People Power: What is citizen science?

April was Global Citizen Science month. With everything going on in the world at the moment, now is a great time to get involved in citizen science. Cassie Howells explores what citizen science is and outlines a few ways to get involved.

Science is the practise of observing and experimenting in order to better understand the natural world. While it is often said that the most important part of science is the scientific method, the strict process used to seek and generate scientific knowledge, the true basis of science is curiosity. Curiosity leads us to wonder about the world around us, about what things are and why things happen?

This curiosity about the world is not exclusive to professional scientists with PhDs and lab coats. Anyone can pursue a greater understanding of the natural world, and citizen science is one of the ways that many people are getting involved.

Citizen science involves the collection, analysis or management of data by members of the public. This is generally carried out in collaborative projects with professional scientists and research organisations. Citizen science can involve a range of different activities, from photographing the insects in your backyard or identifying galaxies from telescope images, to monitoring bushfire recovery or even helping to combat coronavirus. There is a citizen science project to suit every ability and every interest. Best of all, most citizen science projects can be done from home, using a mobile phone or computer with internet access.

Citizen science has been increasing in popularity over the last few years, as researchers seek out different ways to collect and use data. Widespread internet access has allowed citizen scientists to contribute data from all over the world. The development of smartphones has made is easy to take photos that automatically record location data, resulting in reliable and high quality data.

There are many benefits of citizen science:

- Quantity of data

Many projects, especially environment and conservation related ones, involve whole landscapes or multiple different locations that can span large distances. Citizen scientists can help contribute from lots of different places, generating more data than researchers would be able to by themselves.

- People power for data processing

Many museums are beginning to take advantage of citizen science to help them digitise their collections. Citizen scientists can help to identify and label images of specimens or transcribe handwritten notes into digital documents. Museums can have millions of items in their collection and harnessing the power of citizen science is one of the best ways to preserve knowledge and to bring it into the modern age.

- Increase community knowledge and engagement in science

One of the best ways to learn is to do something hands on. Citizen science projects allow communities to be directly involved in contributing to scientific research. This helps to increase community knowledge of science and therefore improve community engagement. This is especially important when projects are linked to decision making or issues that impact the community, such as health or the environment.

- Improved accessibility

Science is not just an industry or a career, but a pursuit of knowledge and greater understanding. Contributing to scientific research should not be exclusive to people with a certain qualification or to people who live in certain places such as big cities. Citizen science allows anyone to unleash their inner curiosity. As connective technologies advance and become more widespread, citizen science projects are becoming more accessible, especially for people who live remotely.

- Good way to engage kids in science

Citizen science projects can be a great way to engage kids and spark their interest in science. Most projects utilise apps or websites that are easy to navigate, especially for tech-savvy younger generations. Many projects are adapting to the new social distancing measures, so everyone can still participate while staying healthy and safe. Many citizen science projects help develop skills, such as observing the environment, recognising patterns or categorising data. Getting involved in project can be a fun way to develop these important skills.

How to get involved?

Now that you understand what citizen science is, here are a few projects to get involved with:

- DigiVol - help transcribe data from the natural history collections housed in the Australian Museum.

- BushBlitz Backyard Species Discovery - document the biodiversity in your backyard to improve knowledge of Australian biodiversity.

- Fold It - An online game that uses a puzzle format to fold different proteins. There is currently a challenge to design a protein that could help fight CoVID-19.

If you want to look at more options, check out this awesome University of Sydney article for a comprehensive list of different projects that you can get involved in, right now. If you do get involved in a citizen science project, make sure to share it with us on social media and tag Peel Bright Minds!

Cassie Howell is a part-time botany student and full-time nature lover. She is passionate about helping people reconnect to nature and hopes for a better world through everything green.