Citizen Science

When I look through our historical work, Gaia Resources has been involved in citizen science – specifically in the area of “biological” citizen science – for some time.  In 2008, we started the development of the Climatewatch web site with Earthwatch Australia, and I was asked to be involved in their project technical committee.  In 2009, Gaia Resources began our participation with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), where we reviewed the landscape of citizen science in Australia, and identified some great examples of citizen science, both in Australia and beyond.

One of the things that does concern a lot of people (notably professionals) about citizen science is the quality of the records that are produced.  I’ve been brought up as a citizen scientist (“bird nerd” is the term I prefer) from an early age, and I know the quality of my own records – I’m no expert.  However, I think that when you can get lots of data from citizen scientists, the mass of data will show trends that are significant.  It’s crowd sourcing science, which I think in itself is a good thing (we always need more scientists, right?).  If you use these records as a supplementary data source to be used in conjunction with verified, professional (vouchered) records, then I think this is a sensible approach with a lot of value in it.

I personally have been involved in the other end of citizen science for several years.  Some people might have seen my old Digital Birding Database, containing my own personal bird records.  Apart from that, I also volunteer my time to help Rio Tinto run their Birdwatch event.  At these events, a group of “experts” (a term that I protest about) take staff from Rio Tinto and their families on bird walks in different areas.  On these trips, I’ve been to Karratha Station, Hamersley Station and this year, Herdsman Lake.  It’s a very rewarding experience for me to see people from different backgrounds get interested in these activities, and I know that the data and reports I write up go to some important research through Birdlife International.

In 2010, Gaia Resources is continuing to work in the citizen science space.  We will be working with the ALA on a ‘Citizen Science Portal’.  The aim of this project is to develop a comprehensive web portal that will allow groups of all sizes to record and manage data collected from citizen science activities.  We’re considering a lot of things – where these applications can be hosted, how to make them easier to use, what sort of modules are required, and what sort of technologies are going to give us the best long-term sustainability for these tools.

One part of this work (and my reason for recent travel to Melbourne) is developing a mobile interface to the citizen science tools in conjunction with Museum Victoria, aimed at school students.  This work, sponsored by the Victorian government, fitted in with the ALA’s vision so well, we brought the two projects together.  So while we develop the mobile software, Museum Victoria staff can focus on developing the supporting materials.  This project will also mesh into the main application – so that in September, we’ll have an application that can also deliver mobile tools for people to use.

Of course, if you’ve read our blog or know about us, you’d know we’re into the open source area quite heavily.  The ALA is intending for all of this software to be made available through an open source framework – where we hope that we can get other developers interested in it over time, and watch it develop.

I see a lot of potential in the citizen science space to make a positive difference on the world we live in.  It seems like just about every day I get another link from someone saying “check out this citizen science application”, and they’re all better than the last.  There’s an amazing increase in the amount of citizen science projects out there.  We might just be able to provide a toolkit that they can all use – saving each from building their own, and meaning more of their funding can focus on education, data capture and other activities – preventing duplication in software building.

It’s like the proposal I’ve been shopping around Museums for some time.  If each has their own system for collections management, how much collectively is the Museum sector spending on software?  In an area that is short on funding, couldn’t we spend that money better on digitizing collections rather than software licences?  I hope that we can help avoid this in the citizen science space – and who knows, much of the functionality we are building into the citizen science portal is very similar to what’s needed for collections management, so there might be more to say on this in the future, as well.

Keep an eye out for more information on our citizen science work through the ALA main web site, and through their newsletters.  Or, if you want to know more, contact me either through email or follow me on Twitter.

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