Monday, June 2, 2014

Citizen Science: A Collaboration of Minds

By: Elise Gilchrist

I listened to a podcast this week called ‘Why We Collaborate,’ as part of the weekly NPR "TED Radio Hour" program.  Each week, NPR plays excerpts from TED talks about related topics and interviews the speakers.  The host, Guy Raz,  spoke about collaboration, and the different ways that people use modern technology to enhance and fuel group efforts. One of the most impressive examples of this type of collaboration is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia that is co-authored by thousands of people all over the world. Wikipedia now has 30 million articles written in 287 languages, so it is clearly an impressive collective effort. The podcast discussed other examples of instances where the public comes together to contribute to a common goal, such as a system where members of the community can ‘adopt a hydrant’ and they are then responsible for shoveling it out in snow storms. This theme of modern day, large scale collaboration struck a chord with me, and made me think of a concept I have recently become more familiar with, the idea of citizen science.
Citizen science is scientific research that is conducted, either in whole or in part, by amateur or non-professional scientists. In other words, citizen science is public participation in scientific research.  Just like Wikipedia requires input from thousands of non-professionals, scientific studies often benefit from contributions by non-scientists. My first personal experience with citizen science occurred when I was in college and conducted a research project about urban red-tailed hawks. It was important for my dataset to show where the hawks spent their time on campus and what time of day they were most often seen in the field. I did a lot of bird watching, trucking across campus with binoculars and clipboard in tow, but I could not be ‘in the field’ all the time. One of my advisors set up an online system where  any student that saw one of the hawks could complete an online form.  When they hit send, I would immediately receive the report in my inbox. Admittedly, many college students found the process dorky and ignored it, but a number of students and faculty used the system regularly and helped me target the raptors. I was able to finish my report with a data set fueled by the power of citizen science.

A red-tailed hawk from the population I studied.

Citizen science is a concept that has shown success for  numerous large-scale research projects in varying fields. The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology was one of the pioneers of this concept and has been using data collected by birdwatchers for decades. More than 200,000 people contribute to their projects each year, helping to collect data about migrations patterns, effects of acid rain on different species, population density, and many others. Other research groups have picked up on this trend and called to action citizen scientists from all over the world. REEF, a grass-roots marine conservation organization, recruits both scuba divers and snorkelers to complete fish surveys that are entered into a collective database, which has led to key information for fisheries management and even the discovery of new species. The Great Sunflower Project has been gathering information from the public about pollinators in North America since 2008. Think Elephants International utilizes citizen scientists as well: in our work with the Earthwatch Institute.
Earthwatch is an environmental charity that brings together volunteers and scientists from all over the world. There are a huge number of research projects and teams that volunteers can join, from observing cheetahs in Africa to counting macaws in the Amazon.  Think Elephants is going into our third season working with the Earthwatch Institute and their enthusiastic volunteers, in our "Thinking Like an Elephant" field program. Our research team works year round to develop and implement elephant cognition projects, but it is not until our volunteers arrive in May that we have the man power to conduct research with the rigor and pace we strive for.  Most importantly, our volunteers provide the extra eyes necessary to conduct behavioral observations of our captive populations, allowing us to collect a huge dataset of interactive behaviors.  Our volunteers come from many different backgrounds, from teachers to lawyers, but they share a common goal: to help the research team learn more about the mind and intelligence of the Asian elephant. With their help at the stopwatch calling out time delays, or with the clipboard collecting behavioral observations, or in the office entering data, we are able to accomplish a significant amount over the course of their stay.

Earthwatch volunteer from our first team of the season.

With Asian elephant populations on the decline, time is running out to discover just how intelligent and complex these animals are.  We need all the help we can get to gather data, and Earthwatch does just that by providing us with passionate helping hands.  With the help of citizen scientists, the Think Elephants team continues to find out more about the elephant’s intellectual capabilities. 

Raz, G. (2014, May 16). Why We Collaborate. NPR TED Radio Hour

"Citizen Science." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 26 May 2014

Cornell Lab of Ornithology:


The Great Sunflower Project:

The Earthwatch Institute:


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