Citizen Science: For Citizens, Science, and the Planet

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Citizen science — scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, usually in collaboration with scientific institutions — is a grassroots approach to natural science. It educates and engages the public by encouraging ordinary citizens to use their interests and their talents in tackling a wide range of real-world problems. 

Citizen science — scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, usually in collaboration with scientific institutions — is a grassroots approach to natural science. It educates and engages the public by encouraging ordinary citizens to use their interests and their talents in tackling a wide range of real-world problems. Broader databases with information methodically collected by volunteers in many different settings enable us all — professional and citizen scientists alike — to gain a deeper understanding of how the natural world works, how it is connected, and how it is changing.

Image: Volunteers Monitor Bird and Beach Health

Volunteer Patrick Sullivan looks for birds while monitoring his assigned beach on Lake Michigan as part of a citizen science program. USGS photo, Paula Sullivan, 2011.

Citizen science at USGS

The U.S. Geological Survey is a leading federal agency in fostering citizen science. Some examples of citizen science at USGS will help illustrate the concept and show how useful citizen science can be.

Did You Feel It? asks volunteers who feel earthquakes to fill out a brief online form giving their location and their experience during the event. The project converts information from thousands of responses into a real-time online map that lets the public and emergency responders better understand the effects of an earthquake.

Did You See It? is an interactive website that people can use to report landslides. The information is used to test landslide hazard models and improve our understanding of landslides and their impacts.

Nature’s Notebook capitalizes on widespread public interest in the seasonal aspects of nature. Project volunteers regularly record observations of annual changes to plants and animals online to generate long-term datasets used to understand phenomena such as changing patterns in agricultural growing seasons.

The North American Bird Phenology Program enables volunteers worldwide to transcribe the handwritten records of nearly a century of bird populations and migration patterns and add the records into a database for scientific analysis.

The National Map Corps is a project operating in all 50 states for crowdsourcing map data about structures, particularly schools, hospitals, post offices, police stations, and other important public buildings. After careful review, the data is incorporated into The National Map and US Topo maps.

Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED) uses the Twitter social media platform to detect earthquakes by harvesting Twitter data and then broadcasts public earthquake alerts at @USGSted. Through the TED internal alert system, the USGS National Earthquake Information Center analyzes data from social media to detect earthquakes, sometimes faster than seismic networks can.

iCoast – Did the Coast Change? is a crowdsourcing application that allows citizens to identify storm-caused changes to coastlines by comparing before and after aerial photographs. Computers are not yet advanced enough to replace human visual analysis for this task. Over 1,000 iCoast volunteers are helping USGS improve predictions about coastal change and monitor the vulnerability of coastal communities to future extreme storms.

Image: Treasure Valley Watershed Watch

USGS biologist Dorene MacCoy and a group of citizen volunteers prepare to collect water-quality data as part of the October 2012 Watershed Watch citizen science event on the Boise River in Boise, ID. USGS photo, Tim Merrick.

Citizen science across the federal government and the nation

Recognizing the advantages of citizen science — not only for scientific advances in the professional realm, but for public awareness and engagement in scientific discovery — the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Domestic Policy Council hosted “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People,” a live-webcast forum on September 30th.

The White House announced at that event an online Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit that provides information and resources to help federal agencies harness the power of public participation in addressing scientific and societal challenges. USGS contributed to the development and design of this online resource, which includes several USGS citizen science projects as case studies. The Toolkit is part of the Administration’s Second Open Government National Action Plan, which calls on the government to take steps towards promoting innovation through public collaboration and ingenuity.

Citizen science and crowdsourcing can help federal agencies in these ways:

  • Advance and accelerate scientific research through group discovery and co-creation of knowledge. For instance, engaging the public in specialized data collection can provide information at resolutions that would be difficult for an agency to obtain due to time, geographic, or resource constraints.
  • Improve the quality and relevance of observations due to the unique perspectives and local knowledge volunteers bring to projects.
  • Encourage and increase science literacy and provide students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Volunteers in citizen science or crowdsourcing projects gain hands-on experience doing real science and take that learning beyond a classroom setting.
  • Improve delivery of government services with significantly lower resource investments.
  • Connect citizens to the missions of federal agencies by promoting a spirit of open government and volunteerism for the common good.

Learn More

USGS Top Story, 2013 - Scientists Need Your Eyes and Ears

USGS myScience: Connecting people to science — Details about currently active USGS citizen science and crowdsourcing projects, including how to participate