Citizen science is people powered research. The term describes a broad spectrum of different types of activities which enable ordinary people, often without formal training, to contribute to scientific research in their spare time. This can take a variety of forms, from outdoor activities such as surveys, wildlife observations and collecting samples, to online crowdsourced projects which are designed to allow individuals to help process huge datasets.

Both irecord and ispot are fantastic examples of how people observe, record andshare wildlife observations, and support each other to identify UK species. Once verified, the data can be sent to The NBN Atlas – the UK’s largest collection of biodiversity information. This species data, whether about lizards or bumblebees is shared not just for the benefit of wildlife charities, government or environmental professionals but individuals, societies and local recording groups can freely use the data to help wildlife where they live.    

Crowdsourced tasks draw on the human ability for pattern recognition as volunteers can help to catagorise images or analyse data to spot trends and solve problems. In a fast paced world, where technology is increasingly opening up the floodgates of data collection, crowdsourcing can be used as a tool to swiftly unlock all this valuable data. The Zooniverse is a brilliant example of how people powered research via crowdsourcing can enable large datasets to be analysed much more quickly to discover new things about our world. From identifying adult and juvenile penguins in Antarctica from photographs on Penguin Watch to classifying galaxies with Galaxy Zoo there are lots of projects that you can take part in!        

Collaborating with members of the public allows researchers to collect and interpret a breadth and depth of data that would not be possible or practical, to gather alone, opening up new realms of possibilities for scientific research. Environmental sampling and recording projects such as Earthworm Watch can be particularly suited to citizen science, as scientists can gather vast data sets across a wide geographic spread, which can help to answer the big science questions about the changing world around us.

Earthworm Watch data feeds into a wider research project called PREDICTS, which analyses data from biological communities, such as earthworms in different habitats across the UK, to build up a picture of how biodiversity is being affected by human actions. Historically there has been a focus on species-based indicators, such as a species becoming endangered or even extinct, and increasingly we are starting to understand the impacts of invasive species that thrive in new non-native habitats due to environmental changes. Despite these dramatic changes, any changes in biodiversity however small may have negative consequences for ecosystem diversity and function, so it is crucial that we understand the nature on our doorstep.

PREDICTS uses these biodiversity indicators to help predict future change by mapping Global models of change that represent entire ecosystems. Ultimately this information can help us to better protect the planet by highlighting environmental pressure points caused by human actions and inform future policy to help counter any negative impact.

Big Seaweed Search is another project which closely monitors UK biodiversity to help us understand key environmental changes. The project is a partnership between Natural History Museum and Marine Conservation Society, and it is designed to monitor seaweeds around the UK coast to understand how these habitats are changing. By contributing survey data, volunteers can help scientists understand how the British Isles are affected by climate change through sea temperature rise, ocean acidification, and spread of non-native species. These changes can be linked to the distribution and abundance of key seaweeds identified in the survey.

Both Earthworm Watch and Big Seaweed Search illustrate how a small thing, such as an earthworm or a frond of seaweed can be an important component in a wider ecosystem helping to maintain an ecological balance. Every piece of data received for these projects helps us gain a valuable insight into these communities and how we can protect them.      

Victoria Shennan is the Citizen Science Programme Coordinator at the Natural History Museum. She works with scientists at the Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity and explores new ways to connect people with citizen science.

Earthworm Watch has been developed by Earthwatch (Europe)The Natural History Museum and the Earthworm Society of Britain to better understand the ecosystem benefits of earthworms. Earthworm Watch allows the public to help scientists map their abundance, better understand the human impact on their populations and with further research measure the services these ‘ecosystem engineers’ provide.  If you want to get involved, then sign up here, or if you have received a pack, but yet to do it, please complete your survey as soon as possible as earthworms will begin to retreat underground during the hot and dry summer months. If you haven’t submitted your data, then please submit data here.