What is Citizen Science and how can you get Started Today?

So if you don’t know, I am a wildlife biologist who is heavily into herpetology research. My projects have taken me to some pretty fantastic locations and allowed me to conduct some amazing research. That being said, one of my favorite projects had me heavily using Citizen Science as part of my research process.

Citizen Science is a catchall term that describes where anyone can contribute to the research process in a meaningful way. This typically includes some form of data collection but also can be data analysis, processing, or any other number of techniques. From biodiversity snapshots to amateur astronomy, citizen science actually has been around for a very long time.

Astronomy, meteorology, and even oceanography all have roots with citizen science! These are incredibly complex systems, that we even struggle to understand with advanced technology. So how did people hundreds and hundreds of years ago make amazing maps like this one?

From SmithsonianMag.com

Regular people and Math!

The map above was created in 1685 before satellites and advanced technology. They relied on mariners and explorers taking simple measurements repeatedly. Its an amazing, early example of the power of citizen science!

And we still use citizen science today! Have you ever seen the weather report on the news? Yep, citizen science. Most rain gauges and weather nodes are collected by private citizens, schools, or non-profits interested in the scientific process.

Even advanced topics have been gamified and turned into citizen science. Take the complex task of protein folding. Computers can run through every iteration of a possible protein fold, but they lack the ingenuity and abstract thoughts of humans. Enter FoldIt. An amazing example of taking an incredibly intricate problem, and letting regular people help solve it!

But what does this have to do with conservation and biodiversity?

There are a slew of biology-based citizen science projects out there. From BioBlitzes, Butterfly counts and classifying bat calls. There is a citizen science project for everyone. Mashable has an awesome post with 9 websites dedicated to wildlife-related citizen science. Check it out here!

Now I want to focus on the style of Citizen Science that I use most heavily: Mobile Citizen Science Apps. 

What if I told you that there was a way to collect biodiversity data just by taking a picture with your phone? Well, you can and its fun!

eBird is one of the better-known mobile apps for wildlife citizen science that catalogs birds as amateur and professional ornithologists find them. Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this app has been used to create real-world data and change! Check out this heat map of the Tree Swallow as it migrates through the U.S.


This awesome media piece was created using only Citizen Science data!


While eBird is an amazing tool and I know many people who use it, the main tool I use is called iNaturalist.

iNaturalist is an app where users can upload pictures of plants and wildlife to a large database of observations. Each observation has the date, time, and GPS coordinates attached to it. As iNaturalist puts it,

"Every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed. We share your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe."

So why would you, a concerned citizen, want to be a part of this?

Well…. Its fun!

iNaturalist is really easy to use and for me, it’s like a game. I follow other people relevant to me, and we all share each other’s collections. I’ve always loved seeing my buddies travel and seeing what they’ve found. There’s also participation in BioBlitzes, intensive survey events, long-term monitoring projects, statewide conservation initiatives, and any number of contests aimed directly at capturing biodiversity.

In fact, here is my iNaturalist page. I’ve only really been using it for about 2 years now, but in that time I have already collected over 100 species and nearly 250 observations of different animals.


Now, I’ve given you a bit about why I love using iNaturalist for myself, but how can you get started with any of the apps? At the bottom of the page, i’ve linked 6 mobile apps that all collect citizen science data.

1. Download the app of your choice

While you don’t absolutely need one of the apps to start (you can upload pictures through their websites as well), the app is by far the easiest way to get started. All it takes is a quick picture and you have an observation.

2. Go outside

This should be the most straightforward step, but go out and find a park, a nature preserve, or even your backyard. These are great places to get started!

3. Catalog what you find interesting

I’ve seen lots and lots of wildlife. But if you look at my iNaturalist page you’ll see that it’s primarily reptiles and amphibians. That’s because that is what I am most interested in. It’s what I go out looking for, and so, its what I most often find.

4. Meet other citizen scientists!

This is the best part of citizen science groups. You are instantly part of a worldwide community! Look for meetups and bioblitzes in your area, encourage your friends to join as well, or just start asking people “Hey! Are you a citizen scientist?”

Mobile Citizen Science Apps:

iNaturalist – for all life
eBird – for birds
HerpMapper – for reptiles and amphibians
Leafsnap – plants
MeteorCounter – for meteors
Project Budburst – for cataloging blooms

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