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The power of the crowd: How citizen science can help preserve the environment

In the fight against climate change, it’s not just governments and corporations that can play an important role. The impact of individuals and small groups is growing, thanks in part to technology.

In the fight against climate change, it’s not just governments and corporations that can play an important role. The impact of individuals and small groups is growing, thanks in part to technology.

Crowdsourcing is playing an ever-larger role in the fight against climate change. Thanks to easy-to-use platforms, low barriers to entry and small-time commitments, more and more ‘citizen-scientists’ are joining initiatives that can increase our understanding of the impact warming temperatures are having on our world. 

According to Camilla d’Angelo, an analyst at RAND Europe, crowdsourcing can be useful for image classification, data gathering, idea generation, and consensus building. All of these are applicable for projects that deal with environmental challenges and want to involve many volunteers.

“A well-designed citizen science project is inclusive and open to everyone, without the need for specialist knowledge - all you need is a love of science,” says Elena Simperl, a professor in the Department of Informatics at King’s College London. “By combining human effort with technology, and gathering the perspective of diverse groups, individuals gain the opportunity to be part of something bigger, no matter their experience.”

Online platforms that enable individuals to take part in scientific research have helped expand crowdsourcing for environmental campaigns, Simperl adds. For example, on Zooniverse, Old Weather is harnessing human effort to monitor and catalogue changes in climate. Apps such as Epicollect are also useful for projects that need to crowdsource information on the move. Still others set up their own sites to coordinate volunteers and collect data. The independent site eBird uses volunteers to catalogue bird species to support conservation and monitor biodiversity.

Simperl and her colleagues are currently involved in a project called ACTION, which is about enabling participatory science at all levels and in all parts of the research lifecycle by supporting 16 pilots across Europe that research different forms of pollution.

Empowerment, new perspectives, and better awareness

Apart from big projects with a good funding base, there are also smaller initiatives popping up all around the globe thanks to the enthusiasm of citizen scientists. Maanit Goel, a high school student from Washington state, launched MarbleWatch with his friends in the summer of 2020. The students’ goal with this project is to crowdsource photos of local environmental concerns and use them to bring awareness to issues people might not otherwise think about.

“If you're asking people to submit photos of environmental issues near them through crowdsourcing, you can see a lot of those overlooked issues in ways you wouldn't be able to,” Goel says.

“What we're doing is basically asking as many people in our community as possible: can you submit photos on any environmental issues that you see? And because we're crowdsourcing, we're getting input – all these great photos! – from people from all around our community and thus we’re also getting a lot of different perspectives of how environmental issues are affecting people.”

Goel and his friends also noticed that just the action of taking photos makes people more conscious and leads them to think about ways they might be contributing to the problem. For example, taking pictures of discarded facemasks over the past year has reminded people to make sure and properly dispose of their own. 

Anyone can get involved

Apart from being good for nature, crowdsourcing is also good for people. Goel says that it makes people feel like they’re part of a community. It’s also empowering because it allows people to make an impact.

D’Angelo adds that one of the key benefits of citizen science projects based on crowdsourcing approaches is that they can promote dialogue between researchers or decision makers and citizens, which can ultimately help make these processes more democratic.

The real beauty of crowdsourcing is that it is open to anyone and everyone – and offers people flexibility, something very important for our busy lives.

“Especially where crowdsourcing is implemented in the form of microtasks, citizen scientists can fit their engagement around other commitments,” says Simperl. “You have five minutes between meetings? You can go and tag a few images on Zooniverse. You are taking a walk to relax at the end of the day? Why not take pictures of some of the streetlights on your phone while you do. These activities are flexible, so participants can engage with them as much or little as they can afford, and still contribute and have an impact on the environment in this small way.”

If you want to put on your citizen scientist cap and get involved in a project related to environmental protection and the fight against climate change, the best starting point is Zooniverse, where it’s possible to filter projects by topics - one of which is climate.

Simperl also suggests looking at your local community. 

“There are a plethora of smaller projects pretty much everywhere. If your country has a citizen science association, that would be a good starting point to find out what is happening in your area. The EU Citizen Science project is currently building a pan-European platform for citizen science, which includes a growing catalogue of projects, resources and training materials. Lastly, if you cannot find what you are looking for, there is no reason why you can’t set up your own project!” Simperl concludes.

Written by
Maria Stambler
Contributing Writer at Spoon Agency