Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. Usually this participation is done as an unpaid volunteer.

Collaboration in citizen science involves scientists and researchers working with the public. Community-based groups may generate ideas and engage with scientists for advice, leadership, and program coordination. Interested volunteers, amateur scientists, students, and educators may network and promote new ideas to advance our understanding of the world.

Scientists may create a citizen-science program to capture more or more widely spread data without spending additional funding. They often work with community groups that are already collecting such information, such as birders or weatherbugs, to expand their studies and databases.

Volunteers have varying levels of expertise, from kids in their backyards to members of high school science clubs to amateur astronomers with sophisticated home equipment. Modern advances in technology make citizen science more accessible today than ever before. The success of any citizen science project depends on the establishment of a well-devised monitoring program and the dedication of its volunteers.

Citizen-science projects may include wildlife-monitoring programs, online databases, visualization and sharing technologies, or other community efforts.

History

Though citizen science is a relatively new term, people have been participating and contributing to scientific research for years.

Wells Cooke, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, developed arguably one of the earliest formal citizen-science programs in the country in the late 1800s. Cooke began a program that looked at the patterns of bird migration. It expanded into one of the first government programs for birds—the North American Bird Phenology Program—and one that private citizens could join. A network of volunteers began collecting information about migratory bird patterns and population figures, and they recorded that information on cards. Today, those cards are being scanned and recorded into a public database for historical analysis.

One of the oldest examples of citizen science is the Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Since 1900, the organization has sponsored a bird count that runs from December 14 through January 5 each year. An experienced birder leads a group (called a circle) of volunteers as they collect information about local populations of birds. More than 2,000 such circles operate across the United States and Canada. This wildlife census informs bird conservation efforts.

Use of Technology

Historically, when professional scientists wanted to gather more information, they would use pre-existing citizen science networks of birders, weatherbugs, and other amateur groups. With the widespread availability of the Internet in the late 1990s, it became easier for people to share and contribute information, and the number of citizen-science programs increased.

In the last few years, the field of citizen science has expanded even more rapidly with the development of smartphones, allowing more information to be shared through digital media.

Armed with phones that have built-in GPS receivers, volunteers can readily provide geo-location information about species or situations in real time. New networks and communities of interested citizen scientists are created each day to learn more about the world and how we can contribute to understanding it.

In the future, more phones could be outfitted with smart sensors, which would let people measure and record environmental data, such as air-quality levels and temperature readings.

Citizen Science at National Geographic

With the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society has sponsored hundred of bioblitzes. A bioblitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time. A bioblitz is also known as a biological inventory or biological census. The primary goal of a bioblitz is to get an overall count of the plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that live in a place.

The 2011, for instance, BioBlitz was held in Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, Arizona. More than 5,000 people combed the area. The 24-hour event added more than 400 species to park lists, including 190 species of invertebrates and 205 species of fungus previously unknown to the park. At least one species of bryophyte discovered was new to the park and potentially new to science. 

Other Citizen Science Projects

Citizen science projects cover a wide variety of topics, from astronomy to zoology.

Climate and climate change are the focus of Project BudBurst. Project BudBurst is a network of people across the United States who monitor the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants. This project fosters collaboration among gardeners, scout troops, hikers, botanists, ecologists, government agencies, and educators to monitor climate change and its impacts on plants.

BugGuide is an online community where naturalists share their photos and observations about a variety of creatures, including spiders and other insects. They use the in-house expertise of scientists and amateur experts to collect information and identify a diversity of bug species in the United States and Canada.

FrogWatch USA is the leading citizen-science program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This program allows groups and individuals to learn about wetlands in their communities by reporting the mating calls of local frogs and toads.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative is a citizen science project with a narrower focus than national efforts such as FrogWatch USA or Project BudBurst. Focusing on the watershed of the Potomac River in southern Maryland and Washington, D.C., this project considers the environmental implications of economic policy. Participants actively clean up the river banks, and provide assistance to businesses creating “Trash-Free Facilities” through software and a free online greenhouse gas reduction calculator. The initiative reminds consumers that plastic bags make up a huge portion of the trash along the Potomac. The Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative supports a fee on single-use plastic bags, which encourages the use of recyclable bags.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology plays host to many citizen-science programs. It has a variety of bird programs, including NestWatch, which teaches people how to monitor nests and collect breeding information to track reproduction among North American birds. NestCams is a series of online webcams that observe the nesting behavior of breeding birds.

Zooniverse is an online aggregator that supports a wide variety of citizen scientists. Unlike natural history projects, which typically take volunteers outdoors, Zooniverse exists as an online community. With Zooniverse’s Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch projects, armchair astronauts virtually explore distant galaxies, study the surface of the Moon, and investigate solar explosions—all just a click away on the computer.

Citizen science also includes humanities projects. Ancient Lives provides more than 100,000 fragments of ancient Egyptian papyrus. Using an online tool, citizen scientists can help transcribe and catalog these fragments of Greek texts—including the works of Sophocles and Sappho.

History, too, has a citizen-science component. Old Weather is a project that aims to catalog the climate-related entries of nearly 300 Royal Navy ships of the World War I era. These historical data help climatologists improve their models. The ships’ logs also include political and social information, which are invaluable to historians.

citizen science
These citizen scientists are all wet.

Making Urban Sense of L.A.
Urban Sensing is a spectrum of citizen-science projects that relies on Los Angeles-based participants using GPS, mobile, and Web technology. Citizen scientists study, reflect on, and share their experiences to help bikers find good routes and collect data to improve them, analyze and monitor food choices, and map the cultural identities of Los Angeles neighborhoods. One of the most innovative projects of Urban Sensing is PEIR, the Personal Environmental Impact Report, a new kind of online tool that allows you to use your mobile phone to explore and share how you impact the environment and how the environment impacts you.

Eyewire
Playing an online game may help you become a citizen scientist. Eyewire is a game that helps researchers understand how vision and our brains visual processes work.

SETI@home
One of the first citizen-science projects to harness the power of the Internet was SETI@home, a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI@home was made public in 1999, and you can still take part in the search by joining the project and downloading free software.

Dive In!
Many citizen-science projects have a national or local focus. However, the United Nations and other international organizations have joined with Earthdive to provide the Global Dive Log. Scuba divers and snorkelers record sightings of key indicator species and human-induced pressures in the worlds oceans.

accelerate
Verb

to increase speed or velocity.

aggregate
Noun

sand, gravel, or crushed rock excavated from a quarry.

air quality
Noun

measurement of pollutants and other harmful materials in the air.

amateur
Adjective

person who studies and works at an activity or interest without financial benefit or being formally trained in it.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

astronaut
Noun

person who takes part in space flights.

astronomy
Noun

the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Noun

a field study in which groups of scientists and citizens study and inventory all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

birder
Noun

person who observes and identifies birds. Also called a bird-watcher.

botanist
Noun

person who studies plants.

breed
Verb

to produce offspring.

bryophyte
Noun

type of plant (non-vascular) that includes mosses and liverworts.

catalog
Verb

to list or order by type.

Noun

program of a nation, state, or other region that counts the population and usually gives its characteristics, such as age and gender.

Noun

science project or program where volunteers who are not scientists conduct surveys, take measurements, or record observations.

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

component
Noun

part.

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

consumer
Noun

person who uses a good or service.

crowdsourcing
Noun

technique that enlists the public to assist with a specialized task.

data
Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

data visualization
Noun

visual representation of information, including maps, graphics, tables, and charts.

digital
Adjective

having to do with numbers (or digits), often in a format used by computers.

Noun

difference.

ecologist
Noun

scientist who studies the relationships between organisms and their environments.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

establish
Verb

to form or officially organize.

expertise
Noun

outstanding or expert knowledge about a specific subject.

fee
Noun

price or cost.

Noun

scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

funding
Noun

money or finances.

fungus
Noun

(plural: fungi) type of organism that survives by decomposing and absorbing the material in which it grows.

galaxy
Noun

collection of stars, planets, gases, and other celestial bodies bound together by gravity.

gardener
Noun

person who organizes, cultivates, and tends to a garden.

generate
Verb

to create or begin.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

GPS receiver
Noun

device that gets radio signals from satellites in orbit above Earth in order to calculate a precise location.

greenhouse gas
Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

humanity
Noun

condition of being human, including the study of art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.

initiative
Noun

first step or move in a plan.

invertebrate
Noun

animal without a spine.

leverage
Verb

to use, especially to use an existing asset.

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

monitor
Verb

to observe and record behavior or data.

Moon
Noun

Earth's only natural satellite.

National Audubon Society
Noun

conservation organization with a special focus on birds.

National Park Service
Noun

U.S. federal agency with the mission of caring "for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage."

natural history
Noun
study and description of living things, especially their origins, evolution, and relationships to one another. Natural history includes the sciences of zoology, biology, botany, geology, mineralogy, paleontology, and many other fields.
naturalist
Noun

person who studies the natural history or natural development of organisms and the environment.

ornithology
Noun

study of the biology and behavior of birds.

papyrus
Noun

ancient writing material, similar to paper, made from the papyrus plant.

peer
Noun

colleague, coworker, or equal.

phenology
Noun

study of cyclical biological events, such as animal migration or the flowering of plants.

policy
Noun

set of actions or rules.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

public
Noun

people of a community.

research
Noun

scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

Royal Navy
Noun

armed service branch of the United Kingdom.

Sappho
Noun

(~630-612 BCE) Greek poet.

smartphone
Noun

mobile telephone with additional features, such as a web browser or music playing device.

sophisticated
Adjective

knowledgeable or complex.

Sophocles
Noun

(~495-406 BCE) Greek playwright and poet.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

transcribe
Verb

to make a written or electronic recording of something.

Noun

entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

weatherbug
Noun

nickname for a person who observes, measures, and records weather phenomena.

Noun

area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

World War I
Noun

(1914-1918) armed conflict between the Allies (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) and the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary). Also called the Great War.

zoology
Noun

the study of animals.