Successful citizen science apps that have increased ecology research and brand awareness

plural • 12 min read

Ever heard of citizen science? It’s the new big thing in scientific innovation. Citizen science uses the brainpower, resources, and devices of ordinary citizens (like us!) to help gather data, solve scientific problems, raise awareness, and generally Do Scientific Good. And the best part? You can participate even if you failed 10th grade Biology.

In this article we’ll explore some existing citizen science apps leading Australian organisations have developed to aid their research, successfully engaging and involving more people in environmental management and scientific data collection.

Introduction

The potential reach of organisations has never been so profound thanks to an incredible variety of emergent and evolving technology – social media, a litany of P2P programs, CRM software options, online donor and membership systems, et al. These cutting-edge solutions employ virtual reality, AI chatbots, advanced algorithms and more to help maximize engagement, leading to increased member donations (not to mention impact!). Companies like Google and Apple have already realised the potential for their devices as mass harvesters of data – not including the information used to target you with specified advertising – with their own citizen science-like projects. One example is Apple rolling out ResearchKit to help researchers use health data obtained from iPhones for the benefit of solving medical conditions through metadata.

For nonprofit CEOs and managers, it can be a daunting task to determine exactly which fits your community, platform, and goals. That’s why in this article we’ll focus on apps, and to help get you acquainted we reached out to managers of four of Australia’s largest citizen science programs to see how they’re successfully implementing the app-based approach. 

Before we begin if you believe we should include others in our list please let us know. We’d be happy to share. Now, without further ado let’s dig into these apps making it easier to generate a steady stream of usable scientific data while engaging our communities.

iNaturalist: Powerful Citizen Science Portal

iNaturalist is an easy-to-use citizen science portal connected to The Australasian Fishes Project, created to utilize the observation skills of Australian water users and collect valuable data on our fish.

Here’s how it works:

  • User-submitted fish photos without restriction – any number of any fish, anywhere.
  • A network of experts are at the ready to identify the fish.
  • Photo geo-tagging, compulsory user-submitted data and fish identities create observations.
  • Reports are uploaded onto the project website for more accuracy and further inspection.

Nonprofit managers can easily use the website to sort and download fish observations by taxonomic group or location. Should this app be useful to you and your community, feel free to contact the project team as they’re keen (and responsive) on seeing their app used for management purposes. To get a closer look, check out their handy How To Video outlining the basics of their project.

ClimateWatch: Climate Change Tracking App

The ClimateWatch app was developed by EarthWatch with the Bureau of Meteorology and The University of Melbourne to help scientists and land managers more clearly track the procession of climate change over time through widespread individuals recording impacts on biodiversity.

These impacts can include:

  • Changes in species distribution.
  • Intense and often unexpected weather systems or episodes.
  • Key biological events for specific areas and species (flowering plants, nesting, etc.)
  • Animal migratory behaviors.

Over the years an amazing nationwide database has been established that’s widely used by scientists seeking to map these changes. They do this through collaborating with local land managers to create ‘ClimateWatch Trails’ where members record observations in parks and reserves – data then used in environmental planning and management.

Interested in setting up a ClimateWatch trail? Contact Earthwatch on (03) 9016 7590 or earth@earthwatch.org.au. There is a fee of approximately $1,500 to cover costs.

Want to investigate 60+ ClimateWatch Trails? To view existing trails go to http://www.climatewatch.org.au/trails.

Birdata: App for Australian Birdwatchers & Landmangers

The Birdata app was developed through Birdlife Australia as the ultimate platform for volunteers and researchers connected to the ‘State of Australia’s Birds’ report series. To date, over the last couple decades Birdata’s helped collect over 16 million bird records from 1.2 million surveys.

Here’s how the mobile app works.

  • Users can enter simple bird survey data directly in the field.
  • Receive helpful feedback on their surveys in conjunction with reporting stats.
  • Incorporate data with the Atlas of Australian Birds.

Birdata also offers more comprehensive reporting and data management functionalities, like being able to tailor the app to collect and record observations for regional bird monitoring projects. To help new users or staff, members conduct workshops to demonstrate how to use the app and plan their own local monitoring programs.

Interested in your own program? Costs will vary depending on the resources and commitment required by Birdlife Australia. For more information call (03) 9347 0757 or email info@birdlife.org.au.

The Fluker Post App: Community-Driven Environmental Watch

Since 2008 the Fluker Post Project (created by Martin Fluker) has been a transformative approach to community-based environmental monitoring. A decade later, in March 2018, the Fluker Post App was launched in collaboration with Victoria University and the Victorian Government – funded through the $30 million Regional Riparian Action Plan, part of the $222 million committed to improving waterway and catchment health in Victoria – to help land managers make more informed decisions.

Here’s how it works.

  • A Fluker Post is a special wooden post with grooves in the top for mobile devices like in the image above.
  • The project has a decade’s worth of photo monitoring, made more accessible via app.
  • People use the posts to take photos of the same habitat over time, submit them (you can also email them in) and look at all previous archived posts on their phones.
  • These photos create a visual timeline, showing changes to the natural environments they’re strategically placed in.
  • There are currently over 150 environments being monitored with Fluker Posts.

Of particular note is how the app is being used by citizen scientists to help keep a closer eye on waterways across Victoria, including the relatively new Flagship Waterways and EstuaryWatch Fluker Post sites.

Interested in getting involved? Visit the website or contact Dr. Martin Fluker at Martin.Fluker@vu.edu.au, or Karen Dickinson, Project Officer-Waterway Health at DELWP at karen.dickinson@delwp.vic.gov.au.

Wrapping Up: Your Public-Value Organisation

Hopefully these examples have given you a clearer idea of how app-based technology can dramatically improve connectivity between a nonprofit initiative and the people. Nonprofit CEOs and managers can see much greater levels of impact through direct engagement, developing greater public awareness of their purpose and brand.

That said, if you’d like to improve the trajectory of your social and business objectives while nurturing the health and wellbeing of Australian communities, we’d love for you to learn more about us and connect. 

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