#SummerScienceFriday | Community Science: This is What a Scientist Looks Like
CWH’s mission is to advance the health and sustainability of our region’s watersheds through inclusive stakeholder engagement. This means that much of our work directly involves the communities in which we work. At CWH, we believe that science belongs to everyone, regardless of age, training or background. Traditionally called “citizen” science, CWH has been compelled in recent times to switch to a more inclusive term - “community” science - to describe science practiced by nonprofessionals. Following the example set by Audubon and the Natural History Museum, CWH believes that the word “citizen” carries implications about who can participate in collaborative science which is contrary to our standards of inclusivity and diversity. We have worked collectively to build capacity around water issues and to engage Los Angeles’ diverse communities with nature in our watersheds. We recognize a unique opportunity to empower watershed stewards with the science that informs our projects. Relatedly, CWH believes that all community members should feel welcome to practice science and that there is truly a role for everyone to get involved. Keep reading to learn more about community science and how YOU can get involved this summer!
What is Community Science?
Community science is the collective and active participation of volunteers gathering data for scientific research. Community science allows people to become more engaged in their communities by observing and learning about their surroundings, while simultaneously dissolving preconceptions about who a scientist is and the barriers which traditionally keep everyone from participating. A community scientist is any person who makes observations about their surroundings and decides to share it. Nowadays, with technology like smartphones, it is possible for nearly anybody to contribute to scientific knowledge.
Since it is impossible for scientists to go out and collect all the information there is to know about our environments, scientists can rely on members of the general public for help. Research projects of many disciplines enlist community science because it greatly increases data processing capacity. For example, information collected by community scientists can be used to build databases that can help inform professional scientists with their research. In fact, entirely new species have been documented thanks to community scientists - like a new poisonous frog discovered in Colombia in 2013, and a water beetle discovered in Malaysia this year which was named after Leonardo DiCaprio.
Pictured, left: Frog Andinobates cassidyhornae discovered by a community scientist in Colombia. Photo published in Adolfo Amézquita et al. 2013. (photos © 2012 L. Mazariegos)
Pictured, right: Water beetlle, Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi, discovered in Malaysia by community scientists. Photograph: Iva Njunjić/Hendrik Freitag
Additionally, the City Nature Challenge last month identified 100 species in the Los Angeles area which had never been recorded on iNaturalist before! When practiced by the general public, science is expanded to better involve, inform and serve all people. Through collaborative science and communication, we are able to advance our collective knowledge and improve our understanding of the world.
Get Involved in Community Science
In April of this year, we asked kids from Elysian Heights Elementary to help us gather data about the wildlife living around green infrastructure at Marsh Park. This Bioblitz event showed us that even grade-school children can make very effective data gatherers and community scientists! A hobby like bird-watching can also become community science - it only requires that the individual makes an intentional observation about their surroundings and shares it. You can participate in community science by taking pictures of the native and non-native animal and plant species that you see in parks, measuring rainfall in your own backyard, or helping researchers identify photo specimens. There are a collection of apps and websites that make it easy to get involved...
iNaturalist is an interactive photography-based community science app, sort of like social media for naturalists. Anyone can inventory nature by posting photos and locations of organisms they come across. The app allows you to engage with other naturalists and learn about where species are occurring. To get more information and recordings in specific places, iNaturalist is used for specific projects called “Bioblitzes”. Users can upload a photo directly to a project by searching for it and hitting join before uploading an observation.
From now until June 30th, the Natural History Museum is inviting people to submit photos of reptiles and amphibians they find in Southern California as part of the RASCals Blitz.
Every year, the Natural History Museum Los Angeles Country and the California Academy of Sciences organizes the City Nature Challenge. Cities across the globe compete to have the most observations recorded in a 4-day period. Stay tuned for next year’s City Nature Challenge and help Los Angeles win!
Check out the Natural History Museum iNaturalist Community Science Program for Southern California specific biodiversity projects and keep your eyes peeled for more Bioblitz opportunities to participate in!
Our CWH Science Team uses iNaturalist to upload photos of species that we see when we are out in the field. On a quiet, cool morning last week, our team spotted two California Newts in the San Gabriel Mountains and uploaded it to the RASCals 2018 Blitz Project page!
Litterati is a community science website that maps the location of trash around the world using geotagging. The goal of Litterati is to map, identify, and collect the world’s litter. Users can take a photo of trash they find, mark the location, and then throw it away! If you visit their website, Litterati lists the most commonly tagged items found, including cigarette butts, McDonalds, and Starbucks packaging. Litterati holds these companies accountable for developing more sustainable packaging and decreasing the litter caused by their packaging.
Download the app on your phone to start geotagging litter!
Zooniverse and SciStarter
If you are looking for ways to be involved in community science from the comfort of your home, all you need is a computer and some time. The sites Zooniverse and SciStarter both list multiple community science projects posted by researchers who need help from community scientists. Projects are posted relevant to any discipline from natural sciences to art. Projects range in commitment from a few minutes identifying photos to more extensive surveys. Many of the natural science research projects, from the Amazon to a backyard in Southern California, involve identifying species from a photo taken by the researcher or a camera trap. A distinctive advantage of SciStarter is that the website tailors projects to various age groups, which is great if you are searching for good projects for kids or your classroom. Go to zooniverse.org or SciStarter.com to make an account and get started.
HERE Map Creator
Cartography can be community science too! HERE Map Creator is a service where individuals can add and edit map data as part of a huge database. Anybody can join the program and begin mapping things like roads, trails, buildings, businesses, and even geographical features. Data about certain points of interest, like the opening and closing hours for a park, can also be added. You can see other people’s edits once they are approved to go live. HERE’s goal is to create a constantly-updating map for use by everyone, from car navigation systems to commercial ventures. The organization plans to start creating editable 3D maps as well, giving a real feel for changes going on in a city. By crowdsourcing map data, HERE is able to collect far more up-to-date map information than any single cartographer could.
Science for All
With healthy curiosity and rudimentary smartphone skills, anyone has the power help advance scientific discovery, regardless of age, training, background, or identity. Community science provides a way to take ownership in science and your community. Download one of the apps we mentioned, or another one of the many community science apps out there and try it out! Recognize the scientist within yourself, be intentionally observant of your surroundings, support scientific discovery, push the scientific community to communicate effectively and be accessible and have fun!
Check out The Awesome Power of Citizen Science video from SciShow for a fun description of community science, including the origin of professional scientists and community scientists throughout history. The show lists examples of previous beneficial community science projects, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey.