Tanzina Vega: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega, and spring has officially sprung. If you're anything like me, you've been spending a lot more time just noticing things, like the songs of sparrows outside your apartment window, or the purple crocuses bursting into bloom in a nearby park, or even asteroids shooting across the night sky. Did you know those kinds of observations could actually be helpful to scientists?
In fact, during the pandemic, as many of us have been forced to stay close to home, we've seen a growing number of people participating in something called citizen or community science. That's when people like you and me voluntarily collect data out in the world or in our own backyards, to help professional scientists study everything from migratory patterns of butterflies to neighborhood air quality. For more on this, I'm joined by Katy Prudic, an assistant professor of citizen and data science at the University of Arizona. Katy, welcome to the show.
Katy Prudic: Hi, I'm so excited to be here.
Tanzina: First of all, there is a citizen and data science professorship at the University of Arizona? I just heard about citizen science. How long has this been around?
Katy: In the mainstream US culture, I would say probably 10 years is when it really started going, and there's been a lot of organizations, we have a professional society, and that's been really facilitated by smartphones and technology, I would say. If we go back through time and across cultures, then probably my favorite data set that I always like to point out to people is one about cherry blossoms that goes back to 800AD. I think it was in the news lately about the Kyoto cherry blossoms being earlier this year than they have been since the 1200's.
Tanzina: Folks, average non-scientists folks who are interested in what's happening around them, particularly now. I was talking to our team about this story yesterday and saying how I'm noticing nature a lot more closely this year because of the pandemic. Are you seeing more people involved in this type of citizen scientist community because of the pandemic?
Katy: I do want to say that citizen science incorporates a lot of different things beyond just nature and biodiversity. It includes astronomy. It even includes public health, and public utilities and those sorts of things, but if we focus just in on the nature part of it, I published a paper recently with a colleague, Theresa Crimmins, and we found that urban areas had an uptick in community or citizen science participation, but people weren't traveling as much to rural areas to watch birds, or butterflies or plants.
Tanzina: What are some examples of what we're seeing today? What kind of projects are people doing, and then how are the pros finding out about these projects?
Katy: As I mentioned before, the projects are quite varied. Think of citizen science as you would any other scientific technique that goes across disciplines. It's a way to mobilize and organize people who are interested in what you do, to collect large amounts of data over more space and time, or to really burrow in in a certain location and get really in-depth data. It's just collecting an army of people to help you out, and so what have the pros been learning?
Depends on the question, of course, but certainly in the nature world, we've been learning a lot about migration, about species range changes, about changes in phonology, as they relate to climate change, and phonology seasonality. Right now, what you would see is changes in bloom time. When blossoms of those crocuses are coming out, or when grass is starting, or even when those song sparrows start to sing into those early hours of the morning.
Tanzina: How has the pandemic disrupted the ability of professional scientists to collect their data given the lockdowns and quarantines, and travel restrictions we've seen?
Katy: I think, especially in the beginning, there was a huge disruption to data collection. I know many of my colleagues labs were shut down or limited to one person in the lab at a time. I think now with masking and vaccines and those sorts of things, protocols have been established where we've ramped up our data collection again, which is great, and data analysis.
It is really important to have that engagement with citizen science, and I think it's important for a few reasons. One is the scale that of the data you can collect. Another is the perspectives that community scientists bring to the table. I think as a professional, I've learned a tremendous amount from other people who have been out in the field observing and so excited to share what they saw, and that gives me not just inspiration, but also a different perspective of how to approach my work.
Tanzina: Are the citizen scientists we're talking about folks that are posting, say photos of or sounds of the birds that they're listening to on social media, and that's how scientists, the professionals are learning about this, or are there more formal channels for citizen scientists to get their data, if you will, in the hands of the professional scientists?
Katy: Yes, certainly, we can definitely use Flickr or some sort of repository like that to scrub data off, but I prefer that more specialized web platforms that you alluded to. Certainly the most popular one right now I would say is eBird, for those birders out there, but there's also other ones like iNaturalist, which is agnostic in terms of the the biology, it's any species really. Then I developed a web platform with colleagues that's called the eButterfly, focusing on butterflies. Then there's also a phonology platform called Nature's Notebook run through the National Phonology Network.
Tanzina: During the pandemic, there has been an increase in anti-science movements here in the United States. What is the community science mean, for trust in science overall?
Katy: I think it provides a space where we can share what we enjoy and share what we all discover, regardless of your political leanings, or your background, or your location spatially. What I've really enjoyed about that is that once you have a shared interest, then it's easier to start having conversations and understand people who come from different viewpoints.
Tanzina: How far do you see- are there any new emerging trends of science that citizen scientists may have pointed out for you all?
Katy: Yes. There's been some really great discoveries about migration, certainly species range, expansions or contractions related to climate change. We just published a paper on a butterfly that folks might know out east, the eastern giant swallowtail. It seems to be moving north at the fastest rate of any known animal, so that's kind of fun.
Folks have a lot of opportunities to find their place in citizen science. I would recommend going to SciStarter, S-C-I-S-T-A-R-T-E-R dot org, to look for different projects that are available to them, and it's really just about finding a community that speaks to you and a process that's enjoyable for you to go out and explore the world.
Tanzina: Katy Prudic is an assistant professor of citizen and data science at the University of Arizona. Thanks so much for joining us.
Katy: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Chris: This is Chris from Richmond, California. I'm an outdoor photographer and have been using the iNaturalist app for years. It helps me sound smart when I can identify birds and other critters and it benefits the local scientific community as well, so it's win win.
Alicia: Hey there. This is Alicia from Ashlyn, Wisconsin, and I'm just letting you know about the GoSkyWatch and the GoISSWatch apps, are very, very good for observing the International Space Station, and stars and planets. Wonderful to use. Very easy and so much fun.
Mike: My name is Mike from Western Massachusetts. I absolutely use my bird identification app when I take my walk in the woods each morning. It's always fun to start to figure out who is joining me today and yesterday, and who may be there tomorrow. It's a good thing to do during these times that we are living in, for sure. The birds seem to know what's important, and I enjoy what I might be learning from them.
Julia Handling: Hi, my name is Julia Handling in Portland, Oregon, and in terms of science apps, the main ones that I use are both of Star Walk and Skywalk which are fabulous apps for identifying constellations and planetary functions. I also use the Garden Answers and PlantNet for plant identification. They're excellent. I think it's a really exciting aspect of using technology for expanding our world. Thank you.
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