Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Citizen Science

CIRES Director Abdalati highlights citizen science at White House event

On Christmas Day in 1900, an ornithologist named Frank Chapman started a new tradition. Rather than organizing people to go out and shoot birds on Christmas Day (a longstanding custom) Chapman convinced a small group of people to go out and count them. It was the first year of what has since become known as the annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that’s now in its 115th year and involves over 70,000 volunteers across the western hemisphere. The results provide data to scientists about the how the winter range of birds is changing and give a snapshot of overall ecological health.

Today from 8am - 12pm ET, the White House will highlight this kind of science, known as citizen science because of the involvement of regular citizens, in a live webcast forum. They hope to raise awareness and encourage more Americans to become involved in these projects, which are meant to be accessible. Among the speakers at today’s forum is CIRES director Waleed Abdalati, who will be giving the closing keynote address, on the power of perspective and the value of engagement. Abdalati is also a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Look at your hand,” he says. “Hold it out and look at it from a distance, then hold it close to your face, then look at it up close and you’ll see something completely different.” That difference in perspective can change how you think about your hand, he points out. It’s the same with science, where a lot of attention is paid to the “distance” view. But, as Abdalati explains, the closer view can yield different information. “From up close, you can see the precise details of something, like the amount of precipitation in a very specific location or the local temperature. Add that to other local observations of a similar nature and you have a big picture view that’s so much richer as a result of collective observation.”


CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.That opinion appears to be shared by scientists and volunteers alike. The popularity and number of citizen science programs has been exploding over the past few years. When asked why this is, Susan Sullivan, the director of CIRES’ Education and Outreach program points to the democratization of other institutions. “Think of film, music, encyclopedias,” she says. “There aren’t as many gatekeepers anymore. People want to be part of scientific enterprise. They have individual questions they want to ask or community based questions.”

CIRES Fellow Noah Fierer, also an assistant professor of ecology at CU Boulder, was recently involved in a project that asked volunteers to send indoor and outdoor dust samples from their homes so scientists could get a better sense of how microbial communities changed based on where people live and who lives with them. For Fierer, this project was beneficial in that it gave him and his team an easy way to collect samples from thousands of locations from across the United States. But this project and citizen science, in general, also help make science accessible. “Science isn't just a series of facts pulled from a textbook,” says Fierer. “It is a process that is best understood by actually contributing to the process.”

Another citizen science project, called Asthmapolis, asks people who suffer from asthma to use an inhaler fitted with a transmitter to track when and where they use them. The data will help doctors and scientists understand the situations in which people develop asthma symptoms. And Smartfin involves attaching a sensor to the bottom of a surfboard so surfers can collect information on ocean temperatures, salinity and acidification. “Think of having a few thousand people with sensors,” says Abdalati, “every time they choose to catch a wave, they collect important information. If they do this for years, there’s a time history.”

Beyond today’s White House forum, Abdalati is involved in another project to encourage wider involvement in citizen science. He’ll be the host of a four-part, four-hour documentary entitled, “The Crowd & the Cloud,” scheduled for release in 2017. The idea behind the series is that mobile technology and cloud computing have already changed the way people interact and share information with one another. By applying those technologies to science, ordinary people can work collaboratively on big issues like climate change, wildlife conservation, and air and water pollution. The series, which is funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, is being written and directed by Geoff Haines-Stiles, the producer behind Carl Sagan's original COSMOS series and Richard Alley's recent PBS “Earth: The Operators’ Manual.”  

Both the White House event and “The Crowd and the Cloud” are expected to increase the visibility of the citizen science movement and to make it clear that anyone can become a citizen scientist.  “It  doesn’t require being good at science, it requires caring enough to measure something carefully,” said Abdalati. “Observing is something we’re all well-equipped to do.”