Citizen Science – Timestamps

00:00 – Introduction

01:09 – Pros and cons of citizen science

04:58 – Local citizen science

06:47 – Creating a citizen science project and reducing poor data collection

12:29 – Non-local citizen science

16:25 – Key takeaways

18:14 – Ending and outro


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This week on The Method Section, Tom discusses why citizen science can be so useful to certain project types, he breaks down the inner workings of both local and non-local citizen science and provides a quick guide on the viable ways and options available to you if you wanted to create your own citizen science project. Check out iNaturalist, eBird and uBiome. Music by: Joakim Karud –

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Using Citizen Science – Transcript


Tom:                      Hello and welcome back. I am your host Tom Jenks and today we will be talking about the other side of citizen science, the pros, the cons, that types, some examples and how if you are a scientist and you want to maybe investigate further, you could use this in your projects. That’s all that’s coming up today. Stay tuned to the method section

Tom:                      That’s right. Yep. Today we’re going to be talking about citizen science and I know this touches on the topic of last week, but I think there is more important stuff to cover and I really want to cover how you may go about using citizen science as a scientist yourself because whilst there are, especially in the world of science, sometimes negative views towards citizen science and that is fair enough. I’ll come onto this in a second. It can be incredibly useful if your research study area or topic is primed for the use of citizen science.

Tom:                      So firstly I just want to talk about the cons of citizen science, why people don’t always like it and that kind of thing. So firstly, citizen science isn’t applicable to all areas. For example, if you’re doing chemistry and you’re doing experiments in the lab using specific equipment and specific elements and solutions, you know you need to be trained to do this and no one else has that at home to be able to kind of do it for you. So one of the most important factors of citizen science is engagement. And whilst that is a positive getting engagement from the community with your project, it can also be kind of a negative in the sense that it takes a lot of time, takes a lot of money and investment and if you are not prepared to keep that up for the whole duration, then citizen science is not something you can do. You can’t start off strong and then disappear for for the engagement factor. Citizen Science sometimes draws some data biases in because either a lot of people don’t know how to do it properly or they haven’t got the subjective mindset down properly. However, I’m going to come onto a way later on how to combat data biases and poor data collection and there’s some really effective techniques. Lastly, one of the negatives, one of the cons is if specialist equipment or knowledge is needed, which it very much is for some experiments, it limits the participants. For example, if you need people to go out with a metal detector, only the people with metal detectors and are interested can help you in this project, so it really limits the number.

Tom:                      But there are some amazing positive from citizen science. Firstly, community engagement. If you want to secure funding or a future or any interest in your science, firstly that’s incredibly important to do. You shouldn’t just limit yourself to the scientific circle, but community engagement, getting people interested, getting people who want to help, getting people who are asking questions and seeming involved. It just makes everything easier. Even when that comes down to applying for funding and grants and stuff like that. Another positive of citizen science is data collection. There are thousands of people across a huge temporal and spacial scale that allow you to collect data on, as I say, the scale that you never would have imagined before. Normally these research teams are made up of a small group of people between five and 10 and so they can collect a lot of data over time. But if you use citizen science, you suddenly have thousands of people collecting data for you on a scale that you never would have been able to do otherwise. Citizen Science also pulls in media engagement, which is again good all media and press coverage, especially over a project that you are working on is absolutely fantastic. You want to raise awareness to other likeminded people who want to help in the scientific or non scientific field. And if you are running a citizen science program, the more people who know about it, the more people who are available to help because you’ve got the the population pool and within that you’ve got the people who know about it and within that you limit the circle of people who can help you again by people who are interested. It’s all about letting people know.

Tom:                      So there are two main types of citizen science that I’m going to talk about. The first one is local things that people can do at their homes. And the second one is non-local where people normally students go somewhere to help a research team. So I’m going to start on local and a very good example and a very good way to explain this is using the examples of animal surveys. Citizen Science is absolutely fantastic here because there’s a huge spatial coverage and people like finding animals and finding things in their garden andon their walk. It really incites good engagement from a large amount of people. And yeah, of course not everyone will be interested who hears about it, but a lot of people will, and with animal surveys especially, and there’s a few sites that do this very well, is you can make the data collection incredibly easy, which really limits the amount that can go wrong and really reduces the risk of unreliable data. So what you can do is if you are doing an animal survey, for example, is on the website you can provide all the information that the participants need to help you. So photos of specific animals, descriptions, instructions on how to do it. There’s a UK spittle bug survey going on at the minute that’s using citizen science and it’s basically just ask people to maybe take a photo or identify the species and where they found it. So we’ve got some spittlebug nymphs in our garden and they’re very easy to spot because they live in like balls of foam on the plant and while they’re not harmful themselves, they feed on plants sap and at the moment they are transmitting a disease and virus around the UK. So they’re using citizen science because it would be impossible for them to go and check every garden and every park. Whereas they can get people who have heard about this to do it as part of their, their routine. You know, it takes two seconds to type in a bit of information.

Tom:                      Now if you kind of wanted to set up your own citizen science project, this is how I would go about it. And I’ve got some methods here to combat poor data collection. As I said, it only really works in kind of applicable fields its normally zoological, biological, that kind of thing. But as we discussed last week, even up to planetary and the universal scale, now lots of people say citizen science data collection is bad. However, that’s not exactly always true with real scientists either. So you kind of have to give it a chance and okay, well, yes, they may not be the best data you’ve ever collected. The people want to do it. The people who are helping you are fully interested in doing a good job. So that does count for something. Okay, if not everything, but it does help. And if you wanted to help them help you, you just need to give them the tools, really give them the tools to help you now, okay, how, how do you do this? How do I give someone a tool that accurately provides me with data? Well, if you look in your pocket or maybe you are listening to this on the very device, I’m about to talk about phones, everyone has phones nowadays, especially in the developed world. And if you create an app, for example, to help with this data collection, people can download it very easily and when they use the phone it provides a latitude and longitude from that you get accurate location and maybe above sea level if you want it. And accurate timing and even gives the participants opportunities to take photos. We need to use the technology that’s around us and that everyone has access to. It makes it so much easier in this day and age for citizen science to be effective.

Tom:                      There are a couple of companies and apps that have done this already. I want to mention a couple iNaturalist, it allows their users to identify animals. So this is a very important factor you’ll notice is giving back the data to the participants. So not only does it allow the users to identify animals, it’s looking like a, an animal directory on there, but it also allows the users to log where they have seen certain animals. And this was instrumental in actually providing conservation to some certain areas, especially in America and Canada through this application. So it is very important. One important thing that they have already done is they’ve put it on both android and apple app store. You need to do this and the reason why that’s important as you just need to have as many people available as possible. Not everyone has apple anymore, not everyone has android, so you need to find the middle ground and expose your app to as many people as possible. The second one is eBirds. They are already targeting a massive community…birdwatchers I mean here in the UK, one out of two people, half of the population feed birds in their garden and something that I won’t go into too much now is that it’s actually causing evolutionary effects in the UK to our local birds. Again, huge amounts of data can be collected very conveniently from the phone. If someone goes out birdwatching and they can identify birds, maybe they’re walking around the park, they can very easily just tap a few buttons on their phone and see or upload data to the app and it can be registered in real time and again, it’s giving users back the data. Not only will it help them identify birds but they can go on live maps and data boards and they can see, oh this group of birds has migrated here from possibly here. You know it really provides a good interaction and stuff that they’re obviously interested about, I mean they are birdwatchers after all and they’re getting maps, distributions, routes and info they wouldn’t have access to otherwise in relatively real time. Now the normal traditional route of science is when you start up a project or a research idea, you apply for the grant. It’s accepted or denied. As I said before, it’s quite a limited amount of people so if you wanted to go the citizen science way, this kind of is how you do it, but there are other options. Something that’s not done in science and very much could be, especially if you are creating an app is you could crowd funded crowd funding. For those who don’t know is you kind of present your idea to the public and people who like the sound of your idea can support you monetarily. There are a couple of sites with Indiegogo or Kickstarter and the good thing is it immediately establishes your community, people who are interested, people who want to get involved and when they have put a bit of money in they are kind of likely to commit and use the app and you’ve got a good source of data straight away. An example of a company who did this was uBiome. They provided a really cheap testing kit for to test people’s biome and they answered questions about their health and allowed them to look at their own data and see where they compare to other people with similar health problems or lifestyles and that was very good, very successful. Kickstarter, Indiegogo campaign.

Tom:                      The other type then of citizen science is the non-local or volunteer type science. So this is where people and normally students pay to go and help a team of researchers collect information in quite often strange places around the globe. Now this is a lot more specialist. Not everyone can go and do this and it is normally only open to undergraduates or people at university studying in a relevant field. There is kind of a problem of unreliable data here and it really depends on the training techniques employed when the volunteers arrive. Since the research is requires a lot more training as a lot more specialist and let the problem seen with this is say it’s a five week program in the first week they’re not going to be very good. They’re going to be training, they’re going to be learning by the fifth week they’ve been doing it for five weeks. They’re probably quite good at collecting the data now and identifying things and then the week after the cycle starts again with a whole new bunch of people. So you constantly got this wave action of poor data collection to better data collection to poor to better. However, there are still some massive benefits to using science this way, so it allows the research team, if, especially if they’re small to conduct more research, cover more area, collect more data, the funding is secured through your volunteers, so they normally pay, as I said, to come over and stay with the research team and you’re getting your funding through that. You don’t have to rely on maybe getting grants or funding through a national body or a scientific body. And lastly, the participants or students normally have a very good understanding and willingness to do whatever they want. They are in a completely new environment and amazing environment and they want to make the best of that opportunity.

Tom:                      Now, why do I say that? Well, I say that because I have done exactly this in 2017 so nearly two years ago now. I went to, in South East Mozambique, I went to Guinjata Bay. Uh, I stayed with a company called, Love the Oceans there for five weeks. We researched on whale location and behaviour we conducted surveys on the local reefs, of which there are around 24, we collected data on the artisanal fisheries that were present, what fish the fishermen were catching, the sizes, all of that kind of thing. We also did plastic pollution collection and monitoring so we could see the types of plastic that were coming down and landing on the beaches there. And also we did a lot of work with the local community. We helped with the school, we taught classes, um, on marine stuff, on marine biology and the local environment. And we also, we also interacted with everyone in the community and actually helped paint schools and uh, anything else they might need. However, I won’t go into exactly how to do that right now because in three weeks I will be able to share with you guys and interview that I am having with the Love of the Oceans founder Francesca Trotman. That is going to be an incredibly interesting interview and I cannot wait for it. And in that we are going to discuss how to set up your volunteer place, your volunteer research team your volunteer research company. They are an NGO, a charity, um, and maybe the pros and cons of using volunteer science from people who are using it.

Tom:                      So as you guys know, this is going to be a bit of a shorter format episode compared to the normal podcast. So I just want to wrap up with some key takeaways about how you would use citizen science. Firstly only consider using this if you are in a field where it is viable. As I said, this kind of works best with zoological, biological, even you can do contaminants and one of the things being done at the moment is they are collecting birds, eggs, they kind of trying to reinvigorate that old hobby and by looking at the eggs they can tell how thin they are and thus how many contaminants are in the air. You have to remember that citizen science is not just about collecting data, it’s about engaging interest in people’s local environment and indeed the world, especially if they’re coming out to you. Secondly, it’s about making the information accessible to the participants. Normally if they go to help in a study or they are contributing to a study in some form or another, they never get to see the data until it’s published and then it’s in a very scientific format and they may not be used to that. Make their data accessible, show them where they show up or what their data is being used to contribute to and let them look through in a very interactive way using apps and stuff like this. It’s a very good way to make people curious about what they can do in their area and want to help you more. And the last takeaway that I want to kind of stress one more time is you have to start engaging with the community and you cannot stop. You need to keep it up. The aspect of community feedback is absolutely vital and if you’re not shown to be interested in the people helping you, they won’t be shown to be interested in helping you either.

Tom:                      So that is it from me. I have covered everything that I think I want to cover in this episode and again it was just a bit more of a roundup of how to use citizen science. If maybe you are going to be in the future in a position to do it or maybe are in a position now and you haven’t considered citizen science before. So guys, if you want to check out all the latest goings on, you can go to if you want to check us out on Facebook or Twitter, you can search for @conductscience and please remember to use the #AskConductScience. We really want to answer your questions on the main show or even here if you have a specific one for me. If you guys want to suggest a guest or a topic, please, we are all ears and we want to hear from you. Next week, I am going to be straying a bit further away from citizen science and I will be talking about scientific communication because it is so important and a lot of people have never learned how to speak correctly to scientists and the public because it is just important to have their backing as it is for other scientists. However, that is for next week. So I shall see you guys… A-next time.