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Across most of the world there are insufficient resources to monitor animals and plants, the state of habitats and the quality of freshwaters and our oceans. Without this information we cannot begin to know the impacts humans have on the world and, crucially, to reduce and even turn around these impacts. But, if the aspiration to involve one billion people in citizen science by 2020 is even partially achieved, it could transform our knowledge. Crucially, it is not just the product of citizen science (the data) that is important, but it is also the transformative potential of the process by involving many, many people in environmental monitoring.

These benefits of citizen science have been highlighted recently in two papers involving researchers at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Firstly, a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology reports on a workshop carried out with conservationists and government scientists from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to explore the potential for citizen science for environmental monitoring. W

orkshop participants identified many different opportunities for citizen science in East Africa – all of which can contribute data useful for international reporting. However, the benefits that they identified were mostly for people – and indeed the current barriers to the development of citizen science were also about people and institutions. Together, both the products and the process of citizen science support international targets such as for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets and the United Nationals’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

East Africa is one of the places identified as having great potential for citizen science for biodiversity monitoring, in another paper recently published in Advances in Ecological Research (free to download until 11 Dec 2018).

In this paper, which brought together an international team to consider the potential for citizen science for biodiversity monitoring across the world, they identified the contribution that citizen science is already making in many parts of the global north. This is where recording wildlife is a popular leisure activity – for example, people go birdwatching and submit their sightings to central databases for use in monitoring. However, in the global south, particularly in southern and south-east Asia, there are regions with particularly high potential to expand the use of citizen science. 

One of the questions the authors asked was how this potential can be realised. Of course, advances in technology are incredibly valuable – from mobile phones, interlinked databases and low-cost sensors – but it is more crucial to consider the people themselves. The authors concluded that, while it is important that citizen science activities provide data that are useful at larger scales –  regional, national and international – it is essential that any citizen science activity has to be of benefit to the participants themselves. Without the participants the monitoring through citizen science will not happen.

"Without the participants the monitoring through citizen science will not happen."

The challenge for the next few years will be to scale-up citizen science. This will have incredible benefits for our knowledge of the environment and could even be used to assess actions designed for environmental restoration.

With the additional benefits, that together support international goals such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, citizen science could be transformative.

Michael Pocock

Additional information

Pocock et al. (online early) Developing the global potential of citizen science: Assessing opportunities that benefit people, society and the environment in East Africa. Journal of Applied Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13279 (open access)

Pocock et al. (2018) A vision for global biodiversity monitoring with citizen science. Advances in Ecological Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aecr.2018.06.003. This is freely available to download until December 11, 2018 at https://authors.elsevier.com/b/1Xx4sErXC0HL6

CEH collaborates with many partners to run a range of citizen science projects for monitoring biodiversity and the environment. In particular, it is easy to get involved with recording through CEH’s apps, including the iRecord app for recording wildlife.