Citizen Science – conservation for all
Q: Could you give us a brief overview of the citizen science applications you are developing with ExCiteS (the Extreme Citizen Science group) at UCL?
This research group began with the realisation that smartphones, which many people carry in their pockets nowadays, have more accurate instruments on them than those that were available to Einstein when he was developing the general theory of relativity. Systematic data collection and analysis are incredibly powerful tools that science has refined: if people learn how to record key data using their smartphones, there is huge potential for all sorts of analyses to be done to guide effective understanding and action.
At ExCiteS we design tools and methods to enable anyone to produce scientifically valid local ecological knowledge that can then interact with other more formal knowledge regimes to promote better understanding and knowledge, often in the context of environmental justice issues. A big problem currently facing the world is that we don’t understand the environment properly, or in sufficient detail, and people who spend time learning about it soon find out that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know!
All analysis is based on comparison: by comparing two different things or the same thing at different times, you can start to analyse how something has changed and then hypothesise about why. It’s something that human brains just do. So we designed an app called ‘Sapelli’ for android smartphones, along with map visualisation software, so that anyone regardless of literacy or language can collect data documenting important local phenomena like illegal hunting or logging, animal sightings, or air pollution, and create maps that facilitate analysing what they’ve recorded.
This enables participating citizen scientists to reflect upon what’s happening – you might see a decrease in numbers of certain species, you might see encroachment by outsiders, whatever those patterns are, people can then reflect for themselves on what they wish to do about it.
For us, that’s the crucial thing: empowering local people who are there in the midst of those issues to take informed decisions. Maybe they take good decisions, maybe they take bad decisions, but whatever decisions they take, they are the ones who learn the lessons from them.
Currently there is a dominance of professional managers, populating top-down institutions for managing the vital landscapes on which our planetary health depends. These mostly faceless individuals make very important decisions that then have huge consequences for local people. Managers generally go off to another position at another organisation or location after 3, 4 or 5 years, occasionally longer, so that the learning and awareness of the mistakes they have made is lost and local people just have to somehow carry on in the context of whatever mess was left. ExCiteS seeks to keep that learning in the hands of local people who remain in the area.
Q: What are some of the benefits of using this type of technology?
We did a project with a group in the Central African Republic because a logging company had just been given rights to log their area, so they wanted to document their key resources to prevent them being damaged by the loggers – something we have done in many areas. We facilitated that – it’s all done with iconic software, based on symbols so that anyone can use it. This was successful, they mapped their key resources without us being involved, and we saw some of the maps they created. But other benefits also emerged from this process. Local participants were a youth organisation composed of farmers and hunter-gatherers. The process of working together to map their environment galvanised them into realising that they could achieve more together as a group to address other problems they identified. From our point of view it’s not about which type of technology you use, it’s more about a mind-set: collecting evidence to document what is happening, and collectively reflecting upon it to understand how to address the issues as a result. It transforms participants from reacting to changes to proactively shaping processes so that outcomes reflect their values and provide the results they seek. It’s that process of problem solving and empowerment that we really encourage.
Q: What potential do you see for citizen science as a way to improve conservation outcomes, both in terms of people’s lives and for the ecological health of the planet?
Well, I think it’s one of the few truly global solutions that we have available to us for conservation. When people start to document what’s going on around them in their natural environment, that awareness often brings care and concern.
If you’re not really sure how or why something is happening, its more difficult to decide what to do about it, you are less likely to be concerned or to think about what you might be able to do about it.
In the context of pollution, for example, or species loss, when people start to become more aware that it is happening around them in their local area, they do generally get quite concerned about it and want to address it. The basic premise of our activities is that when people understand something, they will act upon it – not everybody, of course – but there will always be some who do and that’s enough to make a difference, a huge difference, in fact.
We, along with global citizen science associations, have an ambitious, but realistic target: by 2020 we want to get 1 billion citizen scientists active across the world. If we can engage more of the world’s population in citizen science activities, I think we really can change the trend of apathy and fatalism that is currently so prevalent, and is pushing us to the brink of ecological meltdown.
Q: And these tools are potentially equally powerful wherever you live?
Yes, they can be used wherever you are – we work as much with communities in Europe or London, for example, as we do with others in more remote and challenging locations. We always ask the community to determine what the problem is. In London, we’ve done projects relating to noise pollution on the flight path to Heathrow airport based on earlier ones we did around City Airport. Pollution in the street is currently a big issue, so we’ve supported communities to set up pollution monitoring kits to see what’s going on in their local high streets and town centres. They have been using these kits in Brixton, in Putney and several other areas of London. Using the maps to display the data collected has put pressure on various local authorities to start to take action as a result of the evidence provided by citizens. Now the Mayor of London has made tackling air pollution one of the priorities of his time in office.
Citizen science is incredibly powerful, and it’s available to all of us if we just apply our minds to what matters around us.