Are you curious about how you can get more involved in conservation? Media frequently bombards us with ways to conserve energy, support ethical businesses, or minimize our waste, but what about doing our part for environmental conservation? Becoming a citizen scientist is a great way to learn about and contribute to important environmental research around the world. No, you don’t need to be a scientist or even travel to the Amazon rainforest to contribute. Sometimes all you need a smartphone and a love for nature to contribute to conservation efforts. If you’re like me and grew up wanting to be a scientist but never took the leap, now is your chance. By engaging as citizen scientists, we can finally achieve our dreams of being a scientist without years of school. I’ve rounded up all my favorite ways to get started on your journey of becoming a citizen scientist and some important information to consider before you get started. Let’s get into it.
Citizen Scientists are important for global research.
Scientists rely on citizen data to save money and time.
Governments use data to create environmental policies.
Connect with nature and learn about the environment.
Help from bed or get outdoors for real fieldwork.
Why is Citizen Science Important?
You would think that scientists have all the tools and resources available for research at their fingertips, but that not always the case. Getting the funding to do long-term or in-depth research is quite difficult for scientists to secure. It can also be costly and time-consuming to conduct research, sometimes requiring data from different countries. Not to mention, analyzing data can take agggessss. Outsourcing to citizens who can volunteer their time intermittently worldwide can help researchers learn more about the natural world, publish papers, and give politicians the information they need to create policies protecting the environment. As a bonus, you will gain scientific experience and learn more about global environmental issues and why they matter.
Citizen science is an increasingly important part of science. The EU has even dedicated €80 billion for research engaging citizen scientists. Tapping into this market is a win-win for the EU as they save money, time, and resources, and their residents become more aware of local issues.
Belgium relied on 2,000 residents for a research project called CurieuzeNeuzen – a regional word for nosy people. The term was appropriate as people provided data samples about nitrogen dioxide at nose height – a level that satellites are unable to detect. (Get it – nosy citizens… nose height… haha). Without the help of residents, the Belgian government would have been unable to distribute enough scientists at a reasonable cost to collect this information.
In Alaska, scientists gathered volunteers and trained them to spot an endangered pod of Belugas in the Cook Inlet. Private pilots and residents driving along the inlet were able to call in sightings or spend an ample amount of time observing. The data collected helped provide critical information on the decreasing population, how effective conservation efforts have been, and help drive urban development in Alaska’s largest city.
How to Become a Citizen Scientist
Earth Challenge 2020
Download the Earth Challenge 2020 app on the play store or apple store to be part of a global community of citizen scientists. Using the app, you can contribute to ongoing research by recording insect sightings, air quality, plastic pollution, food supply, water quality, and climate change. The sign-up is quick and noninvasive, and in a matter of minutes, you can be taking photos of the skyline to help researchers determine air quality in your region. Each of the categories has educational content to learn why the research matters and personal actions to tackle the problem. You’ll gain access to more options the more you contribute, working your way up the ladder. Make sure you have this app handy at all times when you’re out of the house.
Bust out those work-from-home sweats and cozy up on the couch for a night of SCIENCE! Turn your Friday night into a citizen science party with Cartoscope. Cartoscope is an online mapping program that teaches you how to spot algae blooms, identify reptiles and amphibians, pinpoint flood zones, spot restored land areas, and more. You start by selecting a topic that interests you and agreeing to a data collection waiver before starting your training. The training ensures you have the background information to do the work with a few examples and practice runs. Then you’re on your own, identifying environmental concepts in satellite images, aerial photos, and field photos. They will ask you to complete a survey at the end, to help ensure the quality and confidence of the work you did.
Next time you have some time to kill rather than just putting on another Netflix show you’ve seen dozens of times, contribute to citizen science.
National Park Service Citizen Scientists
If you’re located in the United States and are itching to get some fieldwork experience, then check out the long list of ongoing citizen science projects from the National Park Service. Record snowshoe hare droppings in Denali National Park, Alaska, to determine the population size and density of hares in the region. Contribute photos to help the Indiana Dunes National Park assess the impact of ongoing restoration projects. Projects are happening in parks across the states.
Some of the projects require you to work with a park ranger or scientists, but others simply ask you to record data through an app, like Inaturalist. Before you visit a national park check to see if they have an ongoing project so you’re prepared to contribute.
Inaturalist is probably one of my favorite apps and programs to use. After signing up, you should add your location to find ongoing projects near you. One best part of Inaturalist is you can go bananas and observe anything anywhere, as long as you add enough details, quality photos, and observations. Collecting general data on species helps scientists determine how climate change alters behavior. There is a large community of inaturalist users, so you can even connect with other users in your areas, comment on unidentified species, and treat it like the environmentalist’s social media.
If you’re reading this in the pandemic of 2020-2021/2022 (will it ever end?)…. And currently in lockdown – like I am here in Munich, check you the group observing “wildlife at home.” Take images of the creatures and critters sharing your home with you to help identify which species are indoors at what times of the year. So, instead of squishing that spider, invite it into your home for a glamor photo shoot and treat it like royalty!
Where my birders at? Did anyone else become a birder during the 2020 pandemic? I know I relished in every bird sighting and went from knowing nothing about Munich’s bird population to becoming a low-key expert. Put all that birding expertise to good use by reporting bird sightings, contributing photos, and record the songs and sounds of birds on EBird. Your diligence and patience in birding will contribute to one of the largest ongoing biodiversity projects in the world. One of the best things about the apps is it not only helps you organize and track your bird encounters, but you’ll receive free educational resources and tools on the importance of bird conservation, and scientific information about your favorite species. It’s one of the best citizen science websites out there and seamlessly weaves together people’s love for birding and conservation efforts. You can use it as a personal birding journal.
If you’re unsure how to get started in citizen science projects or curious about what is available in your area, then Scistarter is a great resource. You can search by location, age, project, or topic to find something interesting in your area. Join hundreds of thousands of people around the world, contributing to science. Subscribe to the Scistarter Youtube Channel for nearly 100 videos discussing different projects in which you can get involved. One such project featured on the Scistarter site is Caterpillar Counts!
Build an Air Quality Sensor
For the more technically savvy you can build your own air quality monitor using the Enviro + Raspberry Pi. Depending on how you construct the device you can either monitor the quality of air inside your house for personal use or add a particulate sensor for outdoor quality. You can contribute your outdoor data to an air monitoring program like Luftdata. This hands-on citizen science project is a great way to use your tech skills.
Citizen Science for the US Government
Are you a US citizen shaking your head as you watch the US fall apart in real-time while the government dismantles the EPA and all hope seems lost? You are not alone. Have faith. You can improve our country’s understanding of climate change and the environment by joining government-led citizen science projects around the nation. Join the NPS in studying bacteria in water, contribute to NOAA’s GoPro aquaculture project, or pitch in with the EPAs efforts to check water quality. Take action and do your part to make our county less of an environmental shit show. You’ll feel better, I promise. For those that aren’t in the US- help us out by offering global data – we need it!
Citizen Science Global
Help the UN understand and reach their Global Sustainable Goals by helping their citizen science global force. One of their main projects right now is studying mosquitos to understand zoonotic diseases and how climate change impacts the spread of mosquito-borne illness. One such project they support is the Mosquito Alert. Your help identifying the Yellow Fever, Dengue, Zika, Tiger mosquito contributes to global efforts to control and reduce the spread of diseases.
The other branch of work supported by the UN does have a barrier to entry. To contribute to the EU’s We Observe and the UN Citizen Science Maximazition Group will need to fill out some forms and wait for approval. If you’re a scientist with some downtime on your hands it’s a great way to stay engaged and contributing.
Fold It is a computer game that allows you to contribute to science while playing a protein folding game on your computer. You’ll need to download the game and play it on a desktop. It’s a bit confusing at first, and the website is in serious need of an update, but once you get into the game it actually becomes addicting. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing half the time, but you can mindlessly fiddle with protein structures and there are lots of stars and fun noises when you win. As long as someone knows what to do with my results that’s all that matters.
The game contributes to Cancer, HIV, and Alzheimer’s research by predicting protein structure and possible folding patterns. I recommend this game for more advanced or older citizen scientists interested in DNA, or maybe have lost or know someone impacted by cancer, HIV, or Alzheimer’s. It’s a great way to feel empowered while contributing valuable research.
Use your home computer to help boost climate predictions. The Climate Prediction project requires massive amounts of computing power. By downloading a program onto your computer, you can help a small team of researchers gain insight into climate projections and better understand climate change. Trust me this is a far better use of your computing power than mining for bitcoin.
Crowd the Tap
Another one primarily for those in the United States, Crowd the Tap, seeks to understand how pipes impact water quality. You’ll learn how to test and report your pipes, including any lead residue, which has serious health implications. Crowd the Tap is committed to environmental justice and education. The project is spearheaded by a diverse group of people encouraging engagement from communities, schools, or youth groups to learn about pipes and water quality in the United States.
USGS Earthquake Tracker
If you live in the US along the ring of fire, like my fellow Alaskans then you can contribute to citizen science on earthquakes. Shortly after you feel a quake head over to USGS Earthquake Center to report what it felt like. While they have scientific tools to tell them magnitude, having some personal perspective helps researchers understand how quakes might impact people, personally.
Swift Moth Tracker
For those of you in Australia, you’ve probably heard of the Bogong Moth. The giant moth is an essential food source for the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum. The moth’s migratory pattern is impacted by light and noise pollution, and their numbers are threatened by climate change. With Swifft Moth Tracker you can report sightings and learn ways to take action while helping to save the pygmy possum and the moth.
Australian Citizen Science Association
If you want to do more than observe and identify moths in Australia, there are plenty of ongoing projects to check out. Join a regional chapter and find other Australian citizens committed to protecting the unique biodiversity down under.
For all my German friends and readers, you too can be a Burgerschaffenwissen! The site is your one-stop resource for ongoing projects you can get involved within Germany. If you’re a native English speaker living in Germany, such as myself, you can use the site in English. You can contribute to ongoing projects, like reporting birds found dead under nuclear power lines or report sightings of the elusive Primrose Night Hawk Moth. You can also use this platform to connect with other citizen scientists in Germany and register for annual events, workshops, and educational forums.
Citizen Science in Asia
If you’re looking to be a citizen scientist in Asian countries like Singapore, China, the Philippines, India, Japan, Taiwan, and even Pakistan, then check out this handy spreadsheet filled with ongoing active projects you can get involved with. Rather than clicking the links in the doc, I suggest you copy and paste as I had a hard time getting the links to load otherwise.
EU Citizen Science
If you’re an EU resident, then I suggest combing through the EU Citizen Science site for lots of ways to get involved in citizen science networks, groups and contribute to ongoing projects. If you’re researching in the EU as a grad or Ph.D. student, you can look at hosting your research on their site to use citizens’ power in your work.
UK Center for Ecology
If you’re a UK resident, you can be part of the Center for Ecology’s numerous ongoing projects. They have created a line of free observation apps to monitor algae blooms, invasive hornets, flowers, insects, and more. You can also join in field research to participate in flower, bird, and air quality research. The air quality project gives you a cool ghostbuster style backpack to bust that pollution!
Buy the ‘Field Guide to Citizen Science’
If you want an excellent book to add to your bookshelf or coffee table, I suggest the book The Field Guide to Citizen Science. Published by three women in science, this book has loads of additional resources and ways to get involved as citizen scientists. I recommend this to my US readers.
Check Local News and Universities
This is just scratching the surface of all the cool ways you can get involved as a citizen scientist worldwide. There are hundreds of projects happening, many of them in your neighborhood. The best way to find out about these projects is to watch local news and visit the website of universities in your home state or region.
While citizen science sounds like it might be a good thing all the time, that isn’t always the case. Before you go paying thousands of dollars to fly around the world with a British or American company to collate data in vulnerable communities, there are several things to consider. The most important thing is to prioritize working with a local science group. For example, if you want to engage in science tourism in Tanzania, find a local Tanzanian Company that employs locals in conservation, and works with local scientists and politicians to keep the data local. If you can’t find a local company, then perhaps you’re better off engaging in sustainable ecotourism rather than science tourism. Take some time to watch this lesson from Becky Outside and How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch about imperial science’s harmful behavior.
Stay home or keep it local
By now, most of us have that swanky work from home outfit pressed and ready to rock. Yes, of course, I mean those sweatpants balled up in the corner you haven’t washed in several days. If you want to learn more about conservation work outside your home country, but can’t travel at the moment, you can be an online citizen scientist. Many ongoing studies require data from around the world to get enough global data to process.
There are plenty of opportunities in your local hometown, city, state, or country in which you can participate. Volunteering for groups and organizations in your region is a great way to meet new like-minded friends while giving back to your community.
Get the family involved
Citizen science is an excellent way for the entire family to get outside and learn about the natural world. Teachers can create field trips and outdoor activities to collect data while learning about bugs and plants. An adult should be in charge of uploading any data to ensure accuracy, but getting kids involved with hands-on science from an early age is a great idea.
Most citizen science projects, online or in-person, provide some training and background information to ensure you are trained and ready to rock. It is essential to read all instructions thoroughly and take this seriously. Data analysis does account for mistakes and margins of error, but it is crucial to provide detailed and accurate information, to the best of your ability to ensure reliable results.
Discuss and Share
What are some ways you plan to get involved as a citizen scientist?
Can you find any citizen scientist projects happening in your local community?
Have you tried any of these resources? What were your favorites?
Let me know if you have anything to add in the comments. I would love to add some resources for those in Africa or S. America.
Make sure you bookmark and save this post so you and all your friends can learn how to become citizen scientists. Let’s save the planet together.
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for environmental sustainability and bridges sustainable travel with environmental science.