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Citizen Science Has Spread Throughout the World, From Far-Off Coral Reefs to Your Sofa

There have never been more opportunities to further our understanding of global warming from a scientific standpoint.

People around the earth are making contributions to the scientific study of climate change in both exceptional and commonplace ways, whether they are scuba diving off a private yacht in a far-flung latitude or staying in and relaxing at home.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, citizen science—which involves crowdsourcing data for scientific research—saw an increase in popularity. People began to become aware of their influence on the environment around them as the skies cleared and the cities fell silent. And many of these casual observers have discovered methods to contribute their observations to scientific study thanks to smartphones and internet access.

Once you’re aware of the fragility of the environment, your next logical step is to do as much as you can to contribute to scientific knowledge, said Jordi Regàs, a 51-year-old diver who, in his free time, contributes to marine research in Barcelona. I don’t feel that what I’m doing will lead to any radical changes, but I do think that each of us can bring in a small contribution.

The lines separating amateur and professional science have become hazy. Traditionally, scientists plan data collection efforts, return to their labs, process the data, and then publish their findings. But the scope of the research is expanding, and it is becoming more accurate and consistent thanks to the millions of citizen contributions from around the world.
Over 1,700 dives later, Regàs made the decision to join Barcelona’s Institut de Ciències del Mar Observadores del Mar program nearly immediately after it began. Considering that many of the scientists behind the initiative are members of the Biology Faculty diving club at the Universitat de Barcelona, where he serves as president.

Now, thanks to his photographs of seaweed, soft corals, fish, and even marine debris, scientists at the institute are able to monitor the condition of the Mediterranean flora and fauna and receive alerts when invasive species are present. He claimed that because amateur divers are intimately familiar with the locations and frequently feel emotionally connected to them, they are the first to notice changes.

We’re now hearing about a new type of invasive algae from Asia, so similar to local species that can only be identified by taking a bite off it — apparently it tastes like ginger, Regàs said. So if I need to go and chew algae, I guess I’ll do it.

According to a research published in May in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, data created by citizens is as trustworthy as that obtained by qualified scientists. The study contrasted information acquired by amateurs and experts during a campaign to gauge the amount of algae on UK rocky beaches. Nevertheless, the report suggests that while completing complex jobs, citizens should receive training, precise instructions, and the appropriate tools.

Citizen science is a really powerful tool, said Abigail Scott, a co-author of the study and a researcher at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. For it to work, it needs to be really engaging for people, to make them feel like it’s fun and they’re learning something, but also to make sure that the data is useful.

Serious projects require the participation of at least one scientist. They must pose explicit questions, lay out a plan for finding the answers, and establish defined objectives, just like in every other scientific study. Engagement is aided by explaining everything to participants and making the data available to the general public when the study is finished, according to Scott.

Scott, a specialist in seagrass, contributed to the creation of the Great Reef Census, a project that asks divers to submit 20 unrelated images of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Scientists can use the photographs to evaluate the health of the reefs, including coral bleaching and the presence of coral killers like the crown-of-thorns starfish, in locations that are accessible only by private yachts and research vessels as well as popular tourist destinations. Over 40,000 images of about 300 reefs were contributed by residents during the previous campaign.

That’s why scientists are getting more keen on working with people, it means you can scale up your projects, she said. It opens a whole new world of possibilities that wouldn’t even be possible with a small team of scientists.

Additionally, there are no prerequisites for participating in the pursuit of knowledge, such as a diving license or the ability to travel to remote parts of the world. With thousands of alternatives for people with all types of skills, wherever in the world, citizen science platforms like SciStarter in the US or EU-citizen.science in Europe filter projects by location and type of research.

Anyone with a smartphone can participate in Globe at Night from the comfort of their home. The project asks users to take photos of the night sky and upload them to an app. Over the course of five years, more than 52,000 observations have enabled researchers to identify black sky oasis, or regions free of outdoor lighting, for the study of light pollution and its effects on bats’ flight patterns.

While some citizen science initiatives date back more than a century, the epidemic prompted non-scientists to view the natural world differently and provided new opportunities for researchers to capitalize on this enthusiasm.

We had this exceptional silence because there were no airplanes in the sky and no cars on the roads, so people were noticing the birds much more, said Michael John Gorman, the director of the BIOTOPIA – Naturkundemuseum Bayern, anatural history museum still under construction in Munich, Germany. At the same time, we were keenly aware of the reduction in bird numbers — only in Germany, 15% of breeding pairs of birds disappeared in the past 12 years.

They developed Dawn Chorus, an app that enables users to record bird singing an hour before and an hour after dawn, in partnership with researchers from the Max Planck Society. It is suggested for people to record from the same location on various days so that the sound bites can be contrasted with one another. Aside from being beautiful, the initiative also has a scientific goal since, according to Gorman, bird singing is a good predictor of the health of ecosystems. Ornithologists currently assist in classifying many bird species. However, creating tools for machine learning and artificial intelligence is the next stage.
Other initiatives have more practical applications now.

In order to identify invasive species and assist authorities in preventing and preparing for outbreaks of tropical diseases like dengue or Zika in Europe, which are anticipated to rise as the planet warms, researchers at Spain’s Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona created the Mosquito Alert app, which asks users to take pictures of mosquitoes. With roughly 14,000 users across Europe, the app has recently expanded to neighboring nations like Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Austria.

It all happened spontaneously – users would complain through the app that mosquitos bothered them, that science was too slow and that no one was helping them, said Aitana Oltra, a co-founder of the project. So we got Barcelona’s public health agency involved and now they’re acting on this information.

Floodup, which is based in Barcelona as well, collects user photos of flood incidents. Flooding is predicted to happen more frequently and intensely in the Mediterranean as a result of climate change.

Citizen science is not just about people sending us data, it creates a space for us all to meet, said Montserrat Llasat-Botija, a researcher at the physics department in Universitat de Barcelona and Floodup manager. It means us scientists are not isolated in our labs, it allows us to know what people are concerned about, and to design research around that.

Undoubtedly, not everyone is able to participate in citizen science equally, and this leads to some limitations on the results. Since many projects need access to technology, a smartphone, and an internet connection, funding typically comes from more affluent regions rather than those who will be most negatively impacted by climate change.

With the Vigilantes del Aire project, the Ibercivis foundation in the Spanish city of Zaragoza aims to close that gap. It dispersed 10,000 strawberry plants throughout Spain in an effort to engage people who don’t typically take part in citizen science.

People were urged to take care of the plants and to mail a few leaves to researchers at the Universidad de Zaragoza after three months because heavy metals in the air have a tendency to stick to flora, especially on the hairy leaves of strawberry plants. Then, biologists created a scientific report that provides data on air pollution in areas with little to no access to traditional sensors.

Numerous seniors residing in nursing homes across the nation as well as female inmates at the Albolote Penitentiary Center in Granada, southern Spain, participated in the initiative.

We need to stop thinking about citizens as people who have no idea, said Francisco Sanz, executive director at Ibercivis. People are interested and, when given the chance, they can find the evidence that researchers need to really change things.

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