A feather in your app: Citizen science has come of age

How smartphones turned a student, a tile layer, a data operator and a hospital clerk into citizen scientists

March 17, 2018 04:30 pm | Updated March 19, 2018 12:24 pm IST

 Bird watcher at a lake in Mysuru

Bird watcher at a lake in Mysuru

It is nearly twilight, and the yellow orb of a full moon has just set behind swaying coconut trees. Flecks of pink appear in the sky and a glorious red ball of fire slowly rises.

But no stunning sunrise can distract 27-year-old Emanuel George. Birds have begun to congregate in their hundreds in the Changaram wetland in Kerala’s Alappuzha district where we stand. George, binoculars glued to his eyes, is busy rattling off names: “Little egrets, garganeys, pygmy cotton-geese, black-winged stilts...” He pauses and scans the muddy bunds that separate the rice fields in the wetland. “Wood sandpipers, common kingfishers, lesser whistling-ducks...,” he continues, “but what are those three there? Ah, spot-billed ducks,” he says when he spots the distinguishing band of brilliant jade-green on the wings.

His binoculars are off his eyes now, but his fingers are flying over his Android phone screen, typing the names of the species he has sighted on eBird, an app where birdwatchers upload real-time, list-based information on species.

George lays tiles for a living — but in his spare time he is a citizen scientist, feeding into the app vital data that will reveal bird distribution patterns, numbers and changes in species across seasons and years.

George tells me he caught the birding bug from his friends who worked as naturalists at a resort nearby. They would accompany tourists who wanted to see local birdlife. Today he begins every morning with a pair of binoculars gifted to him by a tourist, spotting birds around his home in Ezhupunna village. He has been on eBird for three years and takes pride in being the country’s ‘eighth best eBirder’ based on the number of check-lists he has submitted.

eBird is just one of many digital fora that are now drawing in ordinary people — non-scientists, if you like — into the process of ecological science and conservation.

Citizen scientists can ask questions, volunteer to collect data, and analyse it. For researchers, citizen scientists are a boon: with their sheer numbers, they can contribute extensive data over vast geographical areas, something trained scientists could not dream of gathering either individually or in teams.

While it may appear to be a novel concept, the public has always participated in ecological science, said a team of American scientists in a 2012 study. Chinese citizens and officials, for instance, tracked locust attacks for at least 3,500 years although they did not know their observations would later be used for science.

But today, thanks to smartphones, the Internet and the endless possibilities of apps — with special help from Google Maps — citizen science has truly come of age around the world. And India is by no means lagging. Whether flowering patterns in trees, the mating habits of butterflies, or the arrival of migratory birds, the country’s citizen scientists are helping create a vast and valuable corpus of data.

One of the most recent initiatives is Roadkills, an app launched in January by the Wildlife Conservation Trust. Here, people upload geo-tagged photographs taken on their mobile phones of wild animal deaths they come across on roads they travel through. Scientists use these pictures to identify stretches where roadkills are high, and communicate the information to policy-makers so they can help create mitigation measures such as underpasses. Just two months into its launch, the app has registered around 500 cases of roadkills — of many species including tigers, hyenas and pythons.

Rakesh Kolhe, a data operator with Maharashtra’s Nagzira-Navegaon Tiger Reserve, has uploaded more than 70 photographs of roadkills since the app was launched. “Most are birds and snakes. Fifteen days ago, I also uploaded a photo of a spotted deer roadkill on NH-6,” he says. “I think this is a great app. I used to collect photographs of roadkills earlier too but there was no forum I could share them on.”

Citizen scientists have also been discovering new species, new behaviour and distribution patterns. Writuparna Dutta, a Ph.D scholar from Kolkata, uploaded some curious pictures on the Butterflies of India online forum: they were images of the tiny monkey puzzle butterfly mating with a completely different species, the ciliate blue.

Photographs also came in from across the country of male monkey puzzles engaged in a kind of combat: resting face to face, holding their wings in a peculiar angle, their proboscis intertwined and mouth parts locked tight. “This strange contest has never been recorded before,” says butterfly biologist Krushnamegh Kunte of Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), who launched the website in 2010. “Why are they doing this? We don’t know.”

Again, thanks to photographs uploaded by citizen scientists, Kunte and his team in 2015 were able to describe a new butterfly species — the banded tit — from Arunachal Pradesh. Another new species of butterfly will soon be added, and two new species of cicadas, which citizen scientists uploaded on a sister site, Cicadas of India, will also be soon described. Moths, amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies and damselflies are the subjects of other sites launched under the umbrella Biodiversity Atlas of India set up by the team.

There is one website dedicated just to hornbills. On Hornbill Watch, launched four years ago by Nature Conservation Foundation of Mysuru, birders can report sightings of India’s nine hornbill species. By February 2017, the project had recorded 938 sightings across 27 States. This data can help identify locations that need to be protected to conserve hornbills, many of which are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

 On Hornbill Watch, birders can report sightings of India’s nine hornbill species.

On Hornbill Watch, birders can report sightings of India’s nine hornbill species.

On the other hand, the India Biodiversity Portal, launched in 2008, welcomes information on any life form — plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles. Not surprisingly, some 12,80,000 observations have been made, covering more than 30,000 species as of 2016.

Spot the aliens

In their ‘Spotting Alien Invasive Species’ campaign, they call participants to upload photos of any one of 20 invasive species in India, including the notorious shrub Lantana camera and African fish Tilapia. Researchers can add locations so that scientists can identify the places where these non-native species have made inroads.

Plant life is equally in the spotlight. From the remotest parts of Meghalaya to urban Kerala, school children are keying in their basic observations of the leaves, flowers and fruits of cherry trees every week to Seasonwatch, a national project launched in 2008 as part of the citizen science programme at NCBS. The project tries to monitor how climate change is impacting plant phenology across seasons.

“I now observe trees wherever I go,” says 14-year-old Kailas K.S., a Class X student of the Kuttamassery Government High School in Kochi, who has been observing a 15-foot-tall elephant-ear fig tree in the school courtyard for two years now as part of Seasonwatch. “I never bothered about trees before. Observing my tree has changed things.” Kailas observes it every Thursday and notes down whether there are more mature leaves or young tender leaves; if caterpillars are feasting on them; whether the fruits are unripe or mature, and if birds or small mammals eating them.

Meanwhile, other tree-watchers in Kerala have been discussing if the Indian laburnum, which usually blooms around the Malayalam New Year (Vishu festival, April 14) now blooms much earlier. Seasonwatch data does indicate that though the tree shows a peak in flowering between March and April, some trees do flower at other times of the year. But because there are no historical records, there is no way of knowing if this is due to climate change.

One of the first formal citizen science programmes in India and the longest-running is the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) initiated in 1987, says scientist Suhel Quader of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) who has been instrumental in launching two citizen science efforts. During the AWC, thousands of volunteers fan out over more than 6,100 sites across 27 countries in Asia and Australasia to count waterbirds in wetlands. All this data also goes on eBird.

With more than 3.8 lakh birdwatchers worldwide and around 100 million sightings each year, eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project. Technology has made the exercise far easier. “It was difficult for participants to get back to their computers and log in their bird lists at the end of the day on the eBird website,” says Pronoy Baidya, a doctoral student at Indian Institute of Sciences who has been using eBird for several years now. “The mobile app has changed this completely. It is now easier to submit data and this can be done during birdwatching too.”

And much like the new insects being discovered thanks to citizen scientists, so is the odd new bird. A year ago, photography enthusiast Arun Bhaskaran, a clerk at a government hospital in Kerala, photographed a gull and uploaded it on eBird. A Portuguese birdwatcher who happened to see the photograph halfway across the world pointed out that it was a Mew gull: the first ever spotted south of Goa.

What motivates them?

Importantly, data gathered through citizen science initiatives are now accessible to the public who generate it. This is a powerful tool, with which enthusiastic citizen scientists can even analyse patterns, something that was once the forte of trained scientists alone. However, transparency in data has prompted some observers to raise concerns about what this means in terms of revealing locations of threatened or trafficked species. To tackle this, eBird, for instance, now has a ‘Sensitive Species’ setting so the locations of certain rare or threatened species are not divulged.

So what makes citizen scientists tick? A recent study examined the factors that motivate volunteers’ initial and long-term participation in Costa Rica, U.S. and India. The team found that though initial motivation stemmed from enjoyment or an interest in nature, citizen scientists are inclined to participate in projects that address their interests and offer them self-advancement. Aspects that assured long-term participation include acknowledgement and trust. “Trust is very important while running such projects,” says Ramki Sreenivasan, a former IT company owner and co-founder of the website Conservation India. “Users should clearly know the goals of the project and how their contributions specifically help.”

Scientists are increasingly beginning to see citizens as partners rather than as data-collectors, says Quader. And long-term participation can even translate into deeper interest and active conservation advocacy.

George takes his eyes off his binoculars for a moment and points to some noisy black-winged stilts, their long red legs a stark contrast to their pied coats. “Earlier, some villagers hunted migratory birds like these and sold them to restaurants. But we’ve been talking to them and reporting incidents to the forest department, and it has decreased now.” George adds that he now notices villagers getting excited when migrant birds arrive and taking pride in them. “They can even identify spot-billed pelicans and bee-eaters.”

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