and artists seeking to engage and tap into citizen scientists who are willing to observe and document changes in their backyards. Data gathered is then organized and used by University of Minnesota scientists and the Phenology Network to help track the impacts and effects of climate change.  Using their Climate Chaser mobile lab (a lovingly restored silver Boler trailer), Backyard Phenology volunteers record people’s observations, perceptions, and stories about our changing climate. Participants act both as scientists — contributing their observations to the Minnesota Phenology Network, a regional partner in the USA-National Phenology Network), and to artists creating a collective public-art project on phenology. The project is ongoing, but you can hear some selected interviews here.

Project FeederWatch

Another project from The Cornell Lab or Ornithology, FeederWatch asks people to hang a bird feeder and record the avian visitors they get each winter. “FeederWatchers” periodically count the birds they see at their feeders between November and April, and send their counts in to the project. The data helps scientists track the broad movements of winter bird populations, and begin to decipher long-term trends in migration, distribution, and abundance. Each fall, participants receive a year-end report of the previous winter’s findings. The project, which has been operating throughout North America since 1987, has provided valuable data to researchers by collecting information from over 20,000 participants

If you are looking for a way to give back to the planet, a new hobby, or wish to volunteer on your own schedule, consider being a part of one of the many citizen science initiatives available. Ranging from wetland monitoring to playing a computer game in the comfort of your home, citizen science has something for everyone. The Citizen Science Alliance has provided an extensive list of ongoing opportunities on their Zooniverse site, as has the EPA. Check them out and see what you discover, whether it is a new pastime, or perhaps a new species!


Photo courtesy of NPS

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