For five days, Mary Ellen Hannibal quietly trekked through the isolated Sky Islands of New Mexico, looking for paw prints and recent wild-animal kills. She learned about hunting behaviors, how to distinguish between jaguar and mountain-lion tracks, and how to identify habitat changes.
But this wasn’t part of a grad-school research grant. Hannibal had joined other volunteers in a workshop on tracking large carnivores, led by members of an environmental group working to create critical habitats for jaguars. Climate change has been sending the cats back to the area.
This is “citizen science,” everyday enthusiasts partnering with professionals on specific projects. The breadth of volunteer opportunities inspired Hannibal to chronicle the phenomenon in her book Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.
“These programs are incredibly valuable to the scientific community,” she says. “And they offer so many benefits to the participants as well. You get outside, you connect with other people, and you’re doing something positive that will impact the future.”
Though “citizen science” is a relatively new term, the concept has a long history. In 1715, astronomer Edmund Halley relied on public observations to report on phenomena during a solar eclipse, says Laura Trouille, PhD, Adler Director of Citizen Science for the Citizen Science Alliance and co-leader of Zooniverse.org, the largest platform for crowdsourced research.
The field has taken off since the early 2000s, when scientists realized they could recruit the public to do online picture tagging. It’s a task humans perform more effectively than computers, Trouille notes.
For example, in 2007 a group of astronomers had collected photos of a million galaxies. To record how galaxies evolve, six graduate students started classifying them as spiral, elliptical, or merger. It took a month for one student to classify 50,000 photos.
When they opened it up to the public, however, citizen scientists classified the same number of photos in an hour. The research team has since published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and provided major contributions to the field.
Similar results have been observed in the humanities and in biomedicine, as well as zoology, conservation and ecology, and other fields. Although some scientists have questioned the reliability of crowdsourced data, volunteer efforts have often resulted in advancements that would have been nearly impossible for independent researchers to make on their own.
Citizen scientists can take on classification or observation tasks with a computer or smartphone, but there are also numerous outdoor projects, like Hannibal’s jaguar-tracking workshop. You can photograph bees, butterflies, and birds to help scientists track migratory patterns; you can identify invasive plant species to prompt native-species reseeding; you can collect water samples to give researchers crucial environmental data.
“With citizen science, you’re involved with the world around you in a different way,” says Tony Iwane, community and support coordinator for iNaturalist, a site that promotes citizen-science projects. “I often hear that people gain that childlike sense of wonder that they thought was lost. And they get to make a difference at the same time.”
Big Data, Big Benefits
On their own, scientists simply don’t have the time, financing, and other resources necessary to gather the amount of data that citizen-science projects provide, nor can they cover the same amount of ground. By getting involved, you’re helping to advance a field and support fact-based research — without enrolling in graduate school.
The personal benefits can be profound. “On projects, people work together without talking about politics or positions,” says Hannibal. “You have volunteers of all ages, all backgrounds, doing things together. That’s your point of connection.”
It can also mean more time spent outdoors, a calming and pleasurable leisure activity that can enhance your creativity and yield various health benefits.
“Many of us have blinders on when we’re outside,” Iwane says. “But once you start noticing the small things, looking for lichen or identifying certain plants by the patterns on their leaves, your sense of appreciation grows. You’re no longer just an observer; you’re part of the natural world.”
And when you feel like a part of the natural world, you’ll be more motivated to protect it.