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Spring 2013

Newsletter Archive


A Focus on Citizen Science

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Citizen engagement in science is not a new concept; Charles Darwin himself was aboard the Beagle as companion to the Captain. In effect one of the greatest scientific minds contributing to our understanding of the natural world was a citizen scientist. Certain fields have a continued history of engaging and being informed by citizen experts, such as astronomy and natural history. However, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in citizen engagement and today there is a proliferation of research projects with a component involving citizens aimed at addressing a diversity of environmental challenges such as climate change, road ecology, invasive species, water quality, human use and wildlife monitoring.

According to the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, citizen science is defined as "the engagement of volunteers and professionals in collaborative research to generate new science-based knowledge." This field is sometimes called public participation in scientific research (PPSR) as a term to encompass community based monitoring, participatory action research, participatory science and citizen science. Regardless of the term used it is an expanding approach to research and one that has particular relevance to conservation.

Over the last several years Miistakis has been involved in a number of citizen science initiatives. Our interest in citizen science was driven by the recognition that many of the scientific and conservation initiatives we were involved in had key information or data missing and the notion that citizens carry important knowledge and are capable of contributing to or informing research.

Our first citizen science venture was Road Watch in the Pass which we initiated in 2005. For several years we had been involved in conservation initiatives in the Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta and a key issue was habitat fragmentation caused by Highway 3. This is a very busy transportation corridor and one that is known to be lethal for wildlife moving across the highway and consequently is a human safety concern. We wanted to figure out if we could identify important movement areas for wildlife as this data was largely missing from the scientific processes. We knew that many of the local citizens knew where these important movement areas were from observing wildlife for many years. So, Tracy Lee focused on integrating this local knowledge for her master's research and Miistakis, together with Mike Quinn, developed an on-line mapping tool allowing locals to enter their sightings of wildlife. This proved to be very successful, resulting in the collection of over 5,000 wildlife observations along Highway 3. Road Watch data has been used in many planning and conservation initiatives and continues to be used today.

Throughout our work with Road Watch, many questions arose for us, including:

  • What is the benefit of engaging citizens in scientific research in terms of conservation outcomes and individual behavioral change?
  • What does success look like and how is it measured?
  • Does an engaged citizenry make for better solutions to conservation challenges?

Following Road Watch, we developed Cowboys and Carnivores - a citizen science project in partnership with the Drywood Yarrow Conservation Partnership. This project developed through the recognition that local ranchers were facing significant issues with carnivore depredation of their livestock which also resulted in human safety issues. With limited monitoring of carnivores in the region we worked with local ranchers to develop a monitoring program that would allow ranchers to document sightings and occurrences of large carnivores. A long-term dataset of large carnivore observations would allow ranchers to address key management issues including determining how carnivores were responding to new management strategies (such as using electric fence to keep bears out of silage) and the temporal and spatial patterns of carnivores on the landscape.

Some of the key challenges we faced with Cowboys and Carnivores included:

  • Continued engagement of local citizens;
  • The need to balance community needs with individual needs;
  • Time needed to build a community of engaged citizens; and
  • Long timeframes required for creating a meaningful dataset.

Currently we are working on a citizen science project called Leave It To Beavers led by Rachelle Haddock in partnership with the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area, Cows and Fish and the Calgary Science School. The project is focused on engaging students in water quality and quantity monitoring pre- and post-beaver reintroduction to determine the role that beaver reintroduction can play in watershed stewardship. In this project we have included a knowledge, attitudes and behaviors survey that was administered to students prior to their participation and will be administered again at the end of the three year program to gain an understanding of how participation in this longitudinal citizen science program has affected students.

Questions we are facing with this project include:

  • How to sustain funding for multi-year citizen science initiatives; and
  • How do we transition from data collection/outreach to influencing policy change?

Last year, Rachelle and Danah attended a PPSR workshop in Portland, Oregon that brought together PPSR practitioners from across multiple disciplines and sectors. One of the biggest take home messages from that meeting was the scope of the community of practice of PPSR - ranging from environment to public health to astronomy to gaming and everything in between. This workshop also highlighted the movement to accept citizen science data as credible and academically sound. It also highlighted the need for us to be networking with other PPSR practitioners here in Alberta.

So, it was the questions and challenges we have faced with citizen science that led us to reach out to other citizen science practitioners in Alberta to start a dialogue and explore how we can advance the field of citizen science in Alberta. Specifically we organized a workshop which took place on May 22, 2013 to:

  1. Bring together individuals and organizations using citizen science to share, explore and discuss their respective program goals, data collection methods, challenges and successes;
  2. Understand through collective participation key themes/challenges facing citizen science practitioners; and
  3. Discuss the need for a Canadian citizen science symposium.

We had 38 citizen science practitioners from across Alberta join us for the workshop, and we were thrilled with how the workshop unfolded. Tina Phillips from Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology (a true leader in citizen science) was our keynote speaker and enthralled the participants with her knowledge of the breadth and depth of citizen science. She left us all with much to consider and reflect upon. The rest of the day was spent engaged in conversation about the challenges, opportunities and future of citizen science. The input we received from our fellow citizen science practitioners will be used to shape a future regional or national conference on citizen science.

There is huge potential for citizen science to be used to engage citizens in scientific studies, to facilitate the gathering of critical data, and to affect change. If you would like to be added to our potential participant list for a national conference on citizen science, please send an email to: danah@rockies.ca