The practice of science is largely seen as the privilege of a few scientists working within the limitations of a research institute or university. But not any more! Thanks to Citizen Science initiatives even non-scientists may experience a taste of scientific research today. Citizen Science is when people make their own voluntary contributions to the progress of science from home.
The advent of the Internet has made possible the active participation of a large number of people in areas like astronomy, ecology and particle physics all over the world.
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, (NCBS) is spearheading two such projects within India — Migrantwatch and Seasonwatch.
Migrantwatch (www.migrantwatch.in) was set up in 2007. The participants in this activity identify migrant birds and note down the first sighting and feed it into the online database. This requires skill in identifying birds, and so the target group consists of birdwatchers. They are contacted through email groups and nature clubs in a straightforward manner.
However, the organizers soon realized that there was a better way to reach out to non-specialists all over the country, and that was by studying plants. After all, everyone knows to identify at least five different plants. This led to the start of Seasonwatch, a programme in which the participant identifies a tree and observes it every week to note down when the flowers, fruits and leaves come out.
The plan is to build up baseline data based on decade after decade of observations. This would help study changes in the seasons based on changes in flowering pattern. Not just adults, but school children, many of them, have been recruited into this programme. Now there are more than 300 people in Seasonwatch, about 250 of whom are children.
Pied Crested Cuckoo
The Pied Crested Cuckoo migrates from Africa to India every year. (There is also a resident population in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The migrant birds come to Central and Northern India.) There are legends that this bird marks the arrival of monsoon; there is widespread belief that the monsoon follows within a definite number of days after the first sighting of the bird.
This was verified by collating observations made by the members of Migrantwatch for four years, which included the first sighting and the onset of the monsoons.
The findings indicated that while the birds arrive just before the monsoon, the number of days between the sighting and the onset of the monsoon is not fixed from year to year.
It is possible that the birds use the wind that sets in on the east coast of Africa and are likely riding on the wind in their journey to India. The citizen scientists were able to affirm this by analysing the observations over a four-year period. The findings may actually make a research paper.
In India, there is little ecological data about the seasons prior to 1950s. While there is a lot of input from meteorological studies, there is less information about changes in seasonal cycles of plants. The only one of its kind is a 20-year study done in Mudumalai, in the Western Ghats.
In this study, the change in vegetation was monitored. It may be noted that there is no significant baseline work on climate and seasons from the ecological angle. Seasonwatch (www.seasonwatch.in) workaddresses this lacunae — it builds up baseline data about the flowering and fruiting of trees which can be put in the public domain.
The advantage of these two programmes is twofold says Suhel Quader, head of Citizen Science, NCBS: “they help in adding to the scientific knowledge base and also change us as citizens — to care about the environment and develop a relationship with what is around us.”
“I hope many more people come forward, including children, so that 20 years from now we will understand and love nature better.”
Seasonwatch and Migrantwatch are largely in English and Malayalam. The next step is to translate the pages into local languages. But that is not all; for the benefit of people challenged in using the Internet, the organisers are planning to take the programme mobile — using smartphones and mobiles in collecting data. So really the whole exercise is a case in point that technology can be used to bring together people in the most creative way possible.