Citizen Science Projects

CitSci project types and NZ examples


Crowd-sourcing projects involve the leveraging of volunteer effort for the purpose of data collection, and they are usually conceived and designed by formal scientists to address a previously identified question [1]. Advantages of this approach include the potential to acquire data that would be expensive or logistically difficult to obtain due to factors such as the need to cover large geographical scales [2] [3]. The participation and ownership aspects of crowd sourcing projects often reflect the central role of formal researchers, for example in specifying the project objectives and data collection requirements. However, these projects may also be ‘collaborative’ or ‘co-created’ by design, demonstrating that the central characteristic of crowd-sourcing may be adapted to suit different philosophies and purposes [4]. Benefits of a crowd-sourcing project as opposed to a traditional research project can include the establishment of trust between the community and researchers. This has been clearly documented in logging research in the Western United States, where citizen science initiatives led to a convergence of values between the researchers and logging community that previously had vastly different visions for land use [5]. Crowd-sourcing projects can also help to engage the public in environmental topics and issues, and may include facilitating a sense of ownership over the issues or places involved [6].

There are a wide range of crowd-sourcing projects in NZ, most of which use mobile apps or online platforms to collect observations. In the biological monitoring space crowd-sourcing projects range from single species platforms that collect sightings of rare or threatened species e.g., for Maui Dolphins, to particular groups such as rare birds, and the collation of ad hoc biodiversity observations on online platforms such as eBird and iNaturalist. Although some crowd-sourcing projects are relatively passive and rely on volunteers to have previously discovered the project, others deploy active promotion and event or school-based formats to encourage participation.

Examples include Project Hotspot that is a school-based programme where students develop an understanding of four coastal species in their local area, and interact with national monitoring projects for each species that are set up in iNaturalist. The Landcare Research/Manaaki Whenua-led Garden Bird Survey runs as an annual event covering only 5 days. Momentum is maintained by a Facebook group (NZ Garden Bird Survey), where members regularly post their day-to-day avifauna observations via photos and video, pose questions to other members and share links to bird-related research or interesting articles. Timed events can also be important to the objectives of a project. For example in the Litter Intelligence project run by Sustainable Coastlines, local community groups are encouraged to complete litter surveys in their area with the support of training sessions and an online platform for entering the information they collect. Groups are encouraged to complete a survey at approximately three-monthly intervals to help create a picture of litter density changes over time. In a similar way, crowd-sourcing projects can also use defined areas as a way of attracting attention to the project, for example by engaging kaitiaki and local community groups. Examples of these place-based projects include CoastWatch projects which uses a geo-fence to define project areas. The ‘Place’ functions on iNaturalist are used to map the area of interest and generate lists of the species that are found there.

Crowd-sourcing projects may be extremely ambitious! A great NZ example is the current revision of the NZ Bird Atlas by Birds NZ which is targeting a 5-year crowd-sourcing period. The revision makes full use of Web 2.0 technology to engage participants and facilitate data capture in ways not possible two decades ago when the previous version was brought together. Social media accounts (Facebook and Instagram) provide updates on the project, while the international online repository for bird observations eBird is used to house and share the data.   

Community-based monitoring

Community-based monitoring (CBEM) typically refers to groups of concerned citizens tracking and responding to environmental issues of concern [7]. CBEM projects community driven and designed to address issues of importance in the community. These projects sometimes but not always include partnerships with government agencies or other researchers [8]. CBEM has also been used to refer to more traditional citizen science projects where community members participate in monitoring efforts alongside scientists or are trained by scientists to collect data for projects that are ultimately run by formal scientists [5].

New Zealand has an especially rich history in CBEM with many such projects having been established to support environmental restoration projects of various kinds [9]. This reflects New Zealand’s vibrant culture of community-led environmental conservation and restoration [10]. Examples include hundreds of community environmental groups and more recent initiatives towards ‘Predator Free New Zealand’ (PF) where groups are actively involved in pest trapping. Many restoration and PF groups may carry out some form of monitoring or survey to better understand the condition of the environment and changes resulting from management actions such as predator control, weed removal, and planting native species [11]. As with elsewhere, there has been varying levels of input from formal science organisations in these efforts, and a wide variety of methods are being used [12]. If a group is carrying out monitoring, then output-based methods are commonly used. These include logging numbers of predators trapped or number of trees planted, and this has led to the development of an increasing number of apps to assist with data collection. For example, in the PF space community groups have the choice of online platforms such as TrapNZ and CatchIT, DOC’s Walk the Line app, or creating their own trapping and tracking projects on platforms such as iNaturalist.

Educational citizen science

Education research suggests that learning is enhanced by interactive and enquiry-based activities [13]. Many types of citizen science projects can provide such opportunities and there will often be considerable cross-over between the data collection, community engagement and educational objectives that characterise many projects on the ground [14]. However, citizen science projects may also be specifically designed with educational outcomes in mind. Examples include many of the Curious Minds funded projects such as Project Hotspot and Finding Little Blue, that have been co-created with school and community groups. Other prominent examples include the Marine Metre Squared project run by the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre at the University of Otago. These examples are based on environmental monitoring (and are therefore examples of CBEM), and are typically run as part of wider curriculum-based studies with the help of dedicated coordinators to assist the teachers involved. In addition, there are a variety of event-based citizen science projects known as BioBlitzs or EcoBlitzs that provide different formats for getting people involved. They have seen considerable uptake in the educational sector in NZ, both within schools and in the community education field.

Blitz formats

‘BioBlitz’ and ‘EcoBlitz’ events bring together members of the public and science communities to conduct an intensive biological survey. The objectives are usually to provide an engaging educational experience for the public and break down barriers between science and the public, by enabling the public to interact directly with a range of specialists on site. BioBlitzs may also be designed to foster engagement in biodiversity monitoring, conservation and restoration projects thereby contributing to science literacy and environmental awareness-raising [1]. However, they can also generate valuable data in their own right.

Distinguishing characteristics for these events include use of a short ‘blitz-like’ time frame and limited geographical area where data are collected to focus attention and generate a burst of enquiry-based activity and associated data collection. A competitive or game-like element is often introduced, for example by tallying how many species of flora, fauna and fungi were observed or collected during the event. Some BioBlitz events may run for a short period during daylight hours only, while others may use a full 24 hour period to enable the observation and collection of species more active at night. Longer timeframes are common too. In New Zealand, the earliest documented BioBlitz took place in 2004 at Dingle Dell Reserve (where 925 separate species were found), and in a native bush gully at Meadowbank Primary School (631 species found). Blitz events have since been conducted at a wide range of locations including urban backyards and school grounds (Renwick, Canterbury 2019), freshwater wetlands (Rotopiko, Waikato 2018), coastal sites (Whau River, Auckland 2015, New Plymouth, Taranaki 2015), and entire catchments (Uretara, Bay of Plenty 2015).  

School-based BioBlitz and EcoBlitzs are growing fast in popularity in NZ. They can provide an excellent format for students to gain practical experience in ecological survey methods, species identification and learn about issues affecting the environment through rubbing shoulders with experts who help run the event. Examples include many BioBlitz and EcoBlitz events supported by projects on iNaturalist. Online platforms such as iNaturalist provide great support for BioBlitz events through enabling the rapid collection of images and other observation data onto a project’s webpage, and special project formats for running BioBlitz events.


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