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Cornell manages online clearinghouse for citizen science

Thu, 07/28/2011 - 9:26am
Cornell University

From citizen science projects on butterflies, pollen outbreaks and light pollution to mountain goats, loons, spring blooming and much more, Cornell's Citizen Science Central is an online clearinghouse for more than 130 citizen science projects around the country, not only inviting the public to post targeted observations, but also offering training in species identification and other details needed to provide accurate reports.

For example, with an increasingly warmer climate, people around the world are monitoring monarch butterfly migration, the first calls of frogs and the budding and blooming of trees and flowers.

"Most of what we know about the impact of climate change on organisms comes from citizen science projects," said Rick Bonney, co-founder of the Citizen Science program at Cornell and director of program development and evaluation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Citizen Science Central website also helps people design and implement volunteer monitoring projects. Researchers post their projects online, providing numerous examples of successful ongoing projects.

For example, the Lab of Ornithology sponsors many projects involving birds and collaborates with Ithaca's Sciencenter to get middle school students involved in monitoring. Through NestWatch, students record information including location, species of birds, the number of eggs laid and the number of birds that hatch from these eggs for each nest.

citizen scientist surveys for mountain goats

Provided
A citizen scientist surveys for mountain goats in Glacier National Park.

Other citizen science projects at the lab, like eBird and Project FeederWatch, involve volunteer citizens recording bird sightings and counting the number of birds of varying species that come to a set location.

The advent of the Internet, Bonney noted, has allowed citizens to record their data directly on the Web. Filters built into the data entry system can double check participant entries and "advanced methodology helps ensure accurate data analysis, which requires a real understanding of complex data sets that result when you have thousands of people sending you information," Bonney said.

Successful projects build upon activities or hobbies that people are already doing. Bonney said, "When people are already collecting information about birds and keeping bird lists, it's not hard to get them to contribute that information to a database."

The website includes links, for example, to such projects as:

  • Project BudBurst to monitor the appearance of buds in spring and other seasonal plant phases;
  • Operation Ruby Throat to observe the migratory behavior of hummingbirds;
  • Monarch Watch to observe the migratory behavior of Monarch butterflies;
  • Project Squirrel to count the number of gray vs. fox squirrels;
  • Glacier National Park Citizen Science program to collect data on loons, mountain goats, pikas and invasive plants in Glacier National Park;
  • Juniper Pollen Project to report on pollen outbreaks as well as allergy symptoms;
  • GLOBE at Night to monitor light pollution and its effects on various species;
  • TemperatureBlast to promote climate change awareness, involving 12 science centers across the nation, including Ithaca's Sciencenter; and
  • BioBlitzes, which organizes and analyzes data to help specialists with intensive biological surveys, such as 24-hour "snapshots" of every species in Wisconsin's Beaver Creek Reserve and large-scale, long-term initiatives, such as the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Increasingly, apps for smart phones will contribute immensely, Bonney, noted, allowing new and innovative forms of data collection. "There are a lot of apps that are being built now by different groups and organizations to collect data, but a lot of the data are not going into databases yet."

If he has anything to say about it, that will change soon.

Citizen Science Central is supported by the National Science Foundation.

To join a citizen science project, visit Citizen Science Central at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit.

Elizabeth Simpson '14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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