Last October, my NZ Landcare Trust colleagues (Alastair Cole and Craig Simpson) and I set up a meeting in Dunedin to bring together people interested in citizen science and those already actively involved. The group discussed the diversity of projects underway, as well as barriers and opportunities for progressing citizen science locally, regionally and nationally. This time we toured around the Otago Peninsula to look at 3 different projects – each with a science-based monitoring component. This time, we were joined by education specialists, agency staff (volunteer coordination, liaison, Enviroschools), community trust representatives, and 3 Otago University students with a citizen science/science communication research focus.
Monitoring lagoon water quality
We started the day on the seaward side of the Peninsula, in the peri-urban suburb of Ocean Grove. The destination, Tomahawk Lagoon, is a low-lying coastal wetland, bordered by houses and farmland. The lagoon had not been previously monitored by the Otago Regional Council and the community were unhappy with frequent cyanobacteria blooms. Andrew Innes (ECOTAGO and Project Coordinator) describes the Tomahawk locals as ‘quite feisty’ and wanting some action around improving lagoon health. The project (funded through the Participatory Science Platform) aims to survey water quality and report back to the community. Intermediate and high school students to gather baseline data such as pH, and levels of nitrate and phosphate. Innes states:
‘Our job is not just to collect information to make [the locals] happy but to tell a story so that we can build better partnerships with ORC (Otago Regional Council) and DOC (Dept. of Conservation)…’
A further project component is the development of a robust database so that accessible and meaningful environmental report cards can be produced to inform the community and decision-makers.
In contrast to other projects profiled on the tours (e.g., the Auckland Museum-led BioBlitz), this project was designed to stand outside the ‘day to day business‘ of the school. Future links to the curriculum will be explored when a project seminar takes place later in the year. The light rain was no barrier for hardy students as they collected the samples and logged their measurements – as part of the learning process, students are responsible for their data. Under the outreach programme run through the Chemistry department of Otago University, samples are later processed. Without this support, the cost of chemicals for analyses would be a major issue for the monthly monitoring programme.
Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group: Creating a Pest Free Peninsula
We then travelled to Larnach castle where we met Sarah Irvine (Project Manager, OPBG) and David Chalmers (Chairman, OPBG). To date, the Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group has removed a staggering 11,000 possums from the 9500 ha Otago Peninsula and is working towards complete clearance by the end of 2018. The longer-term goal is to clear the Peninsula of all mammalian pest species by 2050.
OPBG has carried out rodent monitoring since before their possum control began because some studies indicate that rat populations may increase when possums are removed. However recent professional statistical analysis of the data shows no significant increase in rats since monitoring began in 2011!
Much of the 24km long peninsula is rural – farmland, small settlements, great sweeping beaches and remnant pockets of native vegetation. Of the c. 2500 inhabitants, most live in the suburbs at the base of the peninsula that merge into metropolitan Dunedin. Around 60 volunteers contribute their time to the OPBG for detecting possums, clearing tracks, trapping and biodiversity outcome monitoring (birds, rodents, lizards, vegetation), along with project admin and publicity. Support and advice is provided to a further 100 Peninsula residents controlling possums on their land.
The OPBG uses a range of efficient, effective, safe, and humane tools and control methods used. Toxins, e.g., Feratox and Sodium Nitrite were used for initial knockdown operations. With some evidence of bait shyness to Feratox, the group is now looking at using Cholicalciferol (Vitamin D3) in an intensive ground operation planned for Winter 2017. A complex combination of varied land uses on the Peninsula, social considerations, and control in wildlife sensitive areas, means a variety of trapping methods. These include Timms, Possum Master, Goodnature A12s, Leg holds, and live capture. Some volunteers are keen to harvest fur from the possums while others contribute their catches to the University for further study.
Tracking tunnels as a community engagement tool
Four times a year (when a dry night is forecast), the rodent monitoring volunteer coordinator drops inked cards to other volunteers’ letterboxes. Rodent monitoring volunteers look after a line of tracking tunnels and place these cards in the plastic tunnels. A blob of peanut butter at each of the card entices small mammals to walk end to end over the sticky ink and leave their footprints behind. The volunteer coordinator then picks up the cards and identifies the tracks. Volunteers are diverse – during the week it’s mainly older generations, but planting days (organised by partner organisation ‘Save the Otago Peninsula’) draws many family groups. This pattern is echoed in other community restoration initiatives around New Zealand.
In 2016, lizards were added to the OPBG biodiversity outcome monitoring. Dunedin-based herpetologist Carey Knox completed baseline data collection of current lizard numbers so that future changes in Peninsula lizard populations can be identified. A total of 90 lizard shelters (made from stacked, corrugated sheets of Onduline) in diverse locations on the Peninsula were checked every day over a week. Over 900 lizards were recorded, including 752 Southern grass skinks, 134 korero geckos, and 48 cryptic skinks. A new population of cryptic skinks was discovered bringing the total number of known populations on the Peninsula to three. The report can be found here.
Backyard biodiversity – children and conservation
In 2016, the OPBG received MBIE Curious Minds funding to run a short-term children’s ‘Backyard Biodiversity’ programme designed to stimulate students thinking about the relationship between animal pests and biodiversity. Schools were gifted with monitoring kits that included easy to use, safe field devices to detect small mammals, possums, lizards, and invertebrates in their school gardens. Students were shown how to keep records of their data, note observations that could influence their findings and take photos of animals they detected. Home kits were also made available.
The ‘Tooth and Claw’ database was developed to enable simple data entry and basic visualisation. Volunteers organized by DOC supported students with their species identifications and helped with data entry. The project received excellent feedback and although it was a ‘one off’ there is room for development funding pending… ofcourse!
Upscaling predator control
In March this year, an MOU was signed for ‘Predator Free Dunedin’. This brings together 23 organisations including tertiary education and science providers, iwi, agencies, business groups and community trusts. The OPBG, Orokonui Ecosanctuary and the NZ Landcare Trust currently play lead roles. The first steps are to better understand the diverse predator control approaches taken by each signatory to facilitate further coordination between all parties involved. Multi-party initiatives linking community groups together plus land management agencies are becoming increasingly common throughout NZ as Predator Free NZ 2050 gains momentum.
Marine Meter Squared: evolving citizen science
Our final destination for the day was the Portobello Marine Lab. We were greeted by Sally Carson, developer of the Marine Meter Squared citizen science tool for collecting data on intertidal biodiversity around New Zealand. The website hosts a blog with thematic discussions, twitter, species distribution maps and downloadable resources (including species ID guides sandy, rocky and muddy shores, activity books and videos). Users (from school age children and up!) can also create data visualisations of all species logged into the MM2 database. MM2 is closely aligned to the school curriculum to facilitate use by teachers.
As the programme matures, new challenges have arisen such as encouraging users to think scientifically – encouraging users develop projects using MM2 to address issues of local concern and engage with scientists, environmental managers, iwi and community leaders. Further challenges include keeping up momentum, data quality and helping users understand the value of long-term data sets.
After an introduction to MM2 by Sally (and some welcome hot drinks), we brainstormed 4 themes: encouraging long-term engagement, promoting citizen engaged enquiry, enhancing data value and acknowledging user contributions. The following summarises feedback from the session.
Encouraging long-term engagement
How to grow the number of people /groups engaged with MM2?
- Creating a ‘community of practice’ e.g. a Facebook page, and being part of a bigger community e.g. ‘Naturewatch missions’ – no coastal marine group yet
- Advertising on beaches: ‘This is a MM2 location’ with link to website/app
How to increase the number of surveys completed and uploaded to the website? Suggestions here overlapped with the question of increasing the number of repeat surveys.
- Comparing individual data with other MM2 users
- Rewards for tasks completed/repeat surveys e.g., ‘Kiwi guardian’ program. This could be printable certificates by parents, badges once certain levels/targets have been achieved e.g., from Crusty Crab to Stellar Starfish!
- Quizzes/tests to upskill children and test knowledge. Scores as part of a rewards programme
- Creating a series of Video logs
- Creating more of a community on the website by acknowledging individual achievements and creating a bit of competition
A suggestion for increasing ownership of data collected was to generate a message when data are entered e.g.,’Wow! Did you know this species…; Finding this species means…; Being part of this project helps to…’
Promoting Citizen engaged enquiry
How can we raise awareness of how MM2 project could be used to address marine issues with local relevance?
- Finding novel ways to present case studies e.g., media articles
- Reversing the order of the question by defining an issue and how MM2 could help build a study and providing example questions with key words left out e.g., ‘How do….’, ‘Why are there more /less species X than species Y?’
- Drawing greater attention to the open forums on the MM2 website
- Supporting users to interpret (compare/analyse) the data they collected ie. helping to answer what the data can tell us about the marine environment
- Utilizing parent volunteers to work with sub-groups of students: linking them to local issues/projects and encourage stewardship and restoration
Enhancing data value
How can the science skills of participants (e.g. identification, population estimates, substrate descriptions) be improved?
- Teacher professional development/ ‘professional trainer’ learning workshops
- Community workshops and webinars
- Interactive components on the website e.g., quizzes and online support
- Uploading photos (like on Naturewatch, I-Naturalist) and having experts identify the species
- Comparing errors in ID, estimates of population and substrate with professionally collected data
- Using a Photo ID app (if available) to check the species before submitting online
- Providing an environmental health indicator species checklist e.g., ‘these species indicate good health’
Cleaning data once entered on the website could be achieved with trained volunteers. Tagging/accrediting data collectors could form a verification process before data are published online. Convincing scientists of the value of the data began with building scientists’ understanding of what citizen science can achieve, as well as respecting local/traditional/Maori knowledge. Greater transparency in the research process (ie. identifying assumptions, scope of research, verification processes) was highlighted along with involving scientists from the outset.
Developing a reporting system to help users interpret and understand the health of their local marine environment could include pictorial/graphic/spatial methods to show people where they are working and what they are doing. A further suggestion was showing the community via presentations what they’ve done/how they have helped/what’s going on.
One way to encourage long term engagement is to involve participants in all stages of the science process and provide opportunity for them to develop and use their new skills. Feedback mechanisms to acknowledge contributions overlapped with methods to encourage engagement ie. using social and traditional media and certificates to highlight and reward achievements. One suggestion was a web-based/hand survey post-MM2 session/workshop for teachers and students.
Acknowledging long-term involvement included a regional, national or international awards, scholarships for community groups/schools to receive a monitoring ‘tool’ once a certain amount of data have been collected, branded clothing/gear (via sponsorship), and certification for schools (e.g., a medal/level for schools who continue to participate and monitor with MM2). Suggestions for sharing the learning and successes with users and the wider community (including scientists) centred on communication through diverse channels and celebrating events. Here, Sally and her small team already work tirelessly to spread MM2 around New Zealand and internationally – I’ll see Sally at the Citizen Science Association of America Conference in May 2017.
Partnerships and funding
The University of Otago plays diverse roles in all 3 tour projects: staff contribute time and expertise; both former and currently enrolled students either volunteer for, conduct research with/for or have found paid coordinator positions; university facilities are used. In the case of Marine Meter Squared (MM2), the Portobello Marine Lab is owned by the university and used for teaching and research.
Otago is one of the 3 pilot areas for the Participatory Science Platform (others being Taranaki and Sth Auckland). PSP funding has supported a component of each of the tour projects: lagoon monitoring; OPBG’s backyard biodiversity project and a new initiative to measure the impact of sediment in the Otago Harbour via the Portobello Marine Lab. Although the future of the fund is currently undecided, it has sparked creative community/science collaborations for diverse environmental, health and wellbeing projects.
Phew. That was a long one. But that’s also the reality of seeing what is happening in the citizen science space in NZ: a lot. It’s dynamic, involves a broad swathe of society and is making a difference for our environment. The NZ Landcare Trust has one more round of meetings in each of the four regions (Auckland, Manawatu, Nelson/Tasman and Otago) before a conference (Wellington 2018) wraps up the 3-yr project.