**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>

Volunteers sample fish populations for the Milwaukee River Watershed Fish Passage Program. Photo credit: Ozaukee County Fish Passage Program.

As we continue on this blog to explore questions about linking citizen science with adaptive management, we’ll be looking at individual programs, but also at networks, capacity building, and coordination efforts that span multiple citizen science programs. In other words, we’re interested in how partnerships can enhance the value of citizen science for all involved.

So here’s one example. For almost a decade, the Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network (WCBM) has been supporting a wide range of activities that expand citizen and volunteer participation in natural resource monitoring. From its perch in the state’s Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), this small office makes grants for priority citizen-based monitoring projects, operates an equipment lending program, and promotes interaction across a growing community of practice extending throughout the state.

As we think about how managers can influence the priorities and practices of citizen science programs and vice versa, this is an interesting model to keep in mind. The WCBM Network is simultaneously bottom up and top down. It is tapping into a groundswell of enthusiasm for networking among citizen science practitioners in a way that is responsive to their needs and goals. But the WCBM Network is also creating incentives that help address key priorities and data needs of scientists and others at the Department of Natural Resources.

Owen Boyle, coordinator of the WCBM Network, recently visited the OST office in Oakland for a meeting of the CCSI Advisory Group. We jumped at this opportunity to interview him about lessons from the WCBM network that might be applicable in our own context here in California. The interview is below, and we’ve provided a snapshot of the program at the end of this post, including links to further information.

Owen Boyle WCBM Network coordinator

What does the state of Wisconsin get from supporting this community?

A simple answer to this is the time and dedication of volunteers, not to mention the data generated from their efforts. We estimate that the state receives at least a three to one return on its investment in the small grants program, and that’s just based on an accounting of volunteer hours. The data generated from these efforts are also quite valuable.

But we also get to be part of a large network of partners. A big part of my job as coordinator is just knowing what everyone’s doing, so that I can help people take advantage of opportunities to collaborate, whether that’s connecting two small non-profits doing similar activities, or helping WDNR scientists get the data they need to implement conservation plans. The WCBM Network represents a large amount of social capital.

What do the network members get from their participation?

You’d have to ask them! The current features of the network are all things that the members asked for. Many members value opportunities to partner with each other, consult Department specialists on a variety of technical issues, and set up relationships with data users and decision makers. There’s also the benefits that comes with scale — accumulated knowledge and access to equipment, for example.

Do you think the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approaches its mission differently as a result of its involvement with citizen-based monitoring?

Definitely not. Partnership with the people of Wisconsin is explicitly stated as part of the Department’s mission. I see the direct involvement of citizens in monitoring the state’s natural resources as simply the formalization of one branch of that partnership.

But in promoting and expanding citizen-based monitoring, the WCBM Network has grown the Department’s interaction with the public. It has provided another way for the public to get involved in natural resource management, beyond traditional avenues such as feedback at public meetings.

What are the biggest challenges the WCBM Network faces?

We already know that the state’s investment gets a three to one return simply taking into account volunteer hours. We can point to a variety of individual success stories, but I think we can do more to create built-in links between decision making processes and citizen-based monitoring data. This is a question of institutional change in Wisconsin and beyond. At all levels of government we need to move toward a model where citizen-based monitoring is just a normal part of dealing with large-scale management issues.

What are your goals for the Network in the coming years?

We already have resources in place to get volunteers connected to projects (check out our Who’s Who page), but I think we can do more to connect people and help them learn from each other. We’re going to be implementing a volunteer registry, so that we can more effectively match citizen scientists with monitoring programs based on time available, area of interest, expertise, and other attributes.

We’d also like to provide additional support for data management, for example through a centralized data clearinghouse, or tools for data analysis that programs on a limited budget can use and learn from.

In your view, why and when is a citizen science, or citizen-based monitoring approach a good idea?

I think citizen-based monitoring is particularly useful in systems where decisions are based on data, the questions you’re looking at are large-scale in both geography and time, and when you have limited resources for conservation.

But it’s not a panacea. People need to be actually interested and engaged. It’s surprising how wide an array of interests people really have, but that is still an essential component. I’m forever humbled by the passion that volunteers bring to monitoring the natural world. To me it’s one of the most hopeful stories of modern culture.

A family of volunteers located and helped make measurements of a white tailed deer fawn as part of the statewide Prediation and Fawn Recruitment Study. Photo credit: WDNR

Snapshot of the WCBM Network

Organization: Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network (WCBM)

Access the website here, and click here for information about a 2004 workshop and key recommendations that led its establishment.

Type: Government-supported network of citizen science programs

Key Features:

  • More than 100 programs in the network
  • Roughly 20 small grants totaling $100K each year
  • Equipment lending program
  • Non-governmental WCBM Advisory Council
  • Networking, capacity building, and recognition for volunteers and WCBM programs at statewide conferences
  • Web and social media resources for volunteers and program staff
  • Project introduction and training videos on WCBM YouTube channel
  • “Who’s Who” directory of WCBM programs and projects
  • 1 full time state-funded position: WCBM Network coordinator

Measures of Success:

  • 3 to 1 return on investment, as measured by volunteer hours contributed
  • Consistent high demand for small grants from year to year
  • Good retention of network members and sustained participation
  • Near doubling of conference attendees over the past five years

Long Term Goals and Challenges:

  • Improving and tracking role of citizen-based monitoring data in management and policy decisions
  • Balancing state priorities with the goal of supporting bottom-up network development
  • Technical, programmatic, and cultural aspects of assuring quality data