The notion of ‘citizen science’ is fairly new. But, according to journalist Mary Ellen Hannibal, the practice is centuries old. In California, locals long ago learned to speed up and control the growth of certain plants by burning landscapes. “They did this in a cyclical way, in accordance with natural rhythms,” Mary Ellen said, “and they have not made species either go extinct or become domesticated. In many ways, traditional knowledge on the ecology side of citizen science is a real model.” They succeeded by simply observing nature.
Another example of citizen science we all know: tracking the weather. In fact, Mary Ellen said, “it might be the oldest organized citizen science in the United States. Farmers are doing analysis of the data that they’re collecting for when they should plant.”
Charles Darwin was a citizen scientist: “He didn’t work for anyone and he didn’t have an advanced degree,” Mary Ellen said. In fact, until the 1900s, many of the hard sciences were based on amateur science. “People were observers and note-takers and basically compiled what we call big databases today, but by hand and in ledgers.”
The Japanese have been noting the first blooming of the cherry blossoms for centuries. “We can look at that database now and see that they are blooming earlier and earlier each year. We correlate that with changes in temperature and precipitation.
“The biological world responds to the physical world and that’s what we’re truly keeping track of. Today, citizen science is made really important because of our ecological problems.”
It’s also as readily available as ever. If you have a smartphone (and even if you don’t), data recording is at your fingertips.
“What the smartphone does give us is the scientific piece of information. It has the date, the time, the latitude, and the longitude associated with a photograph. That’s evidence. And then we accumulate all this evidence, see the patterns that are emerging, and form a hypothesis.”
The urgency stems from the fact that, as Mary Ellen explained, “It’s just not enough to say, ‘Have a beautiful feeling at Yosemite and give us $25.’ What is the thing that could scale to the level needed to save nature? You need data. You need to know what species live where and how that landscape is used when. Then, when you have that information, you need advocates.”
“What I want is for us to basically do what farmers do and change our behavior as we relate to natural resources, so that we protect them more and don’t work in opposition to their survival. What kind of analysis could I do? I can look at pollinator data on different websites and figure out what to plant on my windowsill to attract pollinators and give them something to eat and some habitat on their way somewhere else.”
In Mary Ellen’s ideal world, this empowerment would extend to our everyday decisionmaking, like when we buy groceries. “I could get a map that shows me the grocery stores with avocados and where they came from. I’m going to choose the avocados that were grown in some sustainable manner. Then, with that kind of information, we make choices about what food we buy and what kind of practices went into producing that food.” Organizations like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch are already helping consumers make sustainable choices at the grocery store.
COVID-19 has redefined normalcy across the planet, seemingly overnight. But citizen science has already stepped in — not only to occupy people stuck at home, but to help us better understand the virus.
Recently, UCSF launched an app to advance the understand of the disease. The project, called COVID-19 Citizen Science (CCS), aims to enroll one million people to contribute data about their health and daily habits. Ultimately, this will help identify factors that contribute to the risk of infection.
“This really goes to show you the power of the crowd and also the power of technology,” Mary Ellen said. “It’s really fine-scale information instantly collected through the smartphone about how the virus is spreading and that leads us to understand how it operates.”
Another initiative, Folding@Home, is a citizen science platform where people can simulate protein dynamics. “It’s like a computer game with protein structures,” Mary Ellen said.
Folding is running a COVID-19 project, giving citizens around the world the opportunity to help come up with the virus’ structure. “If you have a million people playing this game and they have the intuitions of humans, which are more refined when those are computers, they will probably find the protein structure of COVID-19 before anybody does it on their own at a lab.”
And then, there’s the social side of the pandemic. One network, Mary Ellen mentioned, is using citizen science to identify and support victims of domestic violence, for which home is not necessarily a safer place. “This is really the power of citizen science,” Mary Ellen said. “This is the power of mapping, and the computer, and geo-locating to really integrate all the different dimensions of our lives and to see them all as connected.”
With all this progress being made the citizen science front, Mary Ellen emphasized that the real environmental change must happen at large. “I think the coronavirus is showing us a lot. The release of that virus onto humans is very much related to habitat destruction. We have a planet of animals that have evolved for millions of years. Then we cut down the habitat to plant our avocados. There’s nowhere for these animals to live, so they disappear, but the viruses don’t. The viruses are now looking for a host. Humans are a host for viruses that we have not co-evolved to withstand. We’re trying to make evolution happen really fast through vaccines, which we can do to a certain extent. I think it’s showing us that we have got to get more serious about protecting biodiversity if we want to protect ourselves from viruses and other plagues.” But there’s also a glimmer of hope.
“We are in the midst of doing the most amazingly wonderful thing, which is that we are making a globally concerted effort to change our behavior, to help everybody. We’re really getting it that now we are all in this together.”
For those of us fortunate enough to be stuck at home, and healthy, becoming a citizen scientist is as simple as stepping outside.
“As we’re sequestered in place, you can go outside and observe these other systems of ecology that are so dense and so complex. You can start to really observe them and understand the world that we live in in a much deeper way,” Mary Ellen said.
“Until we recognize other species moving across the landscape and living their lives like we live ours, we’re going to continue to decimate them mindlessly. It’s very important to see what’s happening locally, for example, to the butterflies where you live, but then also what’s happening to butterflies in the region and the continent and the globe. It’s the magic of citizen science that these data platforms can give us all of these different pieces of information at different scales.”
If you’re ready to hit the nearby park, Mary Ellen suggests downloading iNaturalist and using it to track the things you see.
“I take my phone out pretty much every day and I go to a natural area near where I live in San Francisco. There are migrated sea birds there right now and I’m in love with them because they’re superheroes. They’ve have been making these immense sea journeys for millions and millions of years. So right there is a piece of calm and joy, an observation of something that is persistent and stable and inspiring. But then I give back to those sea birds by taking pictures of them and uploading those to iNaturalist. Because knowing that they’re here and for how long helps start to understand the overall patterns of what’s impacting them today. I feel like I’m giving back to the seabirds and they’re giving to me right now.”