Gathering data via citizen science, a movement where the community takes active participation in scientific research, attracts collaboration between scientists and the public, enabling the discovery of newer endemic flora and fauna, and cultivating interest in sciences that are not restricted to books and laboratories. Recent years have seen the advent of informatics, leading to the development of a number of scientific digital tools on the internet. In areas such as ecology where studies involve field observations, such tools can prove invaluable support in gathering vast quantities of data through online citizen science.
Amateur naturalists and photography hobbyists have explored such tools - eBird, iNaturalist and the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) are large scale initiatives that encourage animal watchers to submit data of species distributions. A bioinformatics platform called Biodiversity Atlas - India (BAI) aims to document population and migratory trend of various species groups such as butterflies, mammals and reptiles. “More than 90% of the data is from citizen science”, says Krushnamegh Kunte, who manages BAI. “In the last 1.5 to 2 years, we have generated about 70,000 records using image-based data.” He is working on expanding the platform to incorporate non-image based data, such as documenting animal calls and sightings.
One way of exposing younger generation to this method of data collection is to introduce these tools in the school and college curricula. A seven year long study published in The American Biology Teacher (ABT) studied the educational outcomes of integrating publicly available aids on the internet with natural history courses at the undergraduate level. The students used NatureAtlas, a website that helps contribute georeferenced material of organisms, generate and access interactive data visualizations, allowing a fresh look at biodiversity specimen information. This activity created new records of existing species in the local biota. Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) scientist, Suhel Quader who actively encourages citizen science activities, explains how online citizen science can help both students and teachers. “Web-based tools can be used to show students some pre-defined result, but more interestingly, can open up the possibility of students asking their own questions and finding answers to them - and these can be questions and answers that have never been addressed before. Teachers would then focus less on the facts, and more on questions like what makes an interesting and/or important question, how can I find the answer, how can I assess the reliability of this answers and so on.”
In India, engaging students through classroom and extra curricular activities is ongoing. NCF’s SeasonWatch project collaborates with schools to monitor trees on their campuses or nearby gardens for studying flowering seasons. BAI conducts “Biodiversity Marathons” in partnership with various NGOs where leading naturalists introduce students to these platforms and encourage them to upload information. Kunte thinks that exposing students early on to ventures like these and talking to them about population ecology can capture their attention, give them a sense of being personally involved in science and potentially attract them towards academia. Bangalore based EcoEdu that collaborates with schools and colleges to inculcate awareness and empathy towards biodiversity also introduces students to eBird, Early Bird and iNaturalist. Citizen science programs allow people to learn data collection and analysis - two powerful skills for scientific research. Hari Sridhar, an ecologist from the Indian Institute of Science who has taught a course on the lives of birds at the Azim Premji University to students from non-scientific background says, “I encourage students to try birdwatching and sign onto eBird to archive their records. It gives them a sense of what scientists do with respect to systematic data collection and use.” Such informal practices however exist only in some schools. Curricula in schools and universities are often rigid and offer little space for teachers to explore newer methods of pedagogy.
An added challenge is maintaining a constant level of interest and enthusiasm for extended periods, such as after the completion of the course. “It is hard to get everyone excited and keep them motivated to continue contributing to internet platforms” Kunte observes, “We need the vision and discipline to ensure that these projects are carried through generations.” Moreover, it requires skill and training to be able to trust the quality of data. Quader is of the opinion that while citizen science projects tend to adopt fairly simple protocols and generate high quality data that is comparable to that collected by trained professionals, there are several ways of improving it such as training reviewers and developing computational tools, automated or semi-automated for detecting unusual details.
Web-based tools for studying ecology offer far reaching consequences. For scientifically inclined laypersons, such tools provide an opportunity to explore an interest while making a valuable contribution to basic science. For the community, citizen science helps raise awareness towards issues such as endangering of species. For naturalists, this is a quicker method of data collection that they can then cross reference and corroborate before publishing them in the database. The introduction of these online instruments in curricula for students in practical courses or field trips can inculcate an interest in observing and documenting regional flora and fauna, irrespective of their professional fields, which is highly beneficial. “We have plans to explore such possibilities with high school students and undergraduates in the coming years, using data from eBird and from SeasonWatch”, says Quader.