The benefits of citizen science
Updated: Jan 14
For researchers, planners, consultants, government agencies and other interested parties to make informed decisions there is a fundamental requirement for data. One of the challenges in both conservation and environmental impact assessment is the lack of current records for many species of flora and fauna. It's not uncommon for much of the available data (particularly for threatened species) in certain geographic areas to be decades old. While there have always been keen observers of nature, there has not always been avenues for their observations to be easily and accurately recorded. Now in 2021, it has never been easier for professionals and amateurs alike to get out in nature, photograph all the plants and animals (including invertebrates!) that pique their interest and make a meaningful contribution to science while doing so. You don't even have to know what you're looking at to participate, with expert moderators on hand to assist with identification.
Technology! The internet, smart phones, GPS and cameras are now advanced and readily available. In fact your smart phone likely incorporates all of these features in itself. There are multiple citizen science platforms available on the web and most of these also have smart phone apps for easy use while you're out and about enjoying the great outdoors.
How to get involved.
Here are a couple of Citizen Science Platforms for you to try out:
iNaturalist Australia is a member of the iNaturalist Network. Observations submitted here are added to the global iNaturalist database and shared with the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe.
The easiest way to enjoy iNaturalist is via the smart phone app which you can download here:
From there you will be guided through creating an account and making your first observation. Perhaps the best function of iNaturalist is its "suggestion feature". Using the photograph you upload and the GPS coordinates with it (make sure your location settings are on), the app will suggest what you have seen by using nearby records and known distribution data. Generally the suggestions are reasonably accurate and are enough to get you googling and verifying you record. But don't worry if you're not confident, submit your suggestion and expert moderators will confirm or make an alternate suggestion. Once multiple users have agreed with a suggestion, the record will become verified. Now scientists can access the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) and see your species record with a photograph and GPS Coordinates!
NatureMapr NatureMapr is an innovative, regionally focused citizen science platform relied upon by government, research and environmental organisations across Australia. NatureMapr was founded in 2013 and is proudly Australian made, owned and hosted.
I love NatureMapr, particularly its origin story which can be read here. The key difference from iNaturalist is that is driven by investment by regions (local or state government) to set it up. So whilst you can't use it everywhere (yet), the investment also means the data is actively used by those investing. Local and state governments are effectively funding citizen science to obtain data which is used to determine on-ground management actions in their region. So NatureMapr users records directly contribute to environmental enhancement in their local area. Current areas of operation are shown on the website homepage here.
Perhaps one feature lacking is the "suggestions" feature mentioned for iNaturalist above. I suspect that as usership grows on NatureMapr and the pool of data to draw upon becomes more extensive, then this could possibly be introduce down the track. There is a very handy set up and use guide for NatureMapr on their website.
The value of your data.
The best way for me to show how citizen data is valuable is with a real world example from a project I am working on. I currently monitor threatened species (predominantly Squirrel Glider - Petaurus norfolcensis) in the Albury-Wodonga border region. Albury City Council and City of Wodonga contribute funding to this program, and they also contributed funding to establish NatureMapr in the region. Records from the monitoring are uploaded to NatureMapr. The first image below is the Squirrel Glider observations recorded through this program. Scroll to the right, and the map shows all Squirrel Glider observations recorded in the border region (i.e. by citizen scientists). You'll notice both the geographic extent and abundance is greater in the second image. So thanks to citizen scientists uploading their records to the NatureMapr platform, these councils (and me!) have a greater understanding of the species in the region. Just one record might change how a specific area is managed.
Both iNaturalist Australia and NatureMapr records feed into the Atlas of Living Australia. The Atlas of Living Australia is an online repository of information about Australian plants, animals, and fungi. Development started in 2006. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is an organisation significantly involved in the development of the ALA. ALA is an important resource for agencies, conservationists, planners and anyone with an interest in Australia's unique biota.
So what are you waiting for
The time is now. Download these apps and have a play. You never know what you might find and how important that find may be. One thing is certain, you'll learn a whole lot about the natural word around you and once you understand it - you're more likely to care for it. So get your families and mates involved too. You can even set up projects, field guides and competitions if you want to make it more interesting than it already is.