Networking of CS projects is key to tackling big issues like climate change

“Citizen science in India is still in its infancy, but it is the way forward,” says Mohammed Dilawar who runs the Common Bird Monitoring of India, programme from Nashik. This programme, started in 2012, now has over 2,000 citizens, from 34 states, involved in observing and making notes about the common birds in their locality. The organisation is now in talks with Wildlife Institute of India to validate the data using statistical tools.

While it is not new that amateur scientists have made scientific observations that mattered, Internet usage and the ensuing possibility of involving huge numbers of citizens in data collection and analysis is relatively new in India. Mr Dilawar’s belief that Citizen Science (CS) is the way forward is echoed by the scenario in the West, for instance, where the situation is quite mature. CS initiatives like Zooniverse, eBird, etc, have participation that runs into tens of thousands, and what’s more, the databases built up by these have found their way into numerous peer-reviewed publications.

In an article published in the journal Science in April, authors Rick Bonney, Jennifer L. Shirk, Tina B. Phillips et al discuss this phenomenon and outline a future course for CS initiatives. Expressing the desire that the term citizen science, regardless of size of the project, will grow to refer to those programmes that truly do science, they emphasise the importance of developers employing “sound research or monitoring design.” This cannot be overemphasised in a climate where critiques of CS are many times based on the contention that untrained personnel cannot come up with data that is of the quality equal to that obtained by professionals.

There is a recent instance where this contention has been proved wrong. Studies involving monitoring of sharks have shown that quality of data collected by citizen scientists can be as reliable as that collected using automated tools (Gabriel Vianna, PLOS ONE, April 23). This is just one instance, and increasingly, Citizen Science initiatives are being treated with the seriousness due to scientific study.

Meanwhile, Bonney, Shirk, Phillips et al stress upon the importance of organising existing CS projects for maximum impact. Project redundancy and repetition being a danger of such large projects, project developers could “adapt, adopt or collaborate with already-proven projects.” They also suggest that developers can look at new possibilities and opportunities for data collection, for instance during natural and manmade disasters, such as oil spills, wild fires or earthquakes. They moot the important idea of networking CS projects around the world so that the research can contribute to a better understanding of phenomena like climate change.

But in India, where the numbers are still small and this concept is yet to catch on, there are obstacles still. While technology need not pose a problem anymore given the ubiquity of mobile apps and even the Internet, there are practical difficulties.

“Sometimes, some scientists like to mark out certain species and areas as their domain. Citizen Science will neutralise this monopoly,” says Mohammed Dilawar. According to him, while a collaboration with larger CS projects worldwide is welcome, the projects should also retain the local nature to some extent to be beneficial in inculcating in the people the culture of doing science.

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