Who out there wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up? Or maybe you were more inclined to the deep depths of the ocean, longing to be a marine biologist.
While many of us might have instead taken a path that has you seated at a desk reading this article — don’t worry, I’m seated at one writing it — there is hope yet to live out those childhood dreams.
The answer: citizen science.
In citizen science, the public gets to participate in the process to collect and analyze data, make discoveries and help solve real-world problems.
“Citizen scientists are being increasingly engaged by organizations to do two things,” said Gabe Filipelli, director for the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. “That is to improve science generally and to learn the power of information so that they can affect change in their communities.”
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Filipelli, for example, works with communities to take samples of and understand the levels of lead in their soils. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Inc. organizes Pollinator Counts to tally the birds, bees and butterflies crucial to keep plants growing and nature thriving. And programs such as Hoosier Riverwatch enlists residents to monitor the quality and health of our waterways.
With Earth Day upon us, numerous projects in Indianapolis, the state and beyond are calling on the public to accelerate science and our understanding of the natural world.
The global City Nature Challenge, which Indianapolis is competing in for the first time this year, is one such example. It kicks off on April 27 and runs through April 30, and organizers estimate that 500,000 observations will be made by more 10,000 people in over 65 participating cities.
This project asks residents to explore areas within their city to find as much urban nature as possible. Those who participate are challenged to document the plants, insects and animals they find and report them on the iNaturalist app or website. The objective of the event, according to organizers, is to develop a baseline of a city’s biodiversity and then monitor how it is changing.
The growing army of citizen scientists open up a world of possibilities, but some of the many agencies and organizations who rely on them have some tips and tricks — some do’s and don’ts — on how best to be involved.
► DO follow directions closely. Important processes have been established by scientists in order for the data to be viable and reduce bias. Some projects are very specific about the criteria they’re asking citizen scientists to observe, so pay attention to parameters such as location, species, and quantity.
► DO take good notes and pay attention to details. Give more information than you think you should. For example, according to KIB, if you observe a flower that you don’t know the name of, a description such as “long, skinny, dark purple petals with a yellow center and pointed leaves” can help project organizers identify what you see better than “purple flower.”
► DO monitor on a regular basis. Many organizations recommend making multiple observations, in multiple places, and at different times. Wildlife sightings or test results can vary depending on the weather or time of day.
► DO take your tech with you. Whether it is a specific technology or equipment for the project you are working on or apps such as iNaturalist, mPING, or Globe at Night, these tools immediately connect your observations with millions of others from around the world. Including pictures with your submission allows scientists from all over to refine your data until it’s research grade.
► DO bring citizen science to work. Having a talk with your business or with your workplace about its impact — such as waste produced or water and energy used — and how to create reports on this could help track these items to be compared, improved and showcased.
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► DON’T make up numbers. Just because you want to be helpful, inputting inaccurate data can compromise the overall project and its results. The goal of citizen science projects is to get an accurate picture of what’s happening in the world. No data is still good data!
► DON’T be afraid to say you don’t know. If you don’t know what you’re observing or if you’re not sure you’re completing an observation the correct way, then ask. Researchers and scientists are often available on communities like iNaturalist to help answer questions and make recommendations, or reach out to the project leader (you won’t be bothering them).
► DON’T keep it to yourself. Share what you’re collecting! Citizen science is only as sound as it’s social crowd sharing, and the data should be useful for informing the larger public, not just the individual citizen.
► DON’T take risks. Be smart and safe in the efforts to which you go to collect data or make observations, and don’t trespass on private property. Make sure you obtain written permission of the landowner to enter their property.
► DON’T stop when the project is over. Continue to notice the natural world around you and share what you observe. You’ll be amazed by how much you notice on your next walk.
For more information on how to participate in the City Nature Challenge, visit: http://sciencemarchind.org/events/cnc/