New technology is dramatically increasing the role of non-scientists in providing key data for researchers. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Caren Cooper of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology talks about the tremendous benefits — and potential pitfalls — of the expanding realm of citizen science.
When biologist Caren Cooper carries out her avian studies, she’s aided by thousands of assistants, none of whom are paid for their work. That’s because Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, relies on the help of so-called citizen scientists, volunteers from across the country who contribute data to her research projects. These lay people provide information that enables her and other scientists to study bird life in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
But, as Cooper notes in an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, the uses of citizen science now go way beyond events like the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
Bushmen in the Kalahari are using apps to document wildlife and natural resources that need to be protected. Environmental activists also are employing open-source technology to measure and monitor pollution, including the deployment of kites and balloons to document such events as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Citizen science, says Cooper, is changing the relationship between science and society, helping meet environmental challenges by fostering more collaborative, interdisciplinary research. "A lot of the ways for us to move forward in certain fields require massive collaboration," says Cooper. "And so we’re building all the infrastructure for these collaborations, all of the web tools — whatever we need to make that happen."
Yale Environment 360: You’ve helped develop a number of research projects that depend on citizen scientists. Briefly, give us an overview of those projects.
Caren Cooper: The one that I work the most with is called Nest Watch. I was involved in the design of the most current iteration, but it actually goes back in the U.S. to about the 1960s. People who find bird nests monitor the nesting of these birds and record information about their visits. And there is a project called Yard Map, which is a micro-habitat mapping project in which people can literally map the habitat features that are in their yards. It’s geared toward people who want to do wildlife-friendly habitat. And so people can make landscape changes to benefit wildlife. Then they can keep track of them through bird counts or any other kind of monitoring that they might want to do. And together we can evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
There’s something called the House Sparrow Project, which I ran this past spring. They’re an invasive species in the United States and they compete heavily with a lot of native species that use nest boxes that people put up.
So that project was intended to look at what are the best practices for managing house sparrows. There are a lot of different methods out there at the moment, and we really don’t have a lot of research to tell us what works and what doesn’t and why. So I study birds and then I also collaborate with social scientists to look at things that couple human-natural systems rather than just look at what’s going on in the natural systems in isolation, because in so many contexts really what’s happening is people influencing wildlife and wildlife influencing people.
e360: What has citizen scientist data allowed you to do that you might not have otherwise been able to accomplish?
Cooper: A lot of the research questions that I’m interested in involve looking at patterns over really large scales across latitudinal gradients, or looking across urbanization gradients from urban to rural areas. And so these are things that could never have happened at just one single study site. So the research questions that I ask are enabled by citizen science because I can look across these really large spatial scales and also really large temporal scales. We have historic data, and we can look at changes over time, as climate has changed, as urbanization patterns have changed, as landscape patterns have changed, as agricultural patterns have changed.
Photo credit: Scott Kinsey. A citizen scientist observes black and turkey vultures in Florida.
e360: So you’ve really embraced the concept of citizen science out of necessity.
Cooper: In the beginning I didn’t really see the full benefits of citizen science. At first I did have this narrow, selfish view of it, like, "Oh, there are more people to help with the work and that will be great." It didn’t take long though to learn two things. One was that I can ask these amazing questions that transcend single study sites. And the other was that I learned that these field experiences and this collaborative relationship between members of the public and scientists actually provide meaningful and really transformative experiences for individuals and for communities.
e360: Transformative in what way?
Cooper: It can change people’s perspectives. And it can also empower communities and individuals, because the whole point of science is to make reliable knowledge, and that’s a powerful thing. It can really level playing fields. There’s definitely a certain amount of power that comes from knowledge, and so I’ve seen communities really harness that power to make change.
e360: I imagine here you might be referring to environmental justice issues.
Cooper: Yeah, commonly in the environmental justice arena, with environmental monitoring, with communities being able to measure pollutants, whether it’s air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, water pollution. Communities can take charge of what’s happening and make change.
e360: You follow trends in citizen science. You blog about it. What other kinds of environmental research projects are using citizen science?
Cooper: Citizen science is pretty much happening in every field. From astronomy to zoology, and certainly in environmental monitoring. People will point to things like the Christmas Bird Count, where a lot of people who are the eyes and ears out there chip in a little bit of information and we can see these large-scale patterns. But really that’s just one style of citizen science and it has morphed into so many different things, like the do-it-yourself citizen science, particularly for environmental monitoring and mapping. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science — they do a lot of really interesting work devising tools for environmental monitoring and doing actual aerial photography mapping of areas for environmental monitoring. There’s a lot going on with participatory sensing and using mobile apps or different mobile devices. A lot of people like those because, well, everybody likes gadgets, so they’re fun. [The Public Lab uses low-cost, open-source tools to foster "environmental exploration and investigation." The organization’s "civic science" tools include spectrometers to perform chemical analyses, balloon- and kite-mapping and photography kits for aerial observations of events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and near-infrared cameras for monitoring plant health.]
e360: How has new technology and social media changed the way that citizen science is carried out?
Cooper: In some cases it has enabled some types of citizen science that couldn’t have happened before, particularly with things that need to happen really quickly, like with citizen seismology. Sometimes it’s just convenient though. It’s not like there’s anything super urgent about being able to report a bird you’re seeing through your mobile app, but it’s convenient. A lot of projects are happening at really large scales and dispersed where people aren’t meeting face-to-face necessarily. A lot of the social media technologies that allow people to talk and chat and work together really facilitate new discoveries.
I like to point out that citizen science goes back a really long way, even in these large collaborative contexts. Some of my favorite examples are from the mid-1800s, like William Whewell, a British fellow who was studying the tides. In 1835, he carried out what was called the great tide experiment.
He had 150 different stations on both sides of the Atlantic, so he had to have thousands of volunteers. He had people who were associated with these coastal communities from all walks of life collecting data on the tide mark, measurements on the tide level, every 15 minutes, day and night for two weeks straight, at exactly the same moments in time. That was over a million data points. Can you imagine? I wouldn’t want to analyze a million data points without a computer. So these things were possible, but they were slow and obviously difficult. So computers and mobile technologies make it easier and quicker, but the capacity has always been there.
e360: In the U.S. there’s a racial disparity in membership in environmental groups. Is that disparity also found in citizen science participation?
Cooper: There hasn’t been a meta-analysis on the demographics. I think most people have this sense that a lot of these big citizen science projects that we hear about tend to be almost exclusively white, highly educated, fairly affluent people, and people in their late 40s and up. In environmental justice, a lot of people call it community-based participatory research. Now if you look at community-based participatory research, there are a lot of communities of people of color who really participate and drive those efforts.
e360: Citizen science does seem to be hot right now. There are now entire conferences devoted to it, there’s a newly formed association for it. You’ll be speaking about it at the upcoming AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting. What are the pitfalls if it’s not carried out correctly?
Cooper: For one, there are ethical considerations. Citizen science in all of its different forms needs to be a collaboration between people, not an exploitation of people. You don’t want to be wasting people’s time, you don’t want to be saying, "This is science, use my app," and then have that app take data that ends up going nowhere and not used by anybody, but you got to sell an app. And there are definitely concerns expressed about wanting to be sure that citizen science is rigorous.
e360: In your citizen science projects, how have you handled the issue of data integrity?
Cooper: For me, with bird watchers who are monitoring nests, there are different ways. One is through really strong protocols that are clear and that have built-in redundancies to double check on what’s happening. And I examine the data for potential sources of bias. I just published a paper looking at weekend bias, the fact that more people are out there on the weekends than during the workweek and how to handle that kind of bias when we’re estimating the dates that clutches were initiated. That’s one of the things that we’re looking at with climate change — when are birds breeding? So basically there are statistical ways to handle things in terms of assessing sources of bias and then there are often statistical ways to deal with that bias and correct for it.
Crowd-sourcing projects often use a consensus tool where they’ll have many people view the same photo or piece of information and tag it and see that there’s consensus before it’s accepted as valid. There have been a lot of studies that look at volunteer-collected data and compare it directly to data collected by a professional, and most of the studies have not found differences. I’m lucky working with birders because people have a lot of skill when it comes to birding, especially the ones that want to participate in the projects. When people don’t feel they have the skill they often don’t want to participate because they don’t want to mess anything up. So we find people are really cautious, for the most part.
e360: On the website for Nest Watch there are a number of tutorials on how to properly enter data, and there’s also a certification process that Nest Watch participants must go through. For the House Sparrow Project you held webinars to discuss the work. It seems like there is a lot of work needed to properly train participants, but then also to keep them engaged.
Cooper: You know we talk about citizen science a lot of times like it’s a collaboration between the scientists and the public, but it’s really a whole group of professionals in different disciplines that go into supporting the practice of citizen science. People in formal science education, in communication, in human-computer interactions, in information sciences, sometimes anthropology. The range of disciplines is huge that support these efforts.
e360: What about the prospects for citizen science internationally, especially in the developing world, where much of the world’s biodiversity is found?
Cooper: It is happening everywhere, even in non-literate communities in the developing world, in pygmy communities in the Congo and the Kalahari bushmen. A lot of it involves apps that don’t have words but have symbols, and it’s often for monitoring the environmental resources that those communities need and rely on so that they can document and tally the resources that they have and that they need protected.
e360: You maintain that aside from aiding research, citizen science will have a second effect of, as you put it, "relocating science into the heart of society." Explain what you mean by that and the societal effect that would have.
Cooper: Some people use other terms. They say it’s democratizing science. The way I’ve been thinking of it is that there’s the scientific method, which people are familiar with, and really anyone can use, but there’s also the scientific enterprise, which are the norms and practices that have developed around how we make valid, new knowledge. And that whole enterprise has been very closed off from the public. Since the professionalization of science in the late 1800s, it’s seen more and more as this sort of elite activity that professionals do in the ivory tower. Everybody seems to bemoan that. Scientists say, "Oh, we wish the public understood us," and the public is like, "What’s GMO?" and has these fears of certain things.
So I feel like now, with citizen science, we have these multiple entry points through which the public can engage in that scientific enterprise itself, which transforms it so it becomes much more open. And then, at the same time, it also reclaims the scientific method, and we can use it in our local communities, we can use it to fight pollution or whatever. And I see it, at both of those levels, changing the relationship between science and society.
e360: You’ve written that when considering the environmental problems we’re facing, you find hope in citizen science.
Cooper: I see more and more collaborative, interdisciplinary, integrative research. To get to the next step often requires more and more intersections between people with different expertise who come from different perspectives. And I see that, too, with citizen science in that a lot of the ways for us to move forward in certain fields requires massive collaboration. And so we’re building all the infrastructure for these collaborations, all of the web tools, whatever we need to make that happen.