Citizens science: using the power of the masses

By Amanda Burdon 9 September 2015
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Everyday Australians are at the forefront of discovery, thanks to a variety of inspiring, home-grown science projects

FARMERS MAY ONE DAY owe a debt of gratitude to amateur naturalists Suzanne and Graeme Jones. From their 2.5ha native garden in Cobains, Victoria, the retired couple have become part of an international effort that has implications for global agriculture. It all started when Suzanne and Graeme began uploading photographs of creatures in their backyard to the websites NatureShare and BowerBird.

The sites operate like field naturalists’ clubs, and people document plants and animals, building patterns of species distribution. Experts help with identification, and the data are made available more widely through the Atlas of Living Australia, a repository of biodiversity information.

When Suzanne and Graeme posted images of their resident flatworms – nocturnal, leech-like animals – it attracted the attention of Dr Leigh Winsor at James Cook University in Townsville, who has spent the past 40 years studying these invertebrates. Leigh was collaborating with Professor Jean-Lou Justine of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, who was investigating Australian flatworm species introduced to France via the plant trade.

It was feared they might have similarities to the New Zealand flatworm, which has devoured European worms responsible for maintaining healthy soil and contributed to the waterlogging of agricultural land. To help Jean-Lou identify potential threats, Leigh needed specimens. Enter Suzanne and Graeme.

“They agreed to prepare and send me specimens for DNA analysis and I instructed them in the proper preservation methods,” Leigh says. “The Joneses are very much at the cutting-edge of our scientific work… I wouldn’t be able to do it without them and their samples… BowerBird and other social platforms like it have allowed me to connect with and tap into this valuable community resource.”

“There’s a new force in science – citizen science – and members of the public are contributing enormously,” says Dr Ken Walker, a Museum Victoria entomologist who manages BowerBird. “People are making observations, asking questions, and sharing information and data, and that record is becoming a permanent part of Australia’s biodiversity database. We have engaged a whole new group of people with science through BowerBird, and they are our eyes across Australia.”

For Suzanne and Graeme – who have so far documented 51 bird and 391 invertebrate species in their backyard – the motivation is more personal. They have installed native bee ‘hotels’ and specific food plants, and regularly share their discoveries with gardening clubs and plant societies. “I just like to see what’s living around us and to learn about all these amazing animals,” Suzanne says. “The knowledge of what occurs in this area may one day be of interest to others.”

Social media helps facilitate science research

IN SIMILAR BACKYARDS, offices and classrooms, inner-city reserves and national parks, citizen scientists (anyone who voluntarily contributes to science, usually by collecting, inputting or analysing data) are helping in myriad ways to advance research. This isn’t a new phenomenon; Australia has a long tradition of amateur astronomers and naturalists that can be traced back to Charles Darwin’s day.

But the advent of social media and improved communications and technology – especially digital photography and smartphones with GPS receivers and data collection apps – have opened up a world of discoveries. “Citizen science is breaking down the barriers of what science is, and what it can do,” says Dr Chris Gillies, who manages the marine science program at The Nature Conservancy, in Melbourne. “Scientists today need to answer large-scale questions and work over broad geographical areas.”

A national network of observers – watching everything from plant responses to climate change and manta ray behaviour, to the weather on Mars and air pollution – is exploding. The newly formed Citizen Science Network Australia estimates there are about 100 projects underway across the country, giving up to 84,000 amateurs a multitude of ways to participate.

“The three pillars of any effective citizen science project are research, education and community engagement,” says Dr Philip Roetman, project leader of Discovery Circle, the University of South Australia’s citizen science program. “People can get together and contribute data from large areas, over long periods of time, or from places that can be difficult for scientists to access, like people’s own backyards. Scientists can learn by asking people to report their observations, and we can learn about their ideas and experiences.”

Philip has collaborated with the university’s Professor Chris Daniels on a number of urban ecology projects to explore relationships between residents and native wildlife such as bluetongue lizards, magpies, spiders and possums. Supported by radio, social media and identification kits, citizen scientists have willingly subscribed to surveys to produce a body of data. Chris is now seeking input about people’s outdoor activities to help inform future town planning and urban development, while Philip is also enlisting owners and their moggies to probe the secret lives of cats as part of the Cat Tracker project.

Taking science into the classroom and beyond

ALTHOUGH CITIZEN SCIENCE is a natural fit with the biological and environmental sciences – capitalising on curiosity about our surroundings – it is also making inroads in the field of medicine and astronomy. For example, support groups for sufferers of medical conditions are partnering with scientists to conduct research that could, in time, ease pain and save lives. Associate Professor Ross Cunnington, of the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, is on a quest to unlock the complexities of the human brain.

His study, being rolled out across six schools, is measuring student engagement with different learning techniques, as well as their physiological responses through the use of wristbands that measure heart rate and sweating. The goal is to understand how children retain information and what the best teaching approaches are to maximise that. “We are hoping to learn how the brain learns,” he says. “Taking neuroscience into the classroom is revolutionary.”

Beneath a darkening sky pricked by stars in the Little Desert National Park, western Victoria, a paddock is filling with all kinds of contraptions. Amateur astronomers from throughout Victoria and SA have gathered for a ‘star party’. Among them are David Brackenridge, 15, who has travelled with his father, Rod, and his home-made telescope from the Mornington Peninsula; and Gavan Salter, from Melbourne, who is using a solar telescope to magnify spots on the setting Sun. Telescopes of varying complexity and size, some as large as small cannons and others fashioned from scrap materials, are carefully positioned and tested.

“There is a lot of aperture envy at these events!” says Gavan, a self-confessed obsessive-compulsive, who took up astronomy ten years ago. “From the moment I looked into my first cheap telescope and saw the rings around Saturn, I was hooked. I’ve progressively upgraded my equipment ever since. Now I concentrate on taking photographs and others extract data from those raw images. We compare our results at monthly astrophotography meetings, and the images are shared internationally.” Published astrophotography is commonly used by organisations such as NASA.

Today’s home-grown stargazers also classify galaxies for the ground-breaking Galaxy Zoo project, observe meteors, analyse images from the Hubble Space Telescope’s archive or contribute to one of the many citizen science projects coordinated by Zooniverse, a US-based citizen science hub. “There are many ways for amateur astronomers to contribute today,” says Perry Vlahos, from the Astronomical Society of Victoria. “We all, to some degree, have an innate need to understand our place in the universe and how we came to be here, and astronomy is an opportunity to make sense of that.” Our universe is also incredibly beautiful, as illustrated by Melbourne chemistry lecturer and astrophotographer Russell Cockman.

“I like to take photographs of what’s up there and bring it back down to Earth for people to enjoy,” he says. “We can’t travel back in time, but I have taken images where the light has taken 60 million years to reach me. It allows me to enjoy the vastness of the universe in which we live.” Professor Brian Schmidt, Australian National University astronomer and Nobel Prize laureate, is full of praise for Australia’s stargazers. “The calibrations that they have provided for the night sky allow us to estimate how bright an object is and such detail is used all the time by professional astronomers,” he says. “To have tens of thousands of keen observers globally helping in this way enables us to rapidly make real progress.”

Using citizens to monitor the oceans

COFFS HARBOUR MUSIC teacher Nicola Fraser had been a volunteer with the Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group (SURG) for four years, and had taken part in several scientific surveys when in 2010 she had an epiphany. She decided to enrol in a marine science degree at Southern Cross University (SCU) – she loved diving for fun, but yearned also to contribute something useful.

“I had been diving with real scientists and we were doing real research that would be used to manage the Solitary Islands Marine Park. I got a buzz out of collecting data,” she says. Nicola, in her late 40s, isn’t alone. Other SURG members have gone on to studies too, many with Associate Professor Steve Smith, a marine scientist at SCU in Coffs Harbour, NSW. In the case of marine debris surveys – such as the one SURG carried out in November 2014 at Red Rock, north of Coffs Harbour – the science could have state-wide applications.

Steve and his colleagues have mobilised 300 volunteer divers from 11 underwater research groups along a 1000km stretch of the NSW coast to document marine debris at 120 sites. The volunteer teams will return to the sites periodically to assess debris accumulation and the results are fed into a state-wide database that supports the management of coastal habitats.

“This science is a strong mechanism for public discussion and has created a lot of debate,” says Steve, who reports that discarded fishing gear is the most common debris found. “These kinds of projects convert passion into tangible outcomes.” Retired employment consultant Ian Shaw, who has been a member of SURG since its early days in the 1980s, says his fellow divers also contribute to Redmap (a log of species uncommon to Australian waters) and complete surveys for ClimateWatch (a database of the effects of climate change on plants and animals).

Others collect data for the international Reef Life Survey. Their mapping of habitats was fundamental to the Solitary Islands Marine Park management plan and they have added 650 species to the park’s photographic inventory and are completing a long-term assessment of coral health. “You can feel powerless in this time of great change, but our work gives me a lot of personal satisfaction and a sense that I can make a difference,” Ian says.

Citizen scientists find new species

SEVENTY SEVEN-year-old Fred Hort thinks it’s “bloomin’ marvellous” that six West Australian plant species and a new species of spider have been named for his family. But fame and fortune have never been the motivations behind the many forays that he and his wife, Jean, 63, and brother, Bert, 88, have made into the bush of the Perth Hills.

Since October 1996, the three have been rare flora conservation volunteers. Fred and Jean are volunteer research associates for the WA Herbarium; they’ve recorded many new occurrences of threatened species and collected nearly 4000 specimens. Mike Hislop, consultant to the herbarium, says that their contribution to plant taxonomy and conservation in WA has been outstanding.

“Collectively, we’ve notched up 47 years of volunteering in flora conservation. But it hardly seems like science when you are having so much fun,” Fred says. Typical of Australia’s citizen scientists, they have turned passion into something of enduring value, not just to science but also to their community.

“What we’re doing is a hobby, but we feel that it’s a useful hobby – useful to our environment and our shared future,” says Jean. “I had thought of doing formal studies, but for now I’m too busy doing the work.”

Join other citizen science projects:

Citizen Science Network
Find people and organisations hosting citizen science projects.

Aussie Backyard Bird Count 
Help build a snapshot of the birds that live in your local area.

Atlas of Living Australia
Share video or photographs of plants and animals, and help to digitise specimen records.

Contribute photographs of plants and animals, and have them identified and commented on.

Contribute photographs of plants and animals in Victoria.

Spot, log and map marine species uncommon to Australian waters.

Contribute to the understanding of how climate change is affecting animal and plant behaviour.

Discovery Circle
Find projects from the University of South Australia that look at people’s interactions with animals.