Interested in citizen science you can do on your phone? Check out these cool projects on SciStarter that let you contribute valuable data to research via cell phone apps!
by Nina Friedman
I was on a call with Teresa Murphy-Skorzova, Community Growth Manager for OpenSignal, an app that uses crowd-sourcing to aggregate cell phone signals and WiFi strength data throughout the world. Teresa began to explain how OpenSignal maps signal strength and how this process contrasts the way cell phone networks map it. “We aren’t following a pre-determined route like they are; we measure the amount of time a user has coverage, not the …” The connection becomes fuzzy. “Can you repeat that?” I ask.
Teresa wonders if my latency connection (a metric used to measure mobile data connection quality) is poor. She explains that while cell phone networks like Verizon and AT&T measure the percent of the population that usually has coverage, OpenSignal is “measuring the experience of the user,” mapping signals from the devices themselves in real time. Individuals record their connection as they go about their day. The app recognizes that people and their cell phone devices are, well… mobile. Read More
by Kristin Butler
About fifteen of us were gathered in a classroom one Thursday evening last month on San Francisco’s South Bay. We were there to hear a talk as part of a bat banding workshop and field demonstration at a riparian restoration site. The wildlife ecologist and bat expert who gave the talk explained why the nocturnal creatures deserve our protection and respect.
In the field the following night, we watched our teacher wade chest deep across a creek, deftly extract a tiny bat from a mist net by the light of his headlamp, and measure, observe, and band it back at our camp.
As I watched, I imagined what it would be like to be a scientist who gets to study and protect these fascinating animals every day, and I wondered if there was a way for a non-scientist like me to get involved. Read More
by Eva Lewandowski
Gayle Steffy’s fascination with butterflies started when she was thirteen. She found her first monarch caterpillar, brought it home and raised it to adulthood. She’s been hooked ever since, collecting data on monarchs years before joining any of the established monarch citizen science projects. Despite her early interest, which eventually led her to acquire a BS in Environmental Studies, she didn’t initially envision where her work would take her. “I didn’t have a specific goal at the start – I just wanted to record everything I could about each monarch I caught, figuring I could look at it all later and see what it all meant,” she said.
Beginning in 1992, she caught, tagged, and released monarch butterflies in Pennsylvania during their annual migration to Mexico, and then recorded if any of the monarchs were later found at their Mexican overwintering sites. After 18 years of collecting migration data, Steffy accomplished something that not many citizen scientists have done before. In August this year, she published her work in a special monarch-themed issue of the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, a well-respected scholarly journal.
Citizen scientists are the backbone of many ecological research studies. They collect data frequent and geographically widespread data, and they often share projects results informally with others and recruit new volunteers to a project. However, there are some parts of scientific research with which citizen scientists seldom become involved –things like designing a project, conducting statistical analyses, and writing up research results for publication in a scientific journal. It’s even rarer that a citizen scientist undertakes all of these roles completely on their own, but that’s exactly what Gayle Steffy did.
Steffy’s results have intrigued professional scientists and members of the public alike. She found that monarchs that migrated earlier in the fall and those that used inland routes to do so were more likely to be recovered in Mexico, indicating a successful migration. Additionally, she found that monarchs that she collected from the wild as eggs of larvae and raised indoors were smaller and less likely to successfully migrate than wild monarchs that matured outdoors. This result has been of particular interest to monarch enthusiasts and scientists, as many people across the United States capture and rear monarchs inside for education or enjoyment.
The work that Steffy did was completely independent and not associated with any project, but she has been a long-time contributor to many citizen science projects. She began joining monarch citizen science projects because she “realized that the only way we were going to figure out monarch migration was to pool a huge amount of data, and I wanted to be part of that,” she said. Since 1997, she has volunteered with the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which tracks the density of monarch larvae across the country and compiles data on rates of monarch parasitism, and in 1998 she began tagging monarchs for Monarch Watch.. Over the years, she has also volunteered with a project in New Jersey that tracks the fall monarch migration, called the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project. And when a new citizen science project called Monarch Health began studying a common monarch disease in 2006, Steffy naturally stepped up.
The contacts she made through her participation in monarch citizen science projects proved useful when publishing her own research, as she was able to seek advice from professional scientists that she had met over the years. While their support was helpful, she still encountered a number of barriers throughout the process of analyzing and publishing her results as a citizen scientist. From finding time outside her fulltime job to work on the project, to accessing statistical software and costly journal articles for background research, Steffy had to overcome issues that aren’t normally present for researchers associated with a formal institution. “The publishing process was extremely difficult for me,” she said. “The system is definitely set up for people in academia. In fact, when I submitted my paper, the school and program you were affiliated with were mandatory fields. I had to write “see cover letter” in the blank. I wasn’t at all sure if they would take me seriously.”
However, her efforts were taken seriously and her hard work eventually paid off when her results were finally published. Steffy hopes that she’ll serve as an inspiration for other citizen scientists who want to follow in her footsteps. When asked what advice she might have for those who would like to conduct their own research and publish the results, she urged others like her to teach themselves the skills they need to do research, and said, “Just go for it! You don’t have to wait for a job doing what you love, you can do it anyway.”
Eva Lewandowski is a PhD candidate in the Conservation Biology Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota. She is part of the Monarch Lab, where she studies citizen science and conservation education.
WeDigBio is a global event where citizen scientists help digitize the billions of observations and specimens that are stored in museums and field stations world wide. Check out some of the projects involved on SciStarter - Smithsonian Transcription Center, Herbarium@home and Notes from Nature.
Guest post by Meghan Ferriter
You probably know that scientists have explored and documented the natural world for centuries; in their expeditions, they have collected billions of specimens which are now stored in museums, universities, and field stations worldwide.
You may not realize just how important you might be to the next substantial scientific discovery. Scientists are facing challenges of sustaining and improving our life on this planet. Now they need your help in transforming the data in collections around the world to find the solutions. Read More
Citizen scientists collect data to find out how climate change impacts redwoods
by Kristin Butler
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Anyone who’s ever been in a redwood forest knows the sacred experience Steinbeck described in his famous book. Even my dog Kia, on her first hike along the hooded trails of Sanborn Park near our home, bowed uncertainly at the hush of that forest’s redwoods and gazed with wonder at its canopied sky. While photos may fail to replicate the stature of these magnificent trees, they can help conservationists protect them.
Five years ago, a nonprofit in San Francisco called Save the Redwoods League (which buys, protects, and restores redwood habitat) started a citizen science projected called Redwood Watch. Volunteers in the project take photos of redwoods using an app called iNaturalist and the data they collect is helping conservationists better understand redwood distribution and take strategic measures to protect these iconic trees.
“You’d think we’d know where every redwood tree is, but we don’t,” said Deborah Zierten, Education and Interpretation Manager for the Save the Redwoods League. “This projects helps us refine our maps.” The Save the Redwoods League, which is heading into its centennial anniversary soon, will use the data from Redwood Watch to create restoration plans for the organization’s next 100 years, Zierten said.
In particular, the organization is interested in understanding how climate change may be impacting redwoods and their ecosystems and how to help the trees adapt and survive, she said. In California, Redwoods grow within a narrow 450-mile strip that hugs the coast from Big Sur to just over the Oregon border. In the winter months, the trees rely on rainfall and in summer they get the water they need by absorbing coastal fog through their needles and roots, Zierten said. This could make them vulnerable to drought and temperature changes.
Interestingly, redwoods are one of the best protections the planet has against climate change.
Old growth redwoods (trees that are over 200 years old and that survived the gold rush of logging) can take in three to five times more carbon from the atmosphere than any other force on the planet, Zierten said, making them one of the best carbon sinks. Their high branches are so dense, intertwined, and coated with decomposing needles that new trees actually take root and grow on them high above the ground. Of the original coastal redwood range, only about 5% of the old growth forest is left. In addition, 26% of redwood timberland habitat (forests that have been logged and replanted) has been lost to roads and other development.
“One of our goals is to make sure the remaining forests remain protected,” she said, against development, fire, invasive species, and other threats. The Save the Redwoods League encourages volunteers to not only photograph redwoods, but to also photograph the plants and animals that rely on old growth and newer timberland redwood forest ecosystems. These include threatened species such as the Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet; Black Bears and Pacific Salmon; the Pacific Fisher; the Marten; and plants like Huckleberry and many types of lichen.
Volunteers have already collected more than 2,000 observations and the organization plans to continue the project well into the future to preserve these awesome, silent “ambassadors from another time.”
Kristin Butler is a Bay Area journalist and Outreach and Communications Director for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory.
It’s getting harder to track big data around the environment. To address this problem, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Eye on Earth Alliance are putting key environmental data at everyone’s fingertips on the new UNEPLive website.
For decades, timely access to quality data has been a problem for everyone from government agencies fighting climate change to nonprofits seeking meaningful engagement with the complex challenges of human impact on the world we share. The UN launched this big-data analysis platform to support evidence-based decision making on sustainability issues at the highest levels of government, but it’s open—wide open—to anyone. And it just might need an upload from your database. Read More