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Citizen Science' Gains Momentum In Northwest And Nationally

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

Public participation in scientific research is mushrooming in the Northwest and across the country. The trend is called "citizen science." It can take the form of volunteer monitoring and data collection, or crowd-sourced science, or science education with a research component.

One sign the movement is gaining acceptance and credibility: It was a big topic of discussion at a science conference in Portland last week -- the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Here's an example of what we're talking about. Over the past six growing seasons, Project BudBurst has enlisted thousands of volunteer observers. They record when nearby plants leaf out, bloom and fruit.

The observations flow into a massive open-access database. Then botanists can analyze the data to spot changes over time.

Project director Sandra Henderson says participatory science like this is proliferating at an "astronomical" pace.  "Originally, it was I don't want to say limited, but it was a lot of weather data and bird data," Henderson says. "Now what we're seeing is more and more taxa (plant and animal categories), more and more interest. As a result, there's really a citizen science project to meet just about any interest."

For instance, hikers can monitor marmots in Olympic National Park. If whales are more your thing, you can listen to underwater microphones and then notify researchers when orca whales are present.

Nearly 900 people in Oregon, Washington and Idaho signed up to count birds this past season as part of Project FeederWatch. Retired teacher Joan Rupp of Tacoma is a longtime volunteer observer.  "It has been fun to be a part of the whole thing," she says. "I've noticed migration of different birds coming up the last 12 years. Things have changed a bit."

Water sampling is another field accounting for rapid growth in citizen science. Amanda Bruner coordinates SoundCitizen, a project based at the University of Washington-Tacoma. It monitors pollutants in Puget Sound.

"Maybe a few scientists on a boat can go out and collect 20 samples in a day," Bruner explains. "But when we involve the public we can talk about thousands of samples, which certainly gives us much more confidence in what we're finding."

The confidence level is important because Bruner says some people -- including other scientists -- still question whether average citizens can collect reliable data.

Well, there's an app for that -- actually a multiplying collection of technology that addresses data quality. At the same time, the tools accelerate the spread of citizen science.

Dennis Ward pulls out his smartphone to demonstrate the app for Project BudBurst. The educational technologist scrutinizes a maple tree in a Portland plaza. He takes a close up picture of the seed pods, confirms his identification of species with the app, and uploads the sighting.

"One of the wonderful things about using mobile technology is that, as you can see, it actually has the longitude and latitude that is taken from the phone when I took the picture," Ward says. "And I can even say a little bit about the site."

Ward says smartphone apps and interactive websites reduce errors and make it easier to participate and share data.  "And there we are. I can just say, 'Done,' and my single report has been added."

We haven't talked about it much here, but public health research is another realm where average citizens are getting involved in study design and execution. Some epidemiologists have even found they have no choice but to involve the public in certain places.

A catchphrase that drew knowing nods at a science workshop in Portland: "No more research about us without us."

In April, we told you about a citizen science project in Boise, the American Kestrel Project.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network