Wed, Aug 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The ‘golden age of citizen science’ and how it is reshaping the world

Environmental scientists are increasingly calling on private citizens to help them with their research and collect data

By Naaman Zhou  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The eastern bristlebird emits a high, sliding whistle, often in the middle of the dawn chorus, and frequently in a way that makes it hard to pick out.

The small brown native songbird is endangered, with only about 2,500 left in Australia and 40 in Queensland, but because the bird is so shy, it is difficult for conservationists to monitor them.

To make things more difficult, the bristlebird stops singing when people approach.

Jessie Oliver, a doctoral student at the Queensland University of Technology, is trying to help conservationists look after the bird by figuring out where they are.

In 2015, she joined forces with the Eastern Bristlebird Recovery Team to set up remote recorders in the Queensland bush. By recording and recognizing the birds, conservationists have been able to keep tabs on its small population.

It is one of the many examples of environmental scientists turning to citizen scientists to help them with their research, relying on ordinary people to collect information.

Citizen science is booming in Australia and around the world.

As research funding dries up, and technology makes cataloging and tracking everything easier, citizens are increasingly filling the data collection void.

Amateur stargazers create crowdsourced star maps. Gamers with spare CPU capacity link up in mass computing events that model the way protein strands work and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is calling on householders to track their energy use.

However, across disciplines, it is environmental science that attracts the most projects and the most dedicated people.

This makes citizen science a crucial part of the evolution of modern science, Australian Citizen Science Association chairwoman Erin Roger said.

“Environmental agencies have massive amounts of data requirements and needs,” she said. “Professional science alone cannot provide information at the scales and resolutions necessary to understand environmental change.

“For the environmental issues we see today, that traditional ivory tower approach isn’t enough anymore. Citizen science is trying to make science more accessible to everyone, and trying to break down those barriers that have existed between scientists and the broader public,” Roger said.

In many ways, it is also a return to science’s roots, she said.

After all, Gregor Mendel, who discovered hereditary genetics, was a monk who grew peas.

“From everything we’ve heard, people really respond to the idea of making a contribution and doing something for the greater good. People are realizing that their data adds value, and their contribution has value.” Roger said.

‘SOMETHING GREATER’

As well as studying bristlebirds, Oliver sits as a general member of the Australian Citizen Science Association.

The association in February held its annual citizen science conference, drawing 250 delegates and Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel.

“We have a long history of great citizen science,” he said in his speech. “And we ought to hear more about it.”

“We often focus on the ‘science’ part of citizen science. But the ‘citizen’ is important as well. It reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves... On this reading, citizen science has never been more important, or alive. Everything I know about human beings tells me that the golden age of citizen science is still ahead,” Finkel said.

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