Nest-watching: ecology and infrastructures of citizen science projects

Citizen science projects thrive in conservation biology and natural history as much as in health and life sciences. Even the word ‘citizen science’ was firstly popularized at the Cornell Lab for Ornithology – and its director Rick Bonney has become a leading analyst and promoter of citizen science projects, with tens of publications devoted to the topic. There are many things that could be learned by looking at how citizen science projects emerge and succeed (or fail) in the two fields. While scientists and citizens could engage in citizen science in biomedicine and conservation biology for very different reasons and with very different purposes, even a cursory look at the two disciplines gives back a clear picture of similar enabling factors. Rick Bonney himself focuses on the benefits of citizen science in terms of scientific literacy, a benefit which is perhaps less significant in the health sciences – yet organizational insights and trends of citizen science in the two fields seem to pair and the somewhat older emergence of citizen science in natural history could be inspirational for the health and life sciences.

The site nestwatch.org is the platform of a decade-old US environmental surveillance system that recruits birdwatchers to monitor nesting attempts across North America. Nesting habits and rates of success and failures of nesting (e.g. eggs hatching), are very important indicators of the impact of climate change and habitat loss on wildlife. However, meaningful analyses require a vast amount of diachronic data across huge territories and collecting such data is a task beyond the capability of any lab or natural history institution, no matter how well endowed. Fortunately, birdwatching is a very common passion of many, and a passion that can be easily recruited for data collection. Birdwatching is indeed practiced by a sizable portion of the citizenry in many countries, with countless associations, journals and informal groups dedicated to birding. The prevalence of birdwatching is a fascinating topic in itself, which is only partially explained by the un-expensive equipment required for successfully birdwatching or the simple beauty of birds and their songs. Whatever the reasons for the success of birdwatching, the efforts of birdwatchers can prove very useful to scientists. These are sometimes complicated efforts, involving hours of hide in bushes or the exploration of rough paths and marshes. It is also a quite complex cognitive task: the identification of birds requires substantial study, and many birds are indeed distinguishable on the bases of very subtle features only. The fact that many people are ‘lay’ experts of quite exotic issues like telling a meadow pipit from a tree pipit is perhaps the first and foremost enabling factor of citizen science projects in natural history – a factor that alone suggests an explanation of why the word citizen science came up in ornithology first. Birdwatchers are many, and many of them are capable of producing reliable data. Nestwatch.org relies on this existing resource and extends birwatchers’ efforts from the bird to their nests – a further motivation for participation. By engaging in nest monitoring, birdwatchers could develop their knowledge and in fact the introductory material of the website is itself a very fascinating handbook of natural history, with a wealth of information about birds’ habits, predators, ecology.

Nestwatch.org belongs to a network of citizen science projects dedicated to communicating the effects of climate change to citizens. This is indeed in line with Bonney and colleagues’ educational aims. Hopefully, many other people could get involved in conservation biology thanks to this and other projects, including people who do not normally birdwatch and may be less aware of climate change and the effect of other anthropic activities on wildlife. However, the scientific success of the project must at the end depend on this supporting ecology of ‘lay’ experts, a supporting ecology that is not impossible to foster and even create ex novo in different fields but that is greatly facilitated by the pre-existence of a distinct bird-watching culture (or even lifestyle). It is a culture with its own rules and institutions, and a long-standing history, dating back to amateur scientists in the XIX century. What nestwatch and other similar initiatives do is giving structure to birdwatching, systematizing through rigorous protocols the observations of many people, to improve their accuracy and make them comparable. However, the bird watching culture is a key component of the ecology that supports citizen science.

A second key enabling factor of citizen science that is exemplified by nestwatch.org does not pre-exist citizen science but was rather consciuosly constructed by its promoters: we may call it the infrastructure of citizen science. This is an example. In order to become a certified nest-watcher, one has to open an account with basic personal information. This account links many different citizen science projects. Upon subscription, I received an email saying that I could participate with the same username to the following participatory research initiatives:

 

Great Backyard Bird Count — http://birdcount.org/

Celebrate Urban Birds — http://celebrateurbanbirds.org/

Project FeederWatch — http://feederwatch.org/

eBird — http://eBird.org/

YardMap — http://yardmap.org/

 

This is just a small part of a larger infrastructure that includes, crucially, citizen science central (http://ww.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit), a platform run by Cornell lab of ornithology that networks  existing citizen science projects and makes the search for participatory initiatives much easier to would-be participants. The point of this infrastructure is not so much that of promoting specific research projects: rather, it aims at fostering the growth of new and unexpected initiatives that could start up their activities much more easily if they can rely on pre-existing channels of communication, advertising, etc. – pretty much as major roads are normally not constructed to serve specific economic enterprises but rather on the assumption that they would enhance the effectiveness of existing companies and release entrepreneurship that would otherwise be discouraged by transportation costs (moreover, citizen science infrastructure may allow for data integration and standardization – a topic to which we will dedicate a future post).

The success of citizen science in health and life sciences might in turn depend on the pre-existence of an enabling ecology of ‘lay’ experts and the construction of a similar infrastructure. The quantified self movement – people tracking their own health – may be such an ecology for the health sciences, and wearables technologies monitoring personal health could be the health citizen scientist’ binocular. Infrastructures are on their way as well: openhumans http://openhumans.org/ aims at being for biomedicine what citizen science central is for conservation biology and it is opening soon.

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