What’s the point in a point?

I thought I’d explore why the citizen science initiatives we are working on for the Atlas of Living Australia are a “good thing”.  Or, to paraphrase the title, what’s the value in an observational record from someone?

Citizen science is something that I am quite passionate about personally, because I am a citizen scientist.  Many people who would read this blog would already know I’m a birdwatcher – when my busy schedule allows me to get out there and do some birding.  My previous experience in participating in science as a citizen – by providing data or helping with observations – was frustrating and put me off the societies I had joined to participate with.  I had offered my records but were always told “no, you’re not experienced enough”, or “there’s no way you could have seen one of those” (which was probably right, but still, how about constructive feedback?).

I undertook an interesting project a few years ago on the older version of this web site, by taking my bird records and putting them on-line in a simple database I developed with PHP and mySQL.  All of a sudden, I had strangers and even government agencies asking me for copies of this information for their own work.  However, my experience in observing birds had not changed – the only difference was the delivery method.  It really made me wonder about what was going on, and why there was this sudden shift in view.

Addendum: The old “digital birding database” was taken offline when we shifted to this new web site. My records have not been lost – they’ve been loaded into Earth 2.0, but I can’t say much more about that as I’ll steal Tom’s thunder in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned for an update on that.

After a hiatus from citizen science projects, we’re now heavily involved again in this space with the ALA.  I have been speaking to a lot of people about citizen science – specifically in relation to biological data and citizen science – over the last few months, in my role as the team leader for the ALA Citizen Science component.  Depending on who I speak to and, more interestingly, their profession, I have been getting a wide range of responses.  Some people seem to think that citizen science is a complete waste of time, and others think it is the best thing since… well, the invention of the Internet.

Thinking that this is a waste of time does a disservice to the “citizens” and to the “environmental industries” (e.g. taxonomy, conservation, etc).  The biggest problem I see with this is that it sends a strong message that the inputs from citizens are not useful.  This (from experience) leads the “citizens” to think that they should not take an interest in their environment.  This is an extraordinarily short-sighted point of view.  The more people interested in the environment, the more they will be involved in our work, and the more they will create pressure on politicians and funding bodies to fund work in this space.

Accuracy is a known issue we have to face up to.  To be honest, I’m not convinced that this accuracy issue is only limited to citizen science projects, but is an issue with data from just about every source.  We need to find ways to get around these sorts of accuracy issues – be it descriptive metadata that says “this is a citizen science data point, be careful”, or be it algorithms to determine levels of “trust” in datasets (that are being investigated by Masters students I am working with at the University of WA), or geospatial tools to check geocoding (as are being developed separately in the ALA).  We need to find ways of validating records that is sustainable and ongoing – and that’s not going to be a short term solution.

We are currently developing a web application (with mobile components) that will be the end result of the ALA citizen science project.  Will this do the same thing to citizen science data as my own PHP/mySQL project – suddenly promote the records to the same quality as voucher-backed specimen data in the eyes of some?  My hope is that it will not do that, but instead will at least make these records more visible, and provide enough information to allow people to choose to use them.

My point for this whole blog post is pretty simple, really.  I think that citizen science has a lot to offer the environmental industries.  The biggest thing I think it does offer is participation – and hopefully that will lead to a better future.

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