#ERA2016conf: National and international perspectives on #citsci practice

Karen Denyer, EO National Wetland Trust showing a tracking card monitored by volunteers

Karen Denyer, EO National Wetland Trust showing a tracking card monitored by volunteers

Like last year’s Ecological conference in Christchurch, I put forward a Citizen Science Symposium for this year’s #ERA2016Conf Ecological Restoration Australasia conference. The aim of the symposium was to update participants on the current state of play, nationally and internationally, of  citizen science by showcasing a cross-section of initiatives.

Including citizen science in an ecological restoration conference makes perfect sense: given the need for a wide range of data to inform decision-making, we still need to grow discussions on where these data can be sourced from. Because restoration is multi-dimensional we need to look at ecology in a social, political, economic and cultural context, and how conservation outcomes can be measured. Ultimately, we want reliable and accurate data and a society that is both scientifically and ecologically literate.

A snapshot of citizen science in New Zealand – Dr Monica Peters @monica_a_peters

To set the scene, I began the symposium with an overview of the Inventory of Citizen Science Projects, Programmes, Resources and Learning Opportunities in NZ. The inventory evolved from the NZ Landcare Trust’s 3-yr Ministry for the Environment funded Citizen Science meets Environmental Restoration project (2015 – 2018) and provides a stock take of what is currently underway in NZ, what resources and opportunities are there to support projects and up skill community members, and what is need to progress citizen science in NZ.

Costs and benefits of citizen science – Dr Michael Pocock @mjopocock

Next up was Michael (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK) presenting via Skype. I met Michael at the European Citizen Science Assn. conference in Berlin earlier in the year and asked if he would consider presenting on the newly published Citizen Science and Environmental Monitoring: Evaluating Opportunities, Costs and Benefits he had co-authored under the auspices of the UK Environmental Observation Framework. The rationale for the publication, and discussed in the presentation, was the relationship between the increasing popularity of citizen science and its potential to be cheaper than contracting professionals. Michael discussed how evaluation can be undertaken with different economic tools, in order to support best practice in citizen science for ecology and environmental science.

Community participation in ecological restoration: Generating “accidental” scientists? – Mel Galbraith, Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen, Assoc. Professor David Towns @UnitecNZ

The 220ha island of Tiritiri Matangi, was stripped of 94% of its native bush. From 1984 - 1994, volunteers planted nearly 300,000 trees. Photo: Kathrin & Stefan Marks (Sourced from Flickr)

The 220ha island of Tiritiri Matangi, was stripped of 94% of its native bush. From 1984 – 1994, volunteers planted nearly 300,000 trees. Photo: Kathrin & Stefan Marks (Sourced from Flickr)

Mel is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental and Animal Sciences at Unitec, Auckland. In New Zealand, the last two decades have seen a proliferation of community-based ecological restoration groups. Over this period, Mel has observed a shift from volunteers just being a labour force to managing complex, multifaceted projects that include species management and ecological monitoring (i.e. citizen science) – Tiritiri Matangi volunteers with whom Mel has worked are a shining example. It’s clear that citizen scientist involvement in measuring the ecological attributes of restoration has implications for both achieving and measuring project outcomes. Mel argues that social and recreational motivations of participants may be as important as environmental stewardship. Because of this, participating in science may be unintentional, only developing either as a result of a project’s management requirements, and/or from governing agencies devolving responsibility to community groups. Many group members may be “accidental scientists” rather than citizen scientists, raising questions both of the desire and capacity of community groups to engage in ecological science.

How can regional authorities support community volunteers for consistent and reliable long-term stream monitoring? – Samira van Hunen, Elsemieke Kin, Dr Rob Davies-Colley, Mr Aslan Wright-Stow, Dr Richard Storey @niwa_nz

Samira van Hunen discusses strategies to overcome barriers identified with the NIWA community water quality monitoring study: Agency strategic planning; Quality assurance for volunteers' data; Training for volunteers and ongoing support for volunteers including data interpretation and feedback

Samira van Hunen discusses strategies to overcome barriers identified with the NIWA community water quality monitoring study: Agency strategic planning; Quality assurance for volunteers’ data; Training for volunteers and ongoing support for volunteers including data interpretation and feedback

Samira was formerly employed by that National Institute of Water and Atmosphere/NIWA (where the research took place), and now works as a Water Policy Advisor at the Waikato Regional Council. Community volunteers can accurately measure a range of stream water quality and ecological health attributes using the Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kit (SHMAK), a user-friendly resource developed in NZ. With appropriate training and enough continued support, community volunteers could contribute monitoring data e.g., for regional state-of-environment reporting. Samira helped set up focus groups with the nine participating community groups (following the Storey et al. 2016 ‘parallel’ study). As with overseas studies, volunteer monitors were motivated by a concern for the environment and a drive to do something useful. Ongoing professional support and means (such as a web-based database) for interpreting and sharing their data emerged as the key factors enabling them to collect reliable data and to continue monitoring in the longer-term. Five regional authorities were also interviewed via focus groups to investigate the benefits of volunteer stream monitoring as well as the barriers and strategies for overcoming them.

Using camera traps and citizen science to monitor wildlife in urban areas – Victor Anton, Dr Stephen Hartley, Dr Heiko Wittmer, Andre Geldenhuis @identifyanimals

Victor Anton (Research Assistant, Victoria University Wellington) is part of a team that between March and July 2014 set up motion-activated camera traps in 40 locations around Zealandia (a predator-proof fenced eco-sanctuary in suburban Wellington). One challenge however, is the sheer quantity of data produced –100 000 images have already been taken this year. These images can provide information on the presence and distribution of multiple species as well help build knowledge on multi-species interactions such as predation, avoidance and mutualism that govern the dynamics of urban ecosystems. Although there have been improvements in automated animal recognition, human validation is still needed for trap data analysis. The team developed a website to investigate the uptake, accuracy and efficiency of citizen scientists for analysing camera trap data and to test the feasibility of the camera trap approach and are currently analysing the data.

Cat tales: The social side of a citizen science project investigating cats in New Zealand – Heidi Kikillus @IndoorKaroriCat

Heidi (formerly a Post-Doc at Victoria University Wellington), has the best quotes of any conference presentation gathered from New Zealanders sharing their cat stories. Her research formed part of Cat Tracker, an international citizen science project investigating the movement and management of pet cats. As well as tracking individual cat movements using GPS, she carried out a social survey to explore attitudes towards, and the management of domestic cats. Stories shared were both positive, highlighting the therapeutic nature of cat ownership as well as the downside to owning cats. Heidi’s research has helped influence policy on cat management.

When Hartley catches and kills a rat in the middle of the night, he brings it to the same place beside my wardrobe… and he only eats its tail which sounds very crunchy when you’re listening to it in the dark


Can citizen science learn something from PokemonGo? – Dr. Colin D Meurk, Jon Sullivan, Shane Orchard, Carla S Meurk, Murray Dawson, Barrie Matthews, Steve Pawson @LCR_NZ

Colin Meurck shares basic data from NatureWatchNZ

Colin Meurk shares basic data from NatureWatchNZ

Colin, a Research Associate at Landcare Research, helped set up NatureWatchNZ as well as a 135km trail showcasing the natural heritage of Christchurch. Colin’s presentation explored how digital culture can advance nature conservation goals and whether gaming successfully converts that desire for discovery and an adrenaline-rush into robust data. PokemonGo took the world by storm, drawing unprecedented numbers of children (and adults!) into streets and parks to hunt Pokemon! It has been observed that if PokemonGo players were making natural history observations, the equivalent of centuries of field data would have been collected in the space of a few days! The challenge however, is securing meaningful, long-term engagement with participants. QuestaGame is one experimental interface with iNaturalist/NatureWatchNZ endeavouring to turn nature-recording into a fun activity – with a competitive edge. Understanding and meeting the needs across a broad spectrum of potential users is critical to the value of citizen science. Over 270 topic, place and habitat-based Projects in NatureWatch NZ were analysed to investigate what is attracting people, and how systematic acquisition of robust data can be made appealing while satisfying educational, science and government agency standards.


Can community-based monitoring data be used to improve stream restoration science?  – Dr Richard Storey, Aslan Wright-Stow, Elsemieke Kin, Dr Rob Davies-Colley, Rebecca Stott @niwa_nz

Richard is a freshwater scientist at NIWA, specialising in invertebrate ecology of streams. Richard proposes that citizen science could greatly increase the data on ecological recovery following stream restoration. Although a lack of professional resourcing limits the ability to collect the required volume of data, many volunteers who carry out restoration projects are capable of monitoring the ecological results. However, volunteer data are rarely used, mainly due to perceptions of data unreliability. Richard and team tested this perception by assessing the agreement between volunteer (community group) and local government (regional council) data at nine stream sites across New Zealand. The regional councils monitored near-simultaneously with groups, the latter using standard protocols for State of Environment reporting, while the former used a simple, low-cost kit based on NIWA’s Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kit (SHMAK).

Citizen science – Informing decision makers – Elise Smith

Reef heron. Photo by Shellie (Sourced from Flickr)

Reef heron. Photo by Shellie (Sourced from Flickr)

Elise (from the Taranaki-based MAIN Trust NZ) presented Project Hotspot, a successful citizen science project where the wider community and schools collect data on local threatened and uncommon species. The project provides data for temporal and spatial analysis for use locally and nationally by scientists and decision makers. Community members’ enthusiasm is maintained as their observations are valued, their information acknowledged and made visible, with resulting actions improving the local environment. Elise highlighted some surprising and exciting results: social media informed locals that orca had been spotted on Waitangi Day holiday and enabled the pod to be documented as it traveled up the Taranaki coast; public reports combined with a penguin surveillance camera have enhanced knowledge of penguin habits; photographs submitted by citizen scientists have enabled reef herons to be identified as individuals, and their ranges mapped. NatureWatch NZ is used to house observational data and record perceived threats to the species. Data are also verified, with a deeper knowledge of population structure and behaviours resulting. An online and searchable Geographic Information System analyses the data, providing maps of species locations, behaviours and temporal changes.

You can view Elise’s presentation here


Hopefully citizen science will again form a theme in next years’ restoration conference along with communities and co-management. The broadening of ecological restoration to include social, political, economic and cultural perspectives is long overdue. Although some may argue that this expanded focus detracts from fundamental ecosystem research, placing ecology and restoration within a broader context is certainly the ‘new era’ with multi-dimensional landscape scale projects proliferating. Citizen science is a natural fit within these projects.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s