What drives people to document? I’ve borrowed the title of a multi-artist exhibition which takes 5-yearly in the northern German town of Kassel, because ultimately artists, like scientists observe and document pieces of the world around them.
The success of many large-scale citizen science projects relies on this desire to put pen to paper (or finger to screen or keyboard) – annual bird counts in both UK and USA are perfect illustrations. But citizen science projects embrace more than just counting feathers on legs – if you are a keen motorcyclist, then why not join the Californian Roadkill Project? You can log your flattened finds in the name of research!
It’s not only scientists who are asking citizens to contribute their data. In the wake of limited information provided by government agencies after the apocalyptic disasters in Japan and the USA, citizens collected their own data: radiation for the former and oil spread for the latter.
So why do ordinary citizens document their observations of birds, or weather, or moods? Is it primarily to better understand patterns, be part of a community actual or virtual, or because they are compelled to simply harness words and numbers?
It is telling that from my own dataset derived from a questionnaire to community groups about their own environmental restoration projects that for many, the main reason why they collect data is for pragmatic reasons – to help guide site management. For the effort that’s required, a concrete, measurable outcome is desired and needed. The broad category of education follows fairly closely behind intertwining learning through action and reflective learning through comparing and contrasting results from one year to the next.
Reflecting briefly on my own experiences as a diarist, the physical act of putting pen to paper marks the beginning of a ritual – a very quaint act in an age dominated by keyboards and touch screens. With a science hat on, I’ve also enjoyed the methodical filling in of field data sheets. Needless to say my diaries are nearly illegible even to myself (embarrassingly) as the writer, whereas the datasheets are in my best handwriting.