During and after the crisis: #citizenscience benefiting hyper-local, regional, national and global initiatives

City Nature Challenge promotion in NZ: keep safe while doing citizen science

These are undoubtebly unusual times. Although we are urged to “stay home, save lives” there are still opportunities to contribute data during the more stringent lockdown phases. This (short) blog provides an overview of crowdsourced projects to better understand the Covid-10 virus to local projects designed to engage a largely immobile populace. Post-lockdown, a broader view of what constitutes kick-starting economic recovery also opens the door for integrating citizen science into a new suite of post-lockdown initiatives. 

Arguably, there has never been a better time for integrating citizen science into an evolving suite of transformative initiatives that place nature on a par with economy and socio-cultural wellbeing.

The NZ Government has called for ‘Spade Ready’ projects to kick start the economy, post-lockdown. At the same time, our natural resources are at breaking point, so environmental action that enhances ecological integrity and builds resilience in the face of climate change is a logical step..

The great rupture caused by the virus makes blindingly obvious the weaknesses of our economic, social, political and ecological relationships

Rod Oram, in an article from Newsroom

Earlier in April, a consortium of environmental groups (Forest and Bird, Greenpeace, WWF-New Zealand, Generation Zero, EDS and Ecologic) sent a letter to the Prime Minister. They called on the Government to transform the NZ economy to tackle climate change, save native species, improve freshwater quality, and restore our oceans

In this context, both social and environmental citizen science (i.e. participatory action research, community-based, and community-led monitoring) can help answer fundamental ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions: How well is this initiative working? What works and what doesn’t? What are the outcomes and impacts? How can these be improved?

Urupukapuka Island (Bay of Islands) undergoing ecological restoration: planting and species reintroductions have transformed this previously heavily-farmed island.

‘Discover Nature in Your Bubble’

As lockdowns were rolled out around the globe, backyards and local suburbs attained a new prominence. Several ‘Backyard BioBlitz’ initiatives have sparked off in Nelson and nationally using iNaturalist NZ as the platform to house citizen generated data. For those keen on venturing off their property, the annual multi-country City Nature Challenge has just been completed. For the first time, ōtepoti/Dunedin, Auckland and Christchurch are participating. This BioBlitz-style event is run over several days with local coordinators mobilising their local communities to log as many observations as they can within the time frame. There is a competitive edge – which city harbours the most biodiversity?

iNaturalist screenshot of the Backyard BioBlitz underway in Nelson

From biodiversity to climate change

The lock down has stopped progress on some projects, but also opened novel opportunities. Aside from heart-warming images of wildlife (temporarily) reclaiming urban areas, climate change remains the elephant in the room. The NZ Ministry for the Environment supported Great Greenhouse Gas Grass Off invites NZ participants to harvest grass from the same spot in their local area over a 10-week period. The bagged samples will be measured for changes to CO2 levels (produced from fossil fuels in our air) in the move from Level 4 lockdown, through Level 3 and back to normal. The study aims to provide an insight into the impact daily activities on greenhouses gases in our environment.

A boom in crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing projects have fared extremely well during the crisis (they’re safe!) with record numbers of interactions and observations being logged on platforms such as Zooniverse. Environmental projects dominate citizen science in many countries including New Zealand however, the spotlight also shines brightly on health-related projects. People are urged to join Flu-tracker which has been adapted for participants to include Covid-19 symptoms as well. The online surveillance system aims to track the spread by sending participants a weekly email asking for any ‘flu-like symptoms experienced (e.g., fever, cough, sore throat). Follow-up questions for positive responses then include questions about Covid-19 test results etc. New Zealand has been in a lucky position globally. Astute observation of Covid-19 spread and overseas government responses (or staggering lack thereof) have ensured a swift if not brutal response here to prevent our limited healthcare system being swamped.


The online protein-folding game Foldit has added several new virus-related puzzles. To fight against coronavirus, participants can help design an anti-inflammatory protein – complications occur from severe over-stimulation of the human immune system. Another challenge is to design an antiviral protein that could bind to the 2019 coronavirus spike protein and disrupt viral infection – more information here. Read an interview with one of the scientists involved in developing the puzzles here.

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