Do you record your observations of birds and their nesting and share them with researchers? Do you ring birds? Or do you participate in archaeological excavations or store your urban cycling routes in databases? Congratulations, you’re a citizen scientist!
Citizen science is the practice of research based on openness and information sharing where members of the public support professional researchers by producing a significant amount of information and, occasionally, analysing it. Although the volunteers are often called amateurs, many are highly skilled and strongly committed to collecting information.
In fact, some research fields would struggle without the participation of volunteers. Curator Jari Valkama of the Finnish Museum of Natural History (Luomus) under the University of Helsinki mentions bird and bat monitoring as examples.
“These fields rely very much on citizen science. It would be impossible for us researchers to conduct such extensive monitoring on our own,” says Valkama, who also heads the Ringing Centre at Luomus.
The oldest Finnish studies that can be characterised as citizen science date back over a century. Among those running the longest is a phenology project tracking and recording observations of natural phenomena and species, such as the arrival of the first white wagtail in the spring or the first snow in the winter. Bird ringing too has been going on in Finland since as early as 1913.
Technical solutions bring new citizen scientists
New technical solutions have boosted the practice of citizen science and attracted younger volunteers. Previously, it was difficult to determine the exact location of natural observations, and information was forwarded on paper. Mobile apps, digital maps and GPS now enable the submission of observations with exact location data in a way that is quite reliable.
In addition, information on, say a bird and its nesting stage can be immediately transferred from an app to a database. Many types of apps offering image and sound recognition also make it easier to offer at least tentative identifications of organisms.
Citizen science supports national reporting obligations
Finland has a variety of obligations in environmental monitoring. Many of us may be unaware that assessments of threatened species or reports required by the Birds and Habitats Directives could not be implemented without volunteer citizen scientists.
“The role of volunteers is significant in many ways, so we should aim to keep them motivated by ensuring that they know and feel that their work is important.”
From the researcher’s perspective, the challenge is how to reward citizen scientists for their efforts when financial transactions are usually impossible. A good way is to meet enthusiasts at various regional meetings, thus putting a face to the activities in question.
“You can also give feedback through publications if they reach a large number of people pursuing the relevant activities. Or you can join internet forums and mailing lists to stay in contact with volunteers,” Valkama notes.
Have you participated or are you participating in a citizen science project implemented by University of Helsinki researchers? The University of Helsinki Open Science Award will be presented this year to a research group that has promoted citizen science in an exemplary manner. You can nominate a project by sending a short description of your participation in it and outlining the reasons why the project should receive the award.
The promotion of citizen science may include the following:
The development of a technical solution for the crowdsourced collection of observations
Collaboration with not only the public but also municipalities, cities, companies, NGOs or other extensive communities and organisations
The development of collaboration and communications, the openness of research processes, or training options
The broad utilisation of open science opportunities (e.g., openly available research publications, the openness of research datasets or their metadata)
Please send your proposal as an email attachment to email@example.com by 29 September 2023, using the subject line ‘Open Science Award 2023’.
The University of Helsinki Open Science Award is a certificate presented to the recipient during the international Open Access Week on 26 October 2023. The award includes a one-time payment of €3,000 to the research group.