Australian Citizen Science Conferencecitizen science · soil science
If you don’t know what it is, citizen science is any activity in which the general public (“citizens”) partner with professional scientists to answer a research question. I’m sure there are better or more general definitions out there, but I want to emphasise partnership. It’s tempting to just think of citizen science from a utilitarian perspective, where members of the public gather the data and the scientists analyse it. Or, more cynically, where cash-strapped scientists get unwitting volunteers to gather data for them for free. I’d prefer to think of citizen science more optimistically as some kind of mutually beneficial partnership: one in which both partners get to indulge their passion and curiosity for whatever the aim of the project is. As far as outcomes are concerned, I see it as a win-win: scientists are better able to answer pressing research questions because of the extra data they’re able to make use of, and the volunteers get to develop their scientific literacy and may directly benefit from the outcome of the research.
I’ve been interested in citizen science for a long time. In my spare time, I contribute to OpenStreetMap, and more recently I’ve become rather obsessed with iNaturalist. I’m a soil scientist by training, and I’m currently doing soil science as a pedometrician at Manaaki Whenua in New Zealand. Among other things, I help support New Zealand’s national soil map, S-map. I’ve never participated in citizen science as a professional scientist, but I’m excited about its potential to further science generally, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how we can bring citizen science into soil science.
It’s with that background that I went to Adelaide, South Australia, recently, to participate in the second Australian Citizen Science Conference. The Conference was organised by the Australian Citizen Science Association and it was held at the University of South Australia’s City West campus. I didn’t present anything at the conference; I went to gather ideas and get caught up on what is happening in citizen science in Australia.
The conference did not at all disappoint. It was lovely to get connected to an entirely different circle of professional colleagues who are passionate about what they do. Over three days, there were sessions on a broad range of topics including citizen engagement, citizen science policy, partnerships, data and showcases of citizen science projects themselves, among other themes. It’s hard to make an adequate summary of the presentations because of the breadth of topics that the presenters discussed, but you can get a glimpse of what went on by looking at #CitSciOz18 on Twitter.
Many presentations were project-oriented, and presenters spoke on such a wide variety of topics. Here’s a taste, courtesy of Twitter:
Other presentations focused on citizen science itself. It’s fascinating to me that while citizen science enables the public to participate in science as a means of understanding phenomena, citizen science can itself be studied and understood. Many researchers have developed typologies of citizen science projects as a means of understanding project structure. Other research is aimed at understanding the human element: what motivates people to participate in citizen science in the first place?
The keynote speakers were excellent. Australia’s chief scientist Dr. Alan Finkel (@ScienceChiefAu) talked about the beginnings of citizen science in Australia (spoiler: it’s been going on for a lot longer than you think), and discussed three principles that make a good citizen science project. You can read a summary of his talk at The Conversation. Dr. Caren Cooper (@CoopSciScoop) from North Carolina State University talked not only about her ornithology citizen science projects, but also about the role of citizen science in environmental justice. Amy Sterling (@amyleesterling) from EyeWire talked about citizen science in neuroscience research and gave a live demonstration of the EyeWire game, in which players map neurons in the human brain from electron micrograph slices. Dr. Emilie Ens (@EmilieEns) from Macquarie University talked about her work doing citizen science with indigenous Australians from the Ngukurr community in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
#CitSciOz18 @EmilieEns— Atlas of Living Aust (@atlaslivingaust) February 8, 2018
Acknowledge Indigneous contribution to data collection, identification new populations of threatened species, and new species. Importance of inter generational knowledge transfer - language and knowledge pic.twitter.com/AAR8JNUubi
The after-hours social program was jam-packed. The first night, The Wholesome Show recorded an episode of their podcast at a local pub and featured several conference. The next night, Caren Cooper and Amy Sterling spoke to almost a full house at a public lecture at the University of South Australia. The final night, we watched an episode of The Crowd and The Cloud, a documentary series that takes a look at citizen science projects around the world.
Supposedly - supposedly - if it’s “in the name of science” you can get people to volunteer for almost anything! But we wouldn’t know... it’s the experts at @CitSciOZ who would! We visited #CitSciOz18 to find out! https://t.co/87CxsWcfFI pic.twitter.com/7xk7WnxiWC— The Wholesome Show (@WholesomeShow) February 9, 2018
What about soil science?
So, soil science. Recall that I attended the conference because I’m interested in how we can bring citizen science into soil science, both as a means of gathering valuable data, and as an outreach exercise. Soil and the functions it provides lie at the centre of major global societal challenges, from food and water security, to ecosystem services and climate change mitigation. We also talk about peoples’ cultural connectivity to soil within the framework of soil security. If we as soil scientists are convinced of how important soil is, citizen science must play an important role in our research and outreach.
I’m aware of a few citizen science projects in soil science, and they look really interesting. I’m sure there are others. Compared to other scientific domains, though, there just aren’t as many citizen science projects in soil science. Consider this: a search of scistarter, a directory of citizen science projects, with the keyword “soil” retrieved only 11 projects. That’s only 1.1% of the 951 projects currently listed on the site.
These citizen science projects caught my eye at the conference:
- The University of Western Australia manages the Microblitz project, in which participants in Western Australia submit a georeferenced sample of topsoil that is analysed to quantify the soil microbial biodiversity. Participants later receive a report about the soil biology in their sample, and the University uses the information from the analyses to understand the effect of soil microbes on the environment, which influences important issues like food security, water security and climate change.
- The New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) ran a pilot project called CoastSnap. The project aimed to monitor the width of Sydney’s Manly and North Narrabeen beaches over time using photos contributed by citizen scientists. To do this, OEH staff set so-called photopoints up at sites overlooking the beaches. Each photopoint consisted of a post with a generic smartphone mount fitted to the top of it. Citizen scientists could fit their smartphone into the mount, take photos from a consistent angle and submit their photos to OEH staff for further analysis. Scientists rectified each photo using ground control points and then used an algorithm to estimate the shoreline position. It worked remarkably well, and validation of the technique using real measurements of beach width at several points throughout the study period revealed an error of only about 3 m relative to the traditional method.
I thought that these projects were pretty exciting, and they demonstrate that soil citizen science projects don’t just have to be about getting people to transcribe dusty soil profile descriptions (although that’s important too; more on that in a minute).
I began to think about how we can bring technology from other citizen science projects into the soil domain. For example, CoastSnap isn’t really a soil science project but I can see how the same sort of technology could be used to monitor soil erosion or land use change. Platforms that enable the public to transcribe old records could also be useful. Projects like the National Library of Australia’s Trove service and the Australian Museum’s DigiVol platform prove that there is simultaneously a demand for the information these platforms make available (e.g. old newspaper articles or specimens records) and sufficient interest from the general public to digitise them. DigiVol allows anyone to upload a collection for citizen scientists to transcribe. Why not use it to transcribe legacy soil information?
In Australia, at least, I think it’s really cool that observations that citizen scientists make in many of the biodiversity-related citizen projects eventually flow into the Atlas of Living Australia, itself a national citizen science project. Someone will correct me, but I don’t know of any equivalent pipeline for volunteered soil observations in Australia or New Zealand.
Finally, I guess this is more on the research side of things, but I’m also keen to look at how we can make use of citizen science observations from other domains in soil science too. I’m sure we can do that if we’re smart enough, although from a spatial modelling perspective there must be trade-offs related to uncertainty. I have some ideas about that, but I’ll keep them to myself for now.