Why Citizen Science Matters

Years ago, in the far western Pacific Ocean, I was working to understand the condition of coral reefs. Some areas were coral rich, had abundant colorful fish and would on occasion treat you to a sighting of a rocketing shark, bumbling sea turtle, or giant, turquoise Napoleon wrasse. Other areas were murky, covered with a scruffy carpet of algae and populated by tiny, frantic fish. Year after year, working with a team of government, NGO, and volunteer divers, we would survey sites around the islands trying to put the puzzle together. What made a reef healthy, what made it sick, why did some areas bounce back after a typhoon or coral bleaching or a ship grounding?

In this effort, there were limited funds, limited people, and limited time available to get information about sites scattered over an enormous area, that were changing with the seasons and that had different pressures affecting them. In an effort to both gain more recruits and to put the work we were doing in a larger perspective, I started working with ReefCheck. This organization has worked with volunteer citizen scientists around the globe, trying to understand how coral reefs as a whole are faring. While participating in the effort did not particularly inform the work we were doing locally directly, it helped put our local reefs in a larger, global perspective. It helped tease apart some of the commonalities of healthy vs degraded reefs across the planet. This was something that no single entity had ever accomplished before, and to their credit, Reef Check continues to do this annually, with citizen scientists volunteering their time. Amazing.

I also revived a volunteer monitoring effort that started to bring in data about some of those creatures and events that were hard to observe due to their scarcity. In a numbers game, the chance that we would see something unusual at a site we visited once a year was not a lottery ticket I would wish to play. However, the recreational divers and commercial dive operators that were visiting sites over and over had the potential to contribute just such sightings. The result of these citizen scientist’s observations included records of unusual whales, threatened and endangered species, and even the first notice of seasonal events like algal blooms. All in all a remarkable dataset that our team of professional ecologist/divers were not in the position to gather – ever.

In recent years, the ‘citizen science’ thing has become a thing. There are now organizations dedicated to citizen science. It is easier than ever to connect with citizen science through phone apps to contribute observations on organisms, earthquakes, weather events and more. This crowd sourced data suddenly opens up the ability of professional scientists (and the citizen scientists themselves) to make discoveries that would either take much longer or simply be inaccessible without the group effort.

This year I am helping a growing citizen science effort on Maui as part of a global initiative called the City Nature Challenge. Started as a friendly competition between SanFrancsico and Los Angeles, in three years, it has grown into an effort to engage citizen scientists around the world in discovering and documenting the nature in their own backyard and their surrounds. In the US, this effort is using the iNaturalist citizen science observation platform. If you’d like to find out more about the Maui initiative, please check out https://mauinui.org.