Soapbox Science

Citizen Science: A Hobby with implications


Petra D’Odorico is an environmental / earth system scientist studying land vegetation dynamics from space and in the field. She has a PhD from the University of Zurich where she continued working as a postdoc at the Remote Sensing Laboratories of the Geography Department. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Grassland Science Group at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, working on plant phenology and ecosystem biogeochemical cycles.

How ordinary people are helping us understand climate change and much more 

When it all began, not much was known about them and the academic elite were wary. But then – in times of harsh budget cuts with institutional funding and research support drying out – mistrust is a luxury only few can afford. Unsurprising then, that in recent years academia has begun opening its gates to a workforce that has appeared at the right time, seems intelligent enough, is eager to contribute and has enough free time to help collect data on all kinds of species and phenomena: Citizen Scientists. But how did it all begin?

Back in 1999, the University of California at Berkeley invited citizens to donate idle time on their home computers to analyze radio telescope data with the hope of discovering signals from extraterrestrial civilizations (SETI@home). In 2005, a second project kicked off, this time run by the University of Washington in Seattle, allowing volunteers to download a program devoted to the difficult problem of protein folding (Rosetta@home). Soon it became clear that computing power was not the only resource hiding in those homes. Scientists realized that human brainpower was the real capital to be outsourced. By mid-2008, an interface allowed users not just to assist the computation but also to interact with it helping it to converge to a solution more quickly. The Citizen Science Era had officially begun!


Selection of Citizen Science Projects (Credit: SciStarter).

Today public participation in scientific research, known as Citizen Science, channels into plenty of projects suited to all appetites. You can gaze up in search of hummingbirds at daytime and meteors at night. If you prefer looking down, spiders and ants provide plenty of opportunities. If you prefer to stray to the wild side, dive into the deep for shark sightings. You can live without the chills? Then observe and report on flower bloom or marine debris flow. Don’t forget the classroom favorites: hedgehog and butterfly spotting. In short, if it can be counted or monitored, chances are it has its own Citizen Science project up and running. For those interested in physics and such, there is the opportunity to engage in tasks from home, such as classifying galaxies based on their shapes with the Galaxy Zoo project or otherwise help trace particle tracks as part of the ambitious AEgIS experiment at CERN. In all cases, access to a computer and the internet is all that is needed to make a contribution, with today’s devices often offering GPS tracking and allowing for observations to be geo-tagged, an asset in outdoor projects. It is as simple and rewarding as it gets – and technology and an increasingly connected world are only going to take it further.

Among the longest running and widespread Citizen Science projects are those designed to engage the public around the world in the observation and recording of plant phenological events, like bud burst, flowering, and senescence (see PlantWatch in Canada, USA National Phenology NetworkNature’s Calendar in the UK). But none of this is truly new, is it?

The practice of studying natural cycles is as old as human history. The timing of plant growth and animal behavior was used by our ancestors for hunting and gathering, culminating in the development of agrarian societies able to maximize crop production by optimizing the timing of planting and harvesting.


Left: painting of Hanami in Goten-yama around 1847 (Credit: Tokyo Metropolitan Library). Right: Hanami party today at a park in Tokyo (Credit: Leslie Taylor

The oldest known phenological series ever recorded is that of cherry (Prunus Jamasakura) flowering at the Royal Court in the former Japanese capital of Kyoto. Data on these series stretch back to the year 705 AD and (probably) represent the oldest written biological recordHanami, Japanese cherry blossom festivals, continue today and are an integral part of Japanese life and culture.

For the cultural practice of phenological observation to become more scientific in nature, and thus more systematic and organized, we have to wait until much later. In the first half of the 19th century in Europe, what started as the pastime of a select few aristocrats and clerics strolling through lush gardens and courtyards, soon caught the attention of the highest scientific circles. It was in such fertile environment, characterized by prosperous research in several fields of knowledge, the establishment and growth of national academies and the foundation of higher institutions of research that the life and work of Adolphe Quetelet began to unfold.

A son of the newborn French Republic, Quetelet was a polymath (equally versed in the arts and sciences) and a polyglot. Among the myriad of interests, he cultivated a great curiosity for “the manifestation of life ruled by the time,” which led to the creation of the first international Phenology network of observers. The Belgian botanist Charles Morren, a contemporary of the very same Quetelet, was actually the first to coin the term ‘phenology,’ derived from the Greek ‘phainomai’ (φαινο μαι  = to appear) and ‘logos’ (λόγοσ  = to study). The term made its first appearance in a scientific paper in 1853 when Morren published “Souvenirs phénologiques de l’hiver 1852-1853” (“Phenological memories of the winter 1852-1853”), describing an exceptionally warm winter when plants exhibited unusual phenological patterns. The following extract of one of Morren’s letters to Quetelet (courtesy Archives de l’Académie, Brussels) reflects the heated controversies of the scientific debate:

“Liège, January 12th, 1842.What concerns the editing of the programme [of the observations of periodical phenomena], I am more than ever embarrassed. […]
Your ideas have changed and I cannot share your way of viewing in this matter.By limiting the observations to isolated facts, the larger goal is missed. 
[…] by limiting to only the flowering and even of only a few flowers determined by nothing precise and which will be selected after the caprice or the laziness of the observer, you can be sure that you will take away from your concept all that was utile.Our dear fellow members have not understood where your system will lead.”

Skeptics like Charles Morren are still abundant today. They argue that the study of such complex and revealing phenomena cannot rely on “the caprice or the laziness” of the recreational scientist. Wrongly so, one should add.

Just in July 2013 Nature published an exciting study by Gonsamo and colleagues, which is already making waves across the phenology and climate change communities. The study unveils a novel method for partially removing possible biases when the quality of data is unknown in Citizen Science records. The analysis of phenology records collected over the last decade by citizen scientists revealed that plant flowering in Canada is advancing by about 9 days per °C, representing the strongest biological signal yet of climate warming in Canada.

Quetelet was probably far from imagining that the collection of phenology observations he had so strongly endorsed would represent the strongest warhorse for climate change advocates nearly two centuries later.

Today, phenology Citizen Science projects not only gather a wealth of data scientists around the world would never be able to collect otherwise. They also reconnect people with their natural environment, and are perhaps the most powerful means to raise awareness on climate change issues and involve the public in the climate change debate.


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