Category Archives: Citizen Science
Life achievement unlocked: today for the first time I marched in a major political protest on the streets of Washington, D.C. As a member of the March for Science, I walked from the Washington Monument grounds, within sight of the White House, down Constitution Avenue to 3rd Street, on the fringe of the Capitol grounds. Weather conditions at the rally were less than ideal (drizzle and showers), but I stuck to the principle that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.
I walked with a group well-organized by Audubon Naturalist Society (that’s us mustering on the steps of the National Museum of Natural History). ANS’s march leaders had the brain wave of bringing decorative bird spinners as a rallying point. The spinners (and the stylin’ t-shirts) brought us lots of attention, especially from journalists major and minor.
A thoughtful leader from this week’s Nature in support, generally, of citizen science.
…as increased scrutiny falls on the reliability of the work of professional scientists, full transparency about the motives and ambitions of amateurs is essential.
Many conservation-oriented links piling up on my virtual desk, unremarked—so this needs must be a roundup post.
- Sharman Apt Russell describes her experiences collecting phenology data for Nature’s Notebook.
- Caren Cooper summarizes the findings in her recent paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management: birders and hunters alike are more likely to engage in conservation-supporting actitivies. Cooper’s “conservation superstars” are birders who are also hunters: these people are even more likely to donate money for conservation and do other things to preserve our legacy.
- Jason Goldman sings the praises of shade-grown coffee from an unexpected part of the world: Ethiopia, the land where Coffea was first domesticated.
- And Goldman summarizes a paper by A.M.I. Roberts et al., working with 222 years of phenology data collected by Robert Marsham and his descendants from the family estate in Norfolk, UK. For certain tree species, “winter chilling” turns out to be a more important factor determining leaf out than the warmth of “spring forcing.”
A trio of stories from the current issue of Audubon, celebrating three generations of researchers leveraging citizen science at Patuxent Research Refuge: Chandler Robbins, Sam Droege, and Jessica Zelt.
Citizen science has an important role to play in research in a wide range of biological disciplines, as Caren B. Cooper et al. write in a recently-published paper in PLOS ONE:
… the quality of data collected by volunteers, on a project-by-project basis, has generally been found as reliable as the data collected by professionals in community-based research and contributory projects across a wide variety of subjects, including lady beetles, moths, wolves, trees, air pollution, light pollution, plants, pikas, invasive plants, and bees.
However, volunteer data collection is largely “invisible:” in the reports that Cooper et al. examined, citizen science participation was recognized in a paper’s acknowledgements section, if at all. The authors make the case that volunteer data collection should be more widely appreciated for its scientific value. Furthermore, as Cooper says in a supporting blog post by Hugh Powell, participants should self-identify as citizen scientists, not merely as, say, birders or volunteer water quality monitors.
“…people who have been doing a hobby for years have tons of expertise, and they can make a very real contribution.”
The research paper also reinforces the point that volunteer data collection can go where full-time professionals can’t, into spatiotemporal domains spanning decades and land masses. And often, data collected for one area of study can be repurposed to examine some other phenomenon, as we see with various phenology datasets being used to understand climate change.
Joshua J. Tewksbury et al. make the case for restoring natural history’s importance to answering questions of public health, food security, and biology as a whole. They see citizen science projects as an important means of working with big data that can’t be developed in the lab or in silico.
As evidence of natural history’s contribution to public health, they relate the anecdote of a simple means of blunting cholera epidemics: filtering drinking water through the cloth of human garments.
The discovery that Vibrio cholerae has free-living populations associated with copepods and other zooplankton (Colwell and Huq 1994) forms the foundation of model predictions of temporal and spatial changes in human cholera outbreaks, because these models are based on the dynamics of the zooplankton and phytoplankton on which they feed. With this natural history in hand, public health experts now use satellite sensors to monitor phytoplankton chlorophyll as an early-warning system for cholera outbreaks. The same discovery also explains why filtering polluted water through cloth is surprisingly effective in reducing exposure to cholera: although the cloth does not capture V. cholerae individually, it filters out the zooplankton to which most V. cholerae are attached (Huq et al. 1996).
And, in the area of natural history and recreation and conservation, the Federal Duck Stamp program gets a shout-out:
It is often the collective focus on natural history by hunters, fishers, wildlife watchers, and conservationists that allows consensus-based management of fish and game species. The waterfowl conservation movement in the United States serves as an example. This partnership was set in motion in the early twentieth century by observations of large-scale duck mortality caused by botulism brought on by invertebrate die-offs in wetlands and by lead poisoning in high-intensity hunting locations. In both cases, observations by hunters and bird watchers alerted managers to the issue. The initial focus on disease was fortunate, because it provided a common enemy, and, at least for botulism, the most effective management centered on the designation of federal and state bird refuge areas in wetlands (Bolen 2000). More generally, the many groups that came together to change state and federal policies around these issues led to the creation of powerful hunting and conservation groups. These collaborations also led to a hunting license fee structure that supports the more-than-500-unit federal wildlife refuge system in the United States. The success of waterfowl conservation efforts, and the hundreds of other species that they support, comes in large part from the diverse interest groups that recognized the importance of basic natural history in setting management and policy objectives and that created a stable funding stream to support the collection of that information.
A roundup of conservation and natural history links:
- A team at Towson University has launched a microsite and apps (for Android and iOS) for tracking the spread of the highly invasive Wavy-leaf Basketgrass (Oplismenus hirtellus ssp. undulatifolius).
- Janet Fang summarizes a paper by Railsback and Johnson: simulations of coffee plantation activity indicate that 5% land coverage in trees maximizes coffee yields. The overstory of trees reduces the amount of space for coffee shrubs, but it invites birds, who forage on destructive borer beetles.
- Nancy L. Brill describes the survey that a team of entomologists made of invertebrate life in 50 ordinary Raleigh, N.C. homes. The typical house was host to 100 different species of arthropod.
Several families were found in more than 90 percent of homes: gall midges (Cecidomyiidae), ants (Formicidae) and carpet beetles (Dermestidae), along with cobweb spiders (Theridiidae), dark-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae), cellar spiders (Pholcidae), scuttle flies (Phoridae) and book lice (Liposcelididae). Most houses also had dust mites (Pyroglyphidae).
Pics and interpretation at Arthropods of Our Homes.
- Tovar Cerulli argues that hunters and non-hunters have more in common than they might think.
When clashes occur, it is all too easy to fall back on reductive notions about liberal, elite environmentalists and conservative, redneck hunters—the “greens” versus “the hook-and-bullet crowd.” With partisans on both sides invoking stereotypes and the media portraying hunters and environmentalists as opponents, it is tempting to imagine stark lines between the two.
But such divisions are too simplistic.
- An American Bird Conservancy post makes the connection between coffee farming… and hummingbirds!
- The Birding Wire picked up my profile (for Friends of the Migratory Bird [Duck] Stamp) of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
- A leader in Nature highlights a paper by Joshua J. Tewksbury et al., which calls for a revival in the practice of natural history. (I have the Tewksbury paper bookmarked but haven’t read it yet.)
As natural history has been de-emphasized, molecular biology, genetics, experimental biology and ecological modelling have flourished. But here is the problem: many of those fields ultimately rely on data and specimens from natural history….
No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms and learning basic techniques for observing and recording data about them.
Sam Droege and Jessica Zelt talk to Dan Rodricks of WYPR about Wells Cooke and the Bird Phenology Project and inferences about climate change to be drawn from its 90-year data set.
Congratulations to the Bird Phenology Project and its volunteer digital transcribers. Over the weekend, the project’s one-millionth migration record was transcribed to digital format. An observation of a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) (AOU code 721a) by Vernon Bailey in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico Territory in September, 1904 was the card that did it.
(Bailey was the husband of Florence Merriam Bailey, in whom I am currently interested.)
Collecting a couple of birding-related links from various places:
Andrea Alfano explains how the conjunctivitis epidemic among House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) was tracked with citizen science observers through Project FeederWatch.
Christopher Cokinos calls out one of my particular bêtes noires: the indiscriminate use by sound designers of vocalizations of Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
One irony of this hawk’s cry becoming the popular call of the wild is that red-tails occupy a range of habitats we don’t normally think of as “nature.” I’ve seen red-tails flying over busy streets and perching on light poles by shopping centers while they tear apart chipmunks or mice.
Where do I see this hawk most frequently? Posted up somewhere along the Beltway.
Not to mention Hollywood’s ventriloquizing that puts this noble buteo’s voice in the beak of Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Leta doesn’t know much about birds, but she does know that this squeaky-voiced eagle really sounds like Mike Tyson.
Join the (first?) area Cricket Crawl on 24 August, a census of late summer crickets and katydids.
Via Botany Photo of the Day, WinterRoot’s Wildflowers of Detroit project induced me to join Kickstarter.
Via Via Negativa, a new botanical-entomological citizen science project pops up from U. C. Davis and the U. of Toronto: monitoring of pollinators of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica and C. caroliniana).
A recent column by David Alan Grier gives a mixed review to citizen science and related activities. He speaks well of the CubeSat, at standardized design for experiment packages to be designed by students and launches into space; he also likes the BOINC framework for harnessing household computers to solve computationally intense problems. But his praise for generalized crowdsourcing of research is tempered:
Citizen science may not be able to make major changes to scientific institutions, but it should be able to occupy some niche in scientific practice. As we have seen in other activities that attempt to coordinate the contributions of the general public with the Internet, these efforts have a way of disciplining work and overcoming gross inefficiencies associated with mass labor.
Mass labor, especially when it is a volunteer effort, can prove to be remarkably resistant to discipline. Volunteers are prone to follow their own inclinations no matter how much guidance a professional scientist might offer. One of the major citizen projects devoted to recording biodiversity claims to offer a global perspective on flora and fauna, but its volunteers have shown a remarkable propensity for collecting images from the world’s wealthy shopping districts and resorts. Pictures of Yellowstone can be of great interest, but they are of little use when you hoped to see images of plants found in Yaoundé.
I’m inclined to agree. Doing science is not the same thing as snapping a photo with a smartphone or checking in at foursquare. Perhaps the sweet spot for this approach is the application of what we might call semi-skilled knowledge work: trained observation and transcription. As examples, consider eBird and the related projects from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Distributed Proofreaders component of Project Gutenberg, or my own new volunteer project, the North American Bird Phenology Program.
Consistent with another of my volunteer gigs (with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic), I seem to have positioned myself as a wetware information transcriber. A couple of months ago I started working about an hour a week as a data entry volunteer for the North American Bird Phenology Program, based out of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
Phenology is the study of comings and goings in the natural world—what day of the year the swallows return to Capistrano, the lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, that sort of thing. Decade-to-decade trends in a particular location can provide additional evidence to researchers studying climate patterns, among other things.
There are a number of phenology programs active under the umbrella of the USA National Phenology Network. One of the broadest-scoped citizen science initiatives was organized in 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, and was later expanded by C. Hart Merriam of the newly-formed American Ornithologists’ Union. For 90 years, up to 3,000 field researchers submitted data on the arrivals and departures of migratory birds in North America, in sort of an ornithological Mass Observation Project. Data was collected on 2×5-inch slips; when the project was wound down in 1970 (as other means of collecting similar data evolved), the records base comprised 6 million of them. In 2003, Sam Droege began efforts to safeguard and digitize the slips.
Many of the records are on a GPO-issued form, designated 3-801 or Bi-801; this form was redesigned a couple of times to collect different data. But many more are simply hand-written slips in a particularly compact shorthand that identifies the species (often simply by a three-digit AOU number), the location and observer, and the dates that the bird was first seen in the course of the year; seen again; seen commonly; and last seen during the breeding or migration season.
As you would expect, the transcription of this data from scanned document images into a web form is not an automatable process. Enter the volunteer scribes. It takes me 30 seconds or more to copy out a card—up to several minutes if I have to puzzle out a location name (Google Maps is my BFF) written in faded fountain pen ink in a cursive handwriting style more suited to wedding invitations. The data collection protocol also provides for observer’s notes on whether the bird breeds in the area, is a winter resident, and assessment of abundance (one point on the scale is the quaintly labelled “tolerably common”)—all that, along with any other notes made by the observer, is to be transcribed into fixed fields or free text. Each observer seems to have a different approach to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. The opportunity for transcription errors is therefore high, so each card is copied into the database twice, then compared.
There’s lots more to be done: the number of digitized cards only numbers in the few hundred thousands, so if you’re into birds or just have some spare cycles, I would encourage you to sign up for the program. You can request to transcribe cards only for a particular location or a particular species, or you can do what I do and just pull cards at random. I’ve copied slips filed from tiny, obscure places like Hadlyme, Connecticut and Rhoma, Texas; I’ve worked with a card prepared by A. W. Schorger, author of the definitive book on the Passenger Pigeon. No particular knowledge of birds is required; in fact, the procedures we follow call for a literal transcription of the record, no interpretation or corrections allowed. So even if I “know” that the common name of a bird has been changed in the past hundred years, my instructions are to copy what the observer wrote, and to let the researchers clean up the data later.
And that turns out to be a learning experience for me, too. Before I started transcribing, I wasn’t aware that Purple Martin (Progne subis) and Eastern Phoebe (Sayronis phoebe) once had simpler names in common use (Martin, Phoebe). And I had never heard of Holboell’s Grebe, which we know now as Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena).
Droege and his team have already begun to draft papers from the data, especially looking at patterns of Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) migrations. The San Francisco-area ABC affiliate put together a rather fine story on the program.