Citizen science: how public participation helps grow knowledge


From safeguarding the future of our bird populations to exploring how RNA technology can help with challenging health conditions and everything in between, scientists are doing some incredible things for our world. But science isn’t just something for universities or researchers. Science is for everyone, and you don’t necessarily need to rock a lab coat to make a meaningful contribution.

Amateur researchers, known as ‘citizen scientists’, often collaborate with our professional scientists to help them find out more about our world. The term itself is relatively new, but everyday people have been participating and contributing to scientific research for centuries – and you can too.

Crowd-sourced data collection

One of the main ways citizens can contribute to science is through data collection. For scientists, there’s often a considerable challenge in gathering the amount of data needed to conduct a study. That’s where they call upon their citizen counterparts to help with tasks like monitoring and recording, which they wouldn’t be able to complete on their own.

“Often, we need lots of data across a large spatial scale, rapidly. For example, after the fires, we needed to know the impact on biodiversity across the affected area,” says Dr Jodi Rowley, a herpetologist from UNSW Sydney and the Australian Museum. “There’s no way us scientists can collect all this data ourselves – we need help. We’re always grateful for and recognise the hard work of all the participants.”

Dr Rowley is the lead scientist on the FrogID, a citizen science project that is improving our understanding of Australia’s unique frog species. Tens of thousands of people across Australia have recorded frog calls via the free FrogID app to help build a massive database of frog records – almost 700,000 to date.

Through the FrogID project, scientists were able to find and describe two new, very loud frog species from eastern Australia thanks to the help of citizen scientists recording frog calls.

“This database has revolutionised our understanding of frogs in Australia and is being used by myself, other researchers, land managers and conservation agencies across Australia,” Dr Rowley says.

Anyone can take part in FrogID: simply download the free FrogID app and head outside to listen for frogs. Photo: Jodi Rowley.

Dr Mitchell Harley from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering leads the innovative community beach monitoring program, CoastSnap, where citizens generate shoreline data using social media photos. Each day, members of the community share their shoreline snaps to help researchers understand how our coastlines are changing over time.

“With CoastSnap, citizens are contributing daily to the expansion of a dataset that we just wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” Dr Harley says.

CoastSnap started as a small community program on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, but thanks to the public’s enthusiasm, it has become a global project. More than 20 countries around the world are now actively tracking changes to their coasts.

“We couldn’t have anticipated the level of incredible participation and that it would’ve grown as big as it has. That’s thanks to the community,” Dr Harley says.

The data produced through projects is often incredibly accurate too. With CoastSnap, it’s almost comparable to that collected by professional shoreline monitoring equipment.

“We’re able to use the data to help monitor the risk of coastal erosion, identify the hotspots that need particular attention, and it also helps us to predict how the coastline changes in response to changing waves and storms,” Dr Harley says.

Improving public understanding of science

Dr Harley says citizen science helps to raise public awareness of science and its critical role in decision-making. Projects that involve the public can help bridge the gap between decision-makers and the community.

“Engaging the community in the data collection helps to overcome some of the barriers that exist between coastal managers, government and citizens,” Dr Harley says. “The project helps with educating people about coastline dynamics, as well as obtaining high-quality coastal monitoring information.”

Some citizen science projects also help to improve scientific literacy by giving participants hands-on experience with the terminology, skills and methods scientists use.

“Citizen science projects helped to get me interested in becoming an environmental engineer,” Dr Harley says. “I can remember when I was younger, going down to my local creek and measuring the phosphates and pH of the water.”

Giving people a taste of what it’s like to be a scientist also helps to drive interest and enthusiasm for science and can also inspire future generations to pursue a career in STEM.

“It’s great to have people be a part of projects and see them completely fall in love with frogs, or at least notice frogs a bit more,” Dr Rowley says.

“Certainly, one of the hopes of citizen science projects like CoastSnap is to inspire more people to become environmental engineers and environmental scientists, because we do need more in the world,” Dr Harley says.

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With CoastSnap, citizens contribute coastal data researchers wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Photo: CoastSnap/UNSW Water Research Laboratory.

Engaging in responsible citizen science

It can be tempting to dive right in and start foraging around the bush. But it’s always important to consider the ethics of engaging with science, particularly when it comes to projects that involve animals or the environment.

“The FrogID project is designed to collect vital data safely without any inadvertent impact on frogs – such as no handling of the frogs – and we have a ‘safe frogging pledge’, which we ask everyone to take,” Dr Rowley says.

Take the time to read the project guidelines to ensure you are contributing in the most helpful way.

“It’s important to follow any instructions carefully to ensure we can use the data you’re collecting and that you’re going about collecting the information safely,” Dr Harley says.

If you’re interested in becoming a citizen scientist but don’t know where to begin, it can be a good idea to find an established project that matches your interests.

“Of course, you might not know you’re interested in frogs, echidnas or leaves until you begin to pay more attention to them and start being a citizen scientist gathering data on them. So, giving various projects a try is also a good way to start,” Dr Rowley says.

Here are just some of the ways citizen scientists can help UNSW researchers today.

Record amphibians: FrogID

The threatened Southern Barred Frog (Mixophyes balbus)

The threatened Southern Barred Frog, one of the frogs recorded calling in burnt areas post-fire using FrogID. Photo: Dr Jodi Rowley

Collect audio recordings of frog calls across Australia to help monitor frog populations.

Citizens have recorded almost 700,000 frog records that scientists have used to make several discoveries, including new species of frogs.

Members of the public can download the FrogID app and continue the count of Australia’s frogs to help scientists further conservation efforts.

Read more: Many Australian frogs don’t tolerate human impacts on the environment

Monitor coastline changes: CoastSnap

CoastSnap station at Manly Beach. Credit Larry Paice

CoastSnap is a network of simple camera mounts at beaches that invite the public to take a photo and upload it to social media. Photo: Larry Paice.

Become a coastal scientist to help predict changes to our beaches.

CoastSnap turns phones into powerful coastal monitoring devices using photo-point cradles and image processing. Over time, community photographers have built an accurate record of how beaches erode and recover.

No matter where you are in the world, if you have a smartphone and an interest in the coast, you can participate.

Read more: Revolutionising coastal monitoring, one social media photo at a time

Identify an iconic Australian species: Dingo? Bingo!

lonely dingo on fraser island

You can help with dingo research from the comfort of your home. Photo: Shutterstock.

Help scientists better understand and manage dingo populations.

Dingo? Bingo! requests the public’s help detecting dingoes and other animals from images retrieved from a network of camera traps.

The entire collection of Dingo? Bingo! photos are now available and ready for classification, so jump right in and help the research team learn more about dingo behaviour.

Read more: Dingo? Bingo! How you can help dingo research from your home

Track bushfire recovery: Environment Recovery Project

Ferns sprouting after bushfire

Ferns send up new shoots after the bushfires in January 2020. Photo: Casey Kirchhoff

The Environment Recovery Project invites citizen scientists to share their photos of the bushfire recovery.

The project, nominated for a Eureka Prize, has mobilised 1600 volunteers who have made more than 25,000 observations helping track damage, biodiversity loss and gathering vital recovery data.

To contribute data, participants can download the mobile app available via the global citizen science platform iNaturalist, take a photo and upload the image.

Read more: Post-bushfire environmental recovery: citizen scientists capture thousands of observations

Restore underwater meadows: Operation Posidonia

Giulia Ferretto planting Posidonia australis underwater in Port Stephens

UNSW Science’s Giulia Ferretto planting Posidonia australis into old boat mooring scars in Port Stephens. Photo: Grumpy Turtle Creative.

Collect seagrass fragments used to rehabilitate seagrass meadows, one of the most productive ecosystems on earth.

Posidonia supports seahorses, blue swimmer crabs and snapper and is being successfully rejuvenated thanks to the help of volunteers from the local community.

If you’re a dog walker or a local beachgoer, join a local ‘seagrass storm squad’ and be part of the solution.

Read more: Doing Poseidon’s work: How citizen scientists are helping to restore endangered seagrass

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