Citizen Science: New Ways of Getting Involved

A little while ago, Katie, a member of the Algalita team, shared an article with me on the topic of citizen science. After doing a bit more research on the topic, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about the ever-growing movement and the simple, fun ways we can contribute to scientific/environmental research.

Citizen science, as defined by National Geographic’s encyclopedic entry, “is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge” (education.nationalgeographic.com). Through a variety of projects, activities, and even smartphone apps, citizens of all ages are able to share their findings and observations of the world around them with scientists. As noted by Timothy Clemson, author of “Citizen Science Heading for World Domination,” this form of information sharing between the public and the scientific community proves especially helpful in studies such as wildlife surveys and “important conservation work” (theconverstion.com). The roots of citizen science go way back and include the efforts of the National Audubon society, whose Christmas Bird Count allows volunteers to contribute to wildlife census (nationalgeographic).

Advancements in technology have made it even easier for citizens to share their data and findings with scientists. Organizations such as NOAA’s Marine Debris Division in partnership with the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative have taken advantage of the technological boom by creating the Marine Debris Tracker app for cell phones (scientificamerican.com). The app allows users to track and report sightings of marine debris which goes towards data collection. Another great example of citizen scientists at work is the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, in which participants help with river bank clean-ups and have access to an “online greenhouse gas reduction calculator” (nationalgeographic).

With the growing number of citizen science projects out there, it is exciting to report that Algalita will also soon be a part of the citizen science movement. Algalita currently has plans to incorporate citizen science into its research, specifically into its GIS mapping database, which executive director Marieta Francis notes would be “critical for gathering information about plastic pollution.”

In addition to the numerous environmental benefits the citizen science movement presents, one of the most exciting, at least to me, is its potential enlightening effect on the participants. Before action and involvement comes an awareness and understanding of the issues, and citizen science allows its participants to accomplish both. Public awareness and response is essential for the success of any environmental effort and citizen science is proving how simple it can be to help make a difference in tracking and improving the state of the environment and its inhabitants.