Where are We with Citizen Science Mapping Apps Today?

April 18, 2018

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Citizen science digital applications that involve maps and mapping are at an all-time high. The expectations of Web 2.0 are fully established, and we are very familiar with the process of contributing data online. Using our smart phones to measure our location on the earth’s surface has enabled automatic geotagging of the photos we take, and sharing of our location and any other information we choose to provide. Meanwhile, the popularity of citizen science continues to grow unabated and has become an area of knowledge on its own. It would be difficult to pursue a project in biological conservation, for example, without incorporating mapping.

Skeptics who worry about data collected by non-experts have always been vocal. Authoritative data will continue to be expected and appropriate for many situations but efforts to improve data quality outcomes for crowd-sourced efforts have also been substantial. In particular, pre-collection volunteer trainings and publication of more comprehensive guidelines, such as this from iNaturalist, are becoming standard. Reviews and evaluations of the results are somewhat mixed, though the majority find that novice volunteers can collect data as effectively and accurately as experts, provided they are trained ahead of time. When standards and protocols are in place and followed, the Chicken Little sky-is-falling concerns around data quality have not materialized. Which is a good thing, because there simply isn’t enough capacity to meet our needs otherwise. The programs that are demonstrating longevity and being productive now rely on those standards, protocols, and best practices to optimize the chances for success. Many of these are included in the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit.

In other situations, the public’s contributed data may be regarded as the most trustworthy. Citizens’ concerns for transparency about radiation data following the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent flooding of the nuclear power plant was the original driving factor behind SafeCast, but the group is vocally pro-data rather than political. The demand for independent and open data is in parallel to a traditional reliance on other authorities for information.

More problematic for citizen science data collection efforts is that the public’s interest and commitment to contributing waxes and wanes dramatically. The novelty of contributing wears off rapidly and our attention is constantly distracted by other activities. (Squirrel!) Projects like Scistarter keep track of 1500 different projects but many of these seem dormant or at least stagnant. Often projects begin with grant funding and lose momentum when the grant period ends. Researchers need to move on to new things for new publications, and universities cannot or will not continue to support websites. Compiling small bits of data from multiple sources might seem like a solution but if different collection techniques or methodologies were followed, you risk the hamburger effect, and who wants to rely on hamburger for data analysis?

Another area of maturation has been the programs that establish formal partnerships between universities, communities, and schools. Developing curricula that aligns with state educational standards is an investment in longer-term and fruitful relationships, like the Open Reef program for marine habitats. The partnerships enable leaderships to build more robust learning outcomes. At Mt. Royal University in Canada, Lynn Moorman and Dorothy Hill have grown a long-standing, traditional citizen science project to monitor Bluebird nests into a more interactive learning experience for students. They found that Esri’s Collector app was the right technical fit for the needs of the various participants. Says Moorman,

“A map with citizen-collected data is no longer the final product; it is a jumping off point for questions, analyses, and understanding and this is a great bridge to geospatial literacy. Reading the maps, using tools to visualize the data, identifying patterns and relationships in the data, and coming together as a community to agree on spatial questions that the data prompts is all literacy building, as well as community building. [Our] next push is to do some advanced analyses to look at impacts of land cover changes on nest behaviors and success. This brings it right back to the students. Geospatial citizen science has been THE best thing to connect my students with authentic problems, real data, and all the issues that entails, and in making their work meaningful. The students personalize their work when they know their results may help a community member. All of that contributes to better geospatial literacy and skills of the students as they dig deeper and work harder.”

So, mapping efforts persist and new ones are created with enthusiasm. A scan of the landscape shows that these tend to fall into one of several themes.

Documenting where something is (animals, vegetables, minerals)

Who doesn’t love animals? The Christmas Bird Count is often cited as the earliest example of citizen science contributions, and eBird is its digital younger cousin, now rich enough with data to offer almost real-time migration maps. If you prefer marine mammals or frogs and snakes, there’s an app for that. In fact, there are now so many efforts at tracking animal data that some organizations, such as Movebank, dedicate themselves to data dissemination rather than individual app building.

Animals have a natural charm, but mushrooms and soil also need studying. The Citizen Science Soil Collection Program will walk you through the collection process and then you can compare your soil fungi with those from other places. Is there water where there wasn’t before? Apps that enable users to document exactly where water has reached during tidal or storm-related flooding events are helping scientists to fine-tune hydrologic models. Or, if all of that walking around and clicking your screen seems like too much effort, you can let your phone contribute to science by itself as it passively records cosmic rays wherever it sits.

Documenting where something is but isn’t supposed to be

Alternatively, it’s helpful to know where some things are so then they can be removed. Confirming the location of an invasive species can help track its progress and bring attention to new outbreaks. Debris in marine settings and terrestrial ones are equally problematic and need monitoring and attention.

Documenting conditions at a place

Monitoring environmental conditions is another area where citizen science contributions are made. Adding data regularly and consistently helps scientists to understand baseline conditions from which they can assess change over time, or make comparisons after a disturbance event. For example, the dynamics of phytoplankton concentrations and other water characteristics are being collected worldwide with Secchi Disks. Ambient sound conditions are recorded to monitor for noise pollution.

Another way that citizens are contributing to scientific efforts is by adding data just at the right time, as this helps to refine the predictive models that scholars are building. Is it raining exactly where you are, exactly right now? Let NOAA know via their mPING app. Did your bookshelves just wobble after that earthquake? Tell USGS if and how you felt it via its website. How dark is it where you are at night? Share your experience via Globe at Night.

Only large groups need apply

If the errors tend to come out in the wash in open projects, then it’s the big crowds that can deliver results. Big projects need lots of human power, such as the USGS’s National Map Corps or an effort to document coastline damage along all of California.

Perhaps you’ve asked yourself before why Peruvian faces resemble Tibetan faces. No? Well, FaceTopo has, and their effort to map and compare a wide variety of faces all over the world is fueled by their interest in discovering connections between places and people. Truly it’s the quantity of the crowd itself that makes these geographically-related tasks achievable.


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