Citizen Science

One of the most basic needs in ecological conservation and research is access to quality species occurrence data. Fortunately technology has made it easier than ever for the lay-public, nature enthusiasts, naturalists, and professionals to identify and document their observations, and then seamlessly share these observations with natural resource agencies and other conservation and research organizations.

Sounds good right?

One problem faced by folks wanting to participate in citizen science is which project to choose... There seems to be a never ending list of projects to choose from, but it isn't reasonable to expect contributors to take the time to enter the same observations across all projects accepting that particular type of observation. It seems that many citizen scientists prefer to contribute to project(s) with a local tie, but often data in these local or regional citizen science databases reach only a small subset of potential data users. An alternative is to contribute to a national or international effort, some of which have locally-lead or focused projects.  There are several benefits to these larger efforts, first and foremost is that data are often shared with a larger subset of conservation and research organizations. Another benefit is that these larger projects typically have larger organizations of volunteers or staff running the show, which increases the likelihood that the project is maintained through time. Unfortunately some of the smaller state or sub-state-level projects fail due to fluctuations in funding, and volunteer or staff turnover.

Data Protection - Jack of All Trades, Expert at None?

One of the ways to get around having to enter observations into multiple projects is to use one of the several citizen science platforms that accept observational data from all taxonomic groups, from plants and fungi, to arthropods, or even megafauna (elephants, whales, etc.). However the needs of data contributors and data users, as well as the need for data security, vary by taxonomic group. For instance, sharing of exact locations is commonplace in the birding community, and can generate a lot of excitement, but this practice is often frowned upon in the orchid and herping communities where collection and poaching can be a serious threat to populations. Recent warnings against posting photos of rhinos on social media have made their rounds, but unfortunately the use of published content -- whether on social media, online databases, or in scientific publications -- to lead poachers to their quarry has been a long-standing conservation issue.

Because many of these large multi-taxa citizen science projects manage data the same across all taxa, it is important to review a project's policy on public display of data, and data release to make sure groups of organisms that are susceptible to collection and poaching are adequately protected. In general, access to county-level data is considered safe for most organisms, and projects that share more detailed location information -- including point-locations maps with latitude and longitude -- should be avoided for groups like herps, orchids, etc. 

It may be convenient to have a one-stop-shop for all your data entry needs, but so far I have not found a single all-inclusive citizen science project that does an adequate job at protecting sensitive taxonomic group data. Some do obscure state and federally listed species locations, but at the same time they show point-location information for other species from the same observer... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to notice patterns of data collection and to then deduce the location of where the obscured rare species was observed. To add to that risk, natural habitats are often small and dotted on the landscape (especially in the eastern U.S.)... Thus obscuring an observation by 6 miles (10 km) doesn't do much good when only a single natural area occurs within the obscured area.

My Favorites

  • is unique among citizen science projects in many ways, and is my most frequently used citizen-science project. Full disclosure: I am a founding member and Project Administrator for this project.
    • What makes it unique? One of the terms of HerpMapper (HM) use is that contributors give HM the right to share data and images they submit to the database. This permission is requested up-front when a new user signs up with HM. HerpMapper is then able to easily and quickly share data with conservation and research organizations. It also prevents users from hoarding data; that is use of the database and its tools for personal data management but with no intentions of granting conservation and research organizations access to use data. Not only does this run counter to the citizen-science mission, it also eats up resources and can result in animosity toward a project or citizen scientists in general if an organization knows important data are housed in the database but are unavailable for use.
    • Another relatively unique aspect to HM is that data are only publicly viewable to the county-level (or intentional equivalent) or less. The public cannot see point-location data. In addition, users can select to completely hide observations from public. This helps protect species where knowing the date or time of day may be detrimental to their conservation. Point-location data are only made available to approved HerpMapper Partners
    • Last but certainly not least, HM has an international focus, but incorporates regional projects. The Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally and County Project, which is a collaborative project between the MnDNR, MN Herpetological Society, Three Rivers Park District, and Washington County, has been a great success for turtle conservation in MN. It has engaged citizens that are frustrated with seeing dead and dying turtles on Minnesota's roadways, and given them a relatively easy way to help increase awareness of problem road-crossing areas. In 2014, Washington County installed one wildlife underpass (dubbed the 'turtle tunnel'), and several turtle vs. road mitigation projects are in the works across MN largely aided by the efforts of these citizen scientists.
  • Lost Ladybug Project (LLP) is another favorite, though admittedly I have not devoted nearly as much time to documenting my ladybug observations. I do have the pleasure of having one of only a few recent observations for the now rare Nine-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) in Minnesota. This project does display point-location information publicly which is of some concern, but there isn't much risk of poaching for these rare ladybug species. The biggest risk is trampling of habitat by photographers that may want to observe this species firsthand.

  • Bumble Bee Watch is another citizen science project that is collecting some great information about both common and declining bumble bee species (Bombus spp.). Similar to the LLP, this project does display point-location information publicly which is of some concern, but there isn't much risk of poaching for these rare bumble bee species. The biggest risk is trampling of habitat by photographers that may want to observe this species firsthand.

In the end, what is most important is that the lay-public, nature enthusiasts, naturalists, and professionals take advantage of the tools that now make data collection easy and quick, and start reporting data for both common and uncommon species alike. Citizen science is increasing science literacy and has enormous potential... and where embraced it is already starting to change the conservation landscape.

Blog post by Christopher E. Smith ( Be sure to get the latest blog entries by signing up for blog updates by subscribing via e-mail or following on Twitter.

Acknowledgments: Thank you for Erica Hoaglund and Don Becker for providing comments to improve the quality of this blog post.

Edit: 3 Jan. 2016, added in-text link to: Poachers using science papers to target newly discovered species

The FieldEcology blog is meant to be informational and thought provoking. Wherever possible, I provide links to supporting external resources. Views expressed here do not represent the views of my employer(s).