So you want to be a citizen scientist

The National Phenology Network’s Project Budburst Facebook group; an unidentified insect posted by Flickr user urtica as part of a citizen science project Life on the Japanese Knotweed; pasque flowers spotted in Brainerd, MN, by Flickr user esagor. This article is reprinted from the Center for American Progress’s “It’s Easy Being Green” series.

Are you plugged in to the Internet? Are you an amateur hiker? Photographer? Gardener? Birdwatcher? Frog aficionado? Nature lover? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then with the click of a button you can also make a serious contribution to the study of climate change.

Online social networking is no longer just about tagging a picture of your dog on Facebook or announcing to the world what you’re having for dinner on Twitter. Scientific institutions worldwide are beginning to harness the power of online social networking for scientific research. Online communities are an ideal vehicle for matching professional scientists with armies of enthusiastic amateurs. This corps of citizen scientists has the capacity to capture far more data over a vastly expanded geographical spectrum than professional scientists can on their own.

The USA National Phenology Network is one organization that is reaching out to citizen scientists via the Internet. People have used phenology, the study of the timing of lifecycle events of plants and animals, to detect the signs of spring since the early 18th century. The rising threat posed by global warming has spurred scientists to put phenology to another use: to detect the signs of climate change.

Plants and animals are very sensitive to even the smallest changes in their climates. Shifts in the timing of their lifecycle events can therefore be an important indicator in the study of climate change and its effects. Slight changes can have huge repercussions; mutual relationships between species and even entire systems can begin to fall apart.

USA-NPN is asking people across the country to record the phenology of their local flora and then report it online. Amateur hikers and photographers can also participate in NPN’s Project Budburst. They are asked to identify the phenological stage of the flowers and plants they see using information provided by the project’s website. The participants record the location, longitude, and latitude of what they observe. Eventually, Project Budburst will use this information to include real-time mapping with Google maps.

Relying on anonymous volunteers to collect data that will be entered into important scientific databases certainly raises questions about the reliability of the information gathered. Yet it turns out that most of the data is remarkably accurate, and researchers do perform checks on anomalous data. What’s more, the large pool of samples collected by a large group of volunteers diminishes the impact of any faulty data.

This creative new use for social networking also answers critics’ accusations about the frivolity of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites with proof that online networking has the potential to mobilize users to actively participate in innovative programs. Jack Weltzin, executive director of NPN, has said that in the future NPN hopes to make it possible for people to submit their findings via Twitter. NPN, a nonprofit organization, also hopes that iPhone and Facebook applications might be created to more easily facilitate volunteer participation.

Climate change scientists are not the only members of the scientific profession to tap into the potential of these online communities. In addition to tracking climate change, the information participants collect can help scientists predict wildfires and pollen production and monitor droughts as well as detect and control invasive species. Other online projects, such as “The Great World Wide Star Count,” rely on volunteer participation to gauge the level of light pollution across the globe. Several websites are also dedicated to tracking the migratory and breeding patterns of animals such as birds, frogs, and butterflies. All of these observations will augment the databases available to scientists attempting to understand annual fluctuations.

Imagine what the near future will bring–a world where you wake up, look out your window, and notice the first lilac blossom of spring. As you drink your coffee, you report your floral spotting on Twitter. Presto! You’ve made a contribution to the study of climate change before you’ve even had your eggs.

So the next time you head outside, grab your camera and snap a picture of the flowers that are starting to bloom in your neighbor’s yard. Then plot your location on your Google maps and give scientists the help they need to understand global warming and its consequences.


15 Responses to So you want to be a citizen scientist

  1. caerbannog says:

    Or you could take photos of temperature monitoring stations and upload them to (ducks and runs!).

    And speaking of, that project seems to be a bit wanting in the data analysis department. The only place you’ll find any sort of serious data analysis related to the project is over at, and the individual (“John V”) in charge of that effort found virtually no difference between long-term temperature trends computed by NASA and the long-term temperature trends computed from the best-quality rural CRN sites.

    Image here:

    As far as I can tell, nobody else involved with the surfacestations project has attempted to conduct any serious analysis of the available surface temperature data.

  2. Fly says:

    This is a great way to learn about the reality of science.

    It’s not just for the climate scientists anymore. Now everyone can cherry pick.

  3. paulm says:

    great article over at islandofdoubt….

    Are we ‘safe’ with 2 degrees of warming?

    2°C will be catastrophic. We are going to get 3°C+ (unless there is a miracle). Most scientist know this now and suspected it earlier.

  4. Harrier says:

    Well, if worst comes to worst, the catastrophes of 2C might collapse civilization and shut down a significant swath of the carbon emissions, preventing it from getting truly nightmarish.

    It’s not civilization I’m worried about. It’s the species. We can always churn together a new civilization if enough of us can survive and endure.

  5. I was intrigued by this idea and blogged about it when it was announced last year, but on further reflection I think it raises an important question. Can this technique produce scientifically valid data, or is it simply a way to raise public awareness? What kind of quality control is possible in such a widely distributed environment? As a meteorologist, I’m sure at least some of the snowfall measurements and other types of reports, especially of extreme events, phoned in by members of the public to the press are unreliable. Notwithstanding the problems with the surface stations project, even something as simple as an air temperature measurement is highly susceptible to distortion from instrument siting.

  6. mauri pelto says:

    This in an incredibly useful way for scientists to gather data that otherwise cannot be gathered. Do not get caught up in the met station and snowfall measurement concept, the phenology network is looking for something different. We all have the capability of performing basic science. Observing the day cherry blossoms bloom or lilacs bloom, or the first mosquitoes hatch, or the leaves burst forth from a magnolia or lilac or white oak. We can all accurately observed this and report it and collectively do so much better. I utilize ordinary citizens in my field research. There only task to photograph the glacier from a specific location and note the day and send me the photograph, which I use to identify the snowpack extent on the glacier on that day. I cannot be there to observe a certain glacier more than a couple days a year. The list is endless you can use citizen volunteers to record water levels in a lake or stream by simply reading a stage ruler, putting in an automatic recording gage is more than $25,000. So the key is to set up simple observations that can be broadly made and we all can do it. That is the power of citizen science, so do not be a nay-sayer jump in. You are not really being asked to be a scientist just a data point contributor.

  7. Russ says:

    Is there anywhere left where people are supposed to have a human experience as human beings rather than a meta-experience as an appendage of a snivelling little gadget?

  8. Tim says:

    @ CapitalClimate

    Science needs a solid baseline and impeccable data.

    Photos are a good way to observe tho…glaciers, animals, tree damage etc, either for absolutes or relative-based analysis.


  9. “We all have the capability of performing basic science.”
    I would like to be able to believe this, but 3 years of blogging on daily weather in a major metropolitan area which has probably one of the highest percentages of adults with advanced degrees in the world convinced me that the state of scientific illiteracy in this country is truly unimaginable. Why should anyone assume that a random member of the public knows the difference between an azalea and a dogwood, or can even accurately read a calendar!

  10. Chris S says:

    Citizen Science with respect to phenology has been well harnessed in the UK (although the British tradition of natural history may have had an effect here). The Nature’s calender project ( ) has been running successfully for a number of years. The sheer number of records is far in advance of what any single scientist (or scientific team) could ever hope to match.

    There is also a steady trickle of ‘back garden science’ papers coming out now – a good example is this one from Peterborough (warning: pdf) on hoverfly phenology.

  11. “sheer number of records”
    I’m not questioning the volume; what about quality control?

  12. Stuart says:

    I worked for eight years at a state park and one thing I did for our visitors is keep a weekly list of what flowers were blooming in the park. I think there are a lot of amateur naturalists/wild foods enthusiasts who can provide good data for this project.

    Today is the first day of spring, but it will be a couple of months until my apples and juneberries have any flowers to report.

  13. Jay Alt says:

    The NPN should be a very useful information source for the participant groups (users). The sponsors include 10 organizations that know what they’re doing, starting with the NSF. If someone sent in a picture of an unidentifiable animal or plant, they’d be politely thanked but the ‘sighting’ wouldn’t be used. Participating groups would provide training and reference resources. The contributors will be very motivated or they won’t be involved.

  14. Ant says:

    I reckon I know another place where you could learn about the invasive species they call the dreaded Japanese knotweed