**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Depending on the strain of citizen science, people point to cooperative weather observing, water quality, or birds as ‘the oldest’. Each arose in the cultural context of their time and consequently found their appropriate place among the accepted practices in science. Each has also weathered changes in the politics of science, how funding is allocated, and what topics capture the social imagination. image: presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who was also a notable citizen scientist, by Paine
The National Weather Service Cooperative Observer System, stream water quality testing, and the Christmas Bird Count each claim over a century of practice and therefore provide a model for younger programs to look toward. Programs in the Citizen Science Initiative aspire towards such longevity, becoming a solid presence in the community and needed presence in the conversation around marine conservation. Consciously thinking about how long-standing, successful programs have situated themselves can lend insight into constructing that kind of longevity around a different topic.
When you hear on the local news that it’s 20 degrees and snowing at Frost Elementary School, that’s because students at that school are in charge of your local weather station. Over 11,000 such volunteers around the country man weather observing stations keeping track of temperature and precipitation. In the school, the station might also take other sorts of data like wind speed or soil temperature for use in their science classes. But every day, someone sends temperature and precipitation data to the National Climatic Data Center. Because of their wide distribution, “the data are truly representative of where people live, work, and play”. photo: an early observing station, NOAA
According to the program description, the COOP was officially founded along with the Weather Bureau by the Organic Act in 1890. But the idea wasn’t created by Congress; it merely formalized activity already occurring in farmfields, schools, and parks. The earliest records are from John Campanius Holm in 1644, for whom one of the volunteer awards is named today. Thomas Jefferson lays claim to the longest unbroken record of observations from 1776 to 1816, for which another contemporary award is named.
The data record informs a wide array of applications, from weather forecasts to agricultural planning to, most recently, understanding of human-caused climate change. Because of “relatively stable operation, high station density, and high proportion of rural locations, the Cooperative Network has been recognized as the most definitive source of information on US climate trends” (from the program description). The stations also form the core of the US Historical Climatology Network and the US Climate Reference Network.
Because weather and climate depends on rich data able to address trends over time and microclimates at small spatial scales, an army of volunteers is the best research design to achieve needed data. While the information collected is basic, additional variables can easily be added and the number of uses of the data has increased from year to year as people think of new questions to ask. The COOP is seamlessly integrated into the practice of meteorology.
The Riverkeeper Tradition
19th century English anglers began the tradition of riverkeeper, filling the role of river guardian to track stream health, stocking program success, and keep an eye on poaching activity. The tradition was first formalized in the US on the Hudson River, where Riverkeepers serve as “investigator, scientist, lawyer, lobbyist, and public relations agent for the Hudson” (their website). The Waterkeeper Alliance now has 214 member organizations spread across 24 countries, covering rivers, coastlines, channels, bays, and inlets.
Previous to this, the Izaac Walton League of America also took inspiration, also forming from a group of anglers in 1922 to promote dual goals of advocacy and conservation. They were the first to keep regular water quality records of lakes and rivers. Their early records helped develop the Save Our Streams program in Maryland in 1969. From these early efforts have since spawed into over 772 programs dotted around the nation measuring some aspect of water quality. They are listed in a directory held by the EPA, which estimates over half a million volunteers take part in water quality monitoring annually, and that’s likely an underestimate.
The groups take data on wide variety of indicators that largely fall into three categories – biological indicators, chemical indicators, and physical context. EPA and creates official protocols that can be implemented by these groups and, together with state partners, reviews any new protocols created for quality assurance and quality control. The federal or state stamp of approval lends credibility to the data, as does the fact that EPA hosts most of the data collected on their database StorIt. Because of the high level of collaboration with state and EPA scientists, the data is seen as quality and is often used by scientists to describe the environmental context of their experimental site, track changes over time. The data is also the go-to evidence used for management under the Clean Water Act, as implemented by EPA.
Christmas Bird Count
Audubon lays claim to the ‘longest running citizen science survey in the world’ through the Christmas Bird Count. According to their history, the CBC started in 1900 by Frank Chapman, who was concerned about observations of declining bird populations. The idea was to quantitatively track these trends and provide some evidence should action need to be taken. The timing also serves as an alternative to the traditional Christmas bird hunting competition that many families at the time participated in, so the CBC provides a competitive element as well. photo: sighting from the CBC, Greg Lavaty
Tens of thousands participate each year, split into 2,300 ‘circles’ or regional groupings. Still more provide help for data entry, review, and compiling. Finallly, an annual summary published each year both provides feedback to the participants and provides the raw data and summaries for anyone who may be interested. Data is frequently used to document changes in abundance, track range expansions or fragmentation, and keep an eye on the evolutionary changes in species.
Bird observation data from the CBC and several other birdwatching citizen science programs are often held up as the gold standard of data management. While birders themselves have a reputation for good observational skills and scientific ability, the volunteer compilers and a team of statisticians at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provide quality control oversight, from software to check data entry to statistical methods drawing conclusions from messy, large datasets. Through these and other proactive steps facing potential criticism, they have become a leader in developing the growing field of citizen science.
The Eldest Statesman
While Audubon is the only one of the elders to use the title ‘citizen science’, they are not the oldest of this kind of scientific inquiry. The Cooperative Network claims the title of oldest with nearly four centuries of observations. Water quality programs use the term ‘volunteer monitoring’ and the weather folks just call it ‘science’. The use of different terms likely stems from the conversation happening during the time of their founding.
So what lessons can be taken from the long-standing programs? The fact that they have long-term datasets makes them valuable, so it’s a bit self-perpetuating. Proving a unique dataset, be that through geographic reach, sheer numbers of observations, timing, or something else, is also key. Confidence that the program is providing something insightful to the conversation around weather, water, or birds has helped these programs establish themselves as sturdy citizen-based scientific institutions. That hasn’t happened yet in the marine conservation world, so opportunity awaits!