Nelson citizen science working group #1: A summary of discussions

First Nelson citizen science working group meeting
On February 9, 22 diverse participants gathered at the Cawthron Institute for the NZ Landcare Trust’s first project working group meeting. The Ministry for the Environment funded project is “Citizen Science meets environmental restoration: Measuring success through monitoring”. For the first meeting, the main objectives were to build a community of citizen science (CS) practitioners and interested parties; provide NGO leadership for CS, and begin mapping out a strategic direction for data-driven CS in New Zealand.

And the earth moved…

Thankfully, the 5.7 quake took place after the working group had concluded but was definitely felt by myself and my colleagues: NZ Landcare Trust project coordinator Alastair Cole (Regional Coordinator Manawatu/Whanganui), and Barbara Stuart (Regional Coordinator Nelson) with whom I developed the plan for the working group.

The morning began with participants quickly reaching a consensus on citizen science (CS) as ‘a way for non-experts to contribute data to scientific studies effectively’. Participants highlighted how CS could mutually benefit both citizens and scientists, as well as demystify and democratise the field of science. As the discussions continued, a range of social and scientific features emerged.

Socially, CS was viewed as a process for enhancing understanding (e.g., scientific and ecological literacy), which could lead to behaviour change. As such, CS has the potential to add another dimension to projects, as well as build community understanding by engaging people with common goals. Another angle included building a sense of place, and encouraging local ownership of local issues. With the community as drivers, research can be directed to where it is most needed. At the same time, ‘sensationalism’ can be reduced both through advocacy and science-based evidence.

CS projects can be used to record natural disasters, pollution events, ecological and environmental change. New technologies (e.g., Smartphone apps) have facilitated crowd sourcing for data, dramatically expanding geographical coverage. In addition, community participation enables data to be collected from places (e.g. private land) not normally accessible to scientists.

A successful local example of using community input to avert a potential biosecurity crisis took place recently in the Nelson/Tasman area. Local residents hunted for, and reported observations of great white butterfly caterpillars and eggs. The butterfly is a pest species that could decimate both brassica crops (e.g. broccoli and turnips) and native cress species, over two thirds of which are at risk of extinction.

Financially, CS can add value to existing science budgets by adding cost effective people power, expanding project capacity through additional ‘grey matter’ and participants using their own resources (e.g. Smartphones).

Barriers for citizen science

Barrier #1: Attitudes and perceptions

The first set of barriers identified were attitudes and perception such as limited faith by scientists in the community’s ability to contribute useful data. A potentially rigid mind set of managers and scientists to apply innovative thinking for capturing data outside traditional methods remains a further barrier. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of participants’ potential, though at the same time, the community may also perceive monitoring as ‘boring’.

Barrier #2: Operations & resourcing

Conflicting objectives between community members, scientists, local and central government agencies; organisational constraints (e.g. H&S); obtaining equipment, and the time investment required for working with volunteers were all raised. Managing the resulting data, interpreting the results, and ensuring feedback were also represented as barriers. Clear lines of communication were raised as a means to avoid ‘data silos’ and ‘reinventing wheels’. The diverse range of project choices and CS opportunities overall, was thought to cause confusion as to where energy should be invested.  As yet, there are few funds targeted at developing and sustaining CS projects, possibly hampered by a lack of costs vs. benefit studies of CS projects.

Barrier #3: Project design

Bringing social considerations to the fore in science-based projects can greatly increase overall complexity, hence the need for effective project design from the outset. As with ‘normal’ science, determining indicators of success as well as defining success is imperative, along with making science input feasible and accessible to community members. The lack of access to suitable tools and protocols forms a major barrier for developing CS projects.

Facilitators for citizen science

Facilitator #1: Increased engagement

Increased engagement was suggested both by others to support the development of projects and attracting new participants, as well as to communicate the social, cultural and environmental benefits arising from participating in citizen science projects. Social benefits included the potential for place-making: ‘making your area your own’ and enhanced social interaction which may results in breaking down the silos in which people habitually operate. Harnessing community ‘passion and priorities’ such as biosecurity and freshwater quality may facilitate greater community engagement in projects.

Facilitator #2: Project design

The first step is to define the question(s) ensuring that there is a ‘clear end goal’. Effective systems for recording, storing and disseminating data are critical, along with integrated feedback loops to inform participants of results in a ‘timely, readable and meaningful’ manner. Encouraging competition may serve to strengthen data quality by both comparing and challenging data and results.

Facilitator #3: Resourcing and support

  • Small amounts of money help delivery!
  • Technology + innovation!
  • Kits + educational modules, community monitoring tools (e.g. SHMAK, Nature watch, Mm2)
  • Dedicated experts to verify e.g., protocols, data
  • Provision of training for participants
  • Engaging the ‘right people’ along with paid project coordinators
  • Providing incentives such as the $10 bounty on Great White Butterfly

Promoting citizen science

To wrap up, the working group discussed how CS could be better promoted. Although coverage of citizen science through social media (Facebook, blogs, twitter) and traditional media (radio, magazines, newspapers), has dramatically increased over the last 3 years, exposure on television is currently lacking. An additional forum is through awards e.g., recognising the achievements of citizen science practitioners and promoting their projects.

Where to from here?

After the working group meeting in the Cawthron Institute’s Milton Room, the earth literally moved with a 5.7 earthquake! Three more working group meetings are scheduled for Auckland, Manawatu and Christchurch over the next 6 months. At this stage, the format is likely to be similar with the discussion broadening out to include specific focal points for working groups to pursue in the second year of the project. An example may be to develop best practice guidelines for developing and implementing citizen science project.

In the meantime, please feel free to add your comments – we value your input. If you’d like to be part of a working group, contact Alastair Cole:

PS: Nelson working group participants

Participants by sector included: Community (7); Government agencies (6); Crown Research Institutes (3); Education (2); NGO (3), and business (1). A number of participants took part in several different projects highlighting the broad range of skills necessary for designing, delivering and supporting community-focused environmental projects.  Not all came from Nelson as the working group meeting took place a day prior to the National Wetland Trust’s Biannual Restoration Symposium.

6 responses to “Nelson citizen science working group #1: A summary of discussions

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