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8 Cool Ways You Can Do Citizen Science

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You can do science! | Photo: National Park Service/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" has been produced in tandem with this story. Watch it here now.

We've been covering the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum's fascinating BioSCAN citizen science project this week, and to be honest it's been a little unfair of us: Angelenos just hearing about BioSCAN now and wanting to get involved may be disappointed to learn that the project has filled all of its 30 available slots for backyard insect traps.

But that doesn't mean you've missed out on your chance to get involved in crowd-sourcing scientific discovery. There's a whole world of ways to contribute to ecological science without having an expensive postgraduate degree. All you need is an interest in the natural world, a willingness to hone your knowledge, and a little bit of time.

Whether you're a joiner or a recluse, you can find opportunities to do citizen science that match your mood and your interests, from organized public events to mobile apps. We've listed eight of the coolest ones here.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

This is the Mother Of All Citizen Science Projects. Every year since 1900, Christmas Bird Count participants have fanned out across the countryside within a couple weeks of December 25 to get as accurate a count of the birds in their area as they can. There are now more than 2,300 organized counts -- "circles," in the event's parlance, because each count is restricted to a geographic circle of 15 miles' diameter.

If your home happens to be inside a circle, you can participate without leaving your backyard as long as you coordinate with the folks managing that circle. But participants usually gather at a predetermined meeting place, divide up territories, then work the brush in small groups. You need not be an expert birder to join in, and the best circle leaders will pair novices with seasoned birders. It's a great way to get out during the shortest days of the year, meet like-minded people, and help add to a century-deep baseline of population data for the birds of North America.

Sick Starfish Map

We've written here previously about the frightening plague that's afflicting West Coast seastars, often called "starfish." One of the problems confronting researchers is a lack of information about how fast and far the disease is spreading.

But if you're a diver or snorkeler with access to a mobile phone camera, you can help those researchers out. Take a photo of the suffering sea stars you encounter, upload it to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with the hashtag #beachstarfish, and your photo will be added automatically to the Sick Starfish Map project's interactive map.

The site was built by Washington divers Laura James and Lamont Granquist to funnel as much information to researchers as possible, without worrying about screening for strict accuracy. (That's probably why the map has sick starfish reported from Conway, Arkansas.)

If you're sea star savvy enough to tell a Pisaster from a Pycnopodia, there's a similar project with a higher expertise bar operated by UC Santa Cruz researchers.

Calflora's page for California red fir | Image: calflora.org


This is another massive, largely unsung citizen science project. Started in 1994 as a text-only downloadable database, Calflora had started combining photos and textual information before the vast majority of Californians had heard of the World Wide Web.

Now, Calflora is a database of hundreds of thousands of individual observations of plants growing in California, most of them linked to photos, and searchable by name, location, ecological community, or plant type. Most Calflora users will never get past the search function. (We use it regularly at ReWild.)

But those hundreds of thousands of observations came from somewhere, and that includes avid amateur botanizers who spied plants growing across the state, identified them, and added their observations to the Calflora database.

How much of an expert do you need to be? Calflora's guidelines say you must be able to "reliably identify the plants [you] are observing." And you need to sign up for a free account. (They also caution users to take unusual reports with a grain of salt, which is always a good reminder.)


Image: iNaturalist
Image: iNaturalist

This might be the citizen science project with the broadest scope. iNaturalist describes itself as a "site and community for reporting personal observations of any plant or animal species in the world." That's not quite accurate: the site and its associated mobile apps also allow you to record observations of fungi, protozoans, and things like kelp and diatoms.

iNaturalist's biggest strength is in its ease of recording observations: name a species, take a photo if you can manage a good one, hit "add observation," and you've made a contribution to science.

There's also an easy way to ask other iNaturalist users for help identifying a species, which points up another great feature of the app: the community that's grown up among people using the app, reminiscent of Flickr back in its heyday. The helpful and enthusiastic attitude that prevails among users has made iNaturalist one of the most-used citizen science apps out there.


What Calflora is for plants in California, eBird is for the birds of the world: a gigantic database of local observations that's fantastically useful even if you never contribute one.

eBird's advantage is in the legions of obsessive documenters of observations in the birding community, who now add millions of new records to the database each month. In just 12 years since eBird was launched by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 500 million individual records have been added to the database, searchable through eBird's mapping function as well as by text searches.

The resulting database is incredibly useful for, say, tracking an individual species' average migration times through an area month by month. It also allows birders to display a list of their own observations, which some birders already use to maintain their life lists.

Desert Tortoise App

The Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program's (MDEP) Desert Tortoise App isn't nearly as widely applicable as some of the other citizen science projects above, but it does what it says it does.

Install either the iOS or Android version, wander around in the California desert, find a desert tortoise, launch the app, and tap the "take photo" button to immortalize the tortoise.

Your photo will be uploaded to the MDEP database, and they'll use it to augment what they know about how many desert tortoises there are and where.

What's Invasive!

Image: whatsinvasive.org
Image: whatsinvasive.org

This project of UCLA's Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, the National Park Service, and the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia went heavy on the tongue-in-cheek '50s B-movie horror imagery, to fun effect. Available in iOS and Android flavors, the app allows you to document populations of invasive species from Arundo donax to zebra mussels.

One interesting feature of the app is its emphasis on specific sites -- here's the example for Catalina -- with teams of local contributors and lists of the most threatening local invasives.

Citizen Science Conference

Here's where we get all meta: instead of getting together with a bunch of others to do citizen science, in February you'll have an opportunity to get together with a bunch of others to talk about how to get a bunch of others to do citizen science.

We're talking about Citizen Science 2015, the first-ever conference of the Citizen Science Association (CSA), to take place February 11 and 12 in San Jose, California. It's an opportunity for those folks who are serious about citizen science projects to share ideas and energy, discuss best practices for projects as well as issues like diversity and inclusion. As-yet-undetermined registration fees will be charged, but at least for now, it's free to join the CSA to get updates as they're available.

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