Peo­ple power

Or­di­nary mem­bers of the pub­lic are help­ing to study ev­ery­thing from puffins to pen­guins. But is their data any good – and can be­com­ing a cit­i­zen sci­en­tist re­ally save a species? Louise Tickle in­ves­ti­gates.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - LOUISE TICKLE is a jour­nal­ist who writes about wildlife, travel and so­cial is­sues; www.louiset­

How cit­i­zen sci­en­tists are help­ing re­searchers

On clifftops across Bri­tain and Ire­land last spring and sum­mer, an army of puf­fin fans clicked their cam­eras as thou­sands of th­ese much-loved seabirds flew back to their bur­rows, sil­very fish clutched in glow­ing or­ange, yel­low and blue beaks. Co-opted as cit­i­zen sci­en­tists by the RSPB as part of an ini­tia­tive called Project Puf­fin, the 602 puf­fin en­thu­si­asts – dubbed the ‘puf­farazzi’ – then uploaded 1,402 pho­to­graphs to the project’s web­site, to­gether with an ex­pla­na­tion of where and when each had been taken.

The images were scru­ti­nised by a team of six spe­cially trained cit­i­zen sci­en­tists led by RSPB seabird spe­cial­ist El­lie Owen, in an ef­fort to iden­tify the species and size of fish each bird was bring­ing back to its nest. Puffins, Owen ex­plains, are in se­ri­ous trou­ble in many for­mer strongholds. On the ‘Red List’ – in­di­cat­ing that a species has hit the high­est level of con­ser­va­tion

con­cern – this charis­matic auk is now one of the RSPB’s top re­search pri­or­i­ties.

“We had long been think­ing about seabird diet and needed more data,” Owen says. “We know food sup­ply is a ma­jor bot­tle­neck for seabirds when they go into de­cline, as puffins are right now.” So she had the idea of cre­at­ing the first na­tional map of what puffins are feed­ing their chicks around the coun­try, “and then re­lat­ing that to the broader aim of work­ing out why puffins in some colonies are find­ing food more eas­ily than oth­ers.”

Owen de­cided to har­ness the love of puffins felt by so many vis­i­tors to coastal re­serves, and crowd­source pic­tures of in­di­vid­ual birds re­turn­ing home from fish­ing trips. “If we’d paid re­searchers to get those pho­to­graphs it would have cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds, and we could never have af­forded to do it,” she says.

Cit­i­zen sci­ence – draw­ing on the time, pas­sion, skills and some­times the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise of or­di­nary mem­bers of the pub­lic – has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar with re­searchers across a range of sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines over the past decade. Usu­ally fo­cused on the mass gath­er­ing or anal­y­sis of large data sets, it has been her­alded as an in­no­va­tive and, im­por­tantly, in­clu­sive way to bet­ter com­pile and un­der­stand in­for­ma­tion about the world we live in. B

ut re­ally, given that cit­i­zen sci­ence typ­i­cally de­pends on co­horts of un­trained vol­un­teers, how use­ful are the find­ings of such re­search? “I think the an­swer is, it de­pends,” says Tim Birk­head, a pro­fes­sor of or­nithol­ogy at Sh­effield Univer­sity. “The cru­cial thing is qual­ity. Look­ing at broad gen­eral trends by look­ing at large data sets can be use­ful, if your method­ol­ogy is ro­bust and con­sis­tent.”

Birk­head is pleased that peo­ple in­creas­ingly want to feel in­volved in sci­ence, but warns that, “there’s no point in do­ing it un­less it’s re­li­able. There’s a real risk that cit­i­zen sci­ence projects end up, crudely, as job cre­ation schemes, keeping the pub­lic happy and en­ter­tained.”

Con­sis­tency is key. “If the method­ol­ogy changes – and I see that kind of thing hap­pen­ing all the time on lo­cal na­ture re­serves, with peo­ple com­ing along and say­ing “I’ve got a bet­ter method than you” – then you’re on a sticky slope,” Birk­head says. By con­trast, he cites the swal­low mi­gra­tion track­ing plat­form on the eBird web­site ( as an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of the power of cit­i­zen sci­ence. “It of­fers su­perb vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, and if done over suc­ces­sive years is a valu­able re­search tool.”


Ro­bust project de­sign is a vi­tal first step to gath­er­ing re­li­able data, agrees Ox­ford Univer­sity’s pro­fes­sor Chris Lin­tott. He is a co-founder of Zooni­verse, an on­line plat­form that hosts a huge va­ri­ety of na­ture­based cit­i­zen-sci­ence projects. But he also notes that vol­un­teers can do some jobs bet­ter than the ex­perts. L

in­tott, an astronomer, stum­bled into cit­i­zen sci­ence 11 years ago, when he re­alised he had “too many gal­ax­ies” for PhD stu­dent Kevin Schaw­in­ski to an­a­lyse. “In des­per­a­tion, after Kevin had looked at 50,000 galaxy pic­tures, we put them up on­line and in­vited peo­ple to search for plan­ets,” he ex­plains. “On the first day, we were get­ting 70,000 clas­si­fi­ca­tions an hour. We soon re­alised that not only were peo­ple’s clas­si­fi­ca­tions bet­ter than ma­chine recog­ni­tion, they were also bet­ter than Kevin!”

There are ways to strengthen con­fi­dence that vol­un­teer clas­si­fi­ca­tions can be re­lied upon. A case in point is Pen­guin Watch, which launched on­line in 2014 and now has al­most 50,000 reg­is­tered con­trib­u­tors. To date they have made over six mil­lion cat­e­gori­sa­tions of time-lapse photos of pen­guins, chicks and eggs.

Pen­gui­nol­o­gist Fiona Jones ex­plains how its re­searchers con­trol for qual­ity. “If any vol­un­teer in­di­cates that an­i­mals are present in an im­age, that im­age is next shown to a to­tal of 10 peo­ple,” she says. “Each click they make on the photo gives us an x/y co-or­di­nate. By clus­ter­ing the co-or­di­nates gen­er­ated by the clicks of all 10 vol­un­teers, re­searchers can then pro­duce ‘av­er­age clicks’, each of which should rep­re­sent one pen­guin adult – or chick, or egg.”

The point of Pen­guin Watch, Jones ex­plains, is to un­der­stand the chang­ing pop­u­la­tion dy­nam­ics of pen­guin colonies in the Antarc­tic. “Many colonies go com­pletely un­mon­i­tored,” she says. Some may not even be known about: in 2014, a vast colony of Adélie pen­guins was spot­ted on the Dan­ger Is­lands in the Wed­dell Sea, which had gone undis­cov­ered un­til then. “Colonies could be in rapid de­cline and we’d have no idea,” Jones con­tin­ues. “Since pen­guins are of­ten thought of as a bell­wether of cli­mate change, it’s im­por­tant to know what’s go­ing on.”

Birk­head, how­ever, warns that us­ing un­trained vol­un­teers to col­lect data is risky. He adds: “While I don’t want to take any­thing away from the en­thu­si­asm of the pub­lic, re­searchers have to make sure that their in­struc­tions are bombproof.”

But sci­en­tists can build in safe­guards. En­sur­ing that un­trained mem­bers of the pub­lic are asked only to carry out a sim­ple, well-ex­plained task, is crit­i­cal to suc­cess, says PhD stu­dent An­abelle Car­doso of Ox­ford Univer­sity, who set up Ele­phant Ex­pe­di­tion to an­a­lyse the num­bers of for­est ele­phants – and other species – ap­pear­ing in over two mil­lion cam­era-trap photos from her study site in Gabon. “If we were to ask vol­un­teers to do more com­pli­cated tasks with more op­por­tu­nity for mis­takes, we would raise the num­ber of times each im­age needs to be clas­si­fied in line with the dif­fi­culty of the task,” she says. T

he Pen­guin Watch web­site takes vol­un­teers through a swift, clear tu­to­rial and straight into clas­si­fy­ing adult pen­guins, chicks and eggs. The in­struc­tions couldn’t be sim­pler. Even so, it can be hard in half-light to dis­tin­guish be­tween an adult and a full­grown chick. Jones ex­plains that if a bird is an­no­tated by only one vol­un­teer, it was prob­a­bly done in er­ror and can be dis­carded. But, she says, anal­y­ses of the project’s crowd­sourced data have found that the pub­lic are “ex­cel­lent” pen­guin spot­ters. “In fact, our vol­un­teers are so dili­gent that they can spot things the ex­perts miss!”

Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion has been an is­sue for the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt, as the sub­tle dif­fer­ences be­tween shark and

skate eggcases found on beaches can make iden­ti­fy­ing them tricky, even with the help of a de­tailed guide on the char­ity’s web­site. The so­lu­tion has been a smart­phone app, launched six years ago. Cat Gor­don, the Shark Trust’s con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer, says that it en­ables vol­un­teers to sub­mit eggcase pho­to­graphs in­stantly from the beach, rather than hav­ing to up­load images man­u­ally from a com­puter at home.

“We’re find­ing that 80 per cent of records sent us­ing the app come with an im­age, com­pared to 40 per cent of those sent by other meth­ods,” Gor­don says. This makes check­ing a vol­un­teer’s eggcase iden­ti­fi­ca­tion much eas­ier. “If we re­ceive a record with­out an im­age and don’t al­ready know the per­son is good at iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, then the data is ap­proved but not ver­i­fied, and we show the split on our re­sults map,” she ex­plains. “Some we will fol­low up on be­cause we know we shouldn’t be get­ting that species in that place.”

It’s also vi­tal, says Birk­head, to build dou­ble-blind checks into the project method­ol­ogy. As an ex­am­ple of this not hap­pen­ing, he cites the RSPB’s hugely pop­u­lar Big Gar­den Bird­watch. “You’re ask­ing peo­ple to record the num­bers of birds they see in an hour from their front room. But if, un­be­known to them, you set up video cam­eras be­fore­hand and then com­pare the re­sults, I’ll tell you what you’ll find. Ev­ery­body ex­ag­ger­ates!” B

irk­head laughs wryly. “It’ll be things like: ‘Oh, I saw a bullfinch a minute be­fore my hour of­fi­cially started, but I’ll in­clude it any­way.’ So un­less you build in care­ful qual­ity checks you risk com­pro­mis­ing your data.” Another dan­ger of cit­i­zen sci­ence, ob­serves Owen, is that you get “huge amounts of data but noth­ing that’s use­able”. She was ini­tially wor­ried about get­ting hun­dreds of blurred puf­fin images that would be of no help at all in work­ing out the vari­a­tion in their sup­pers.

Care­ful think­ing should also be done in ad­vance of de­sign­ing a project, “so you head off any bi­ases early on,” Owen says. “For in­stance, we needed peo­ple not just to send through flashy pic­tures of puffins car­ry­ing big fish – we needed to be able to see what­ever they’d man­aged to catch.” It seems the in­struc­tions worked: Owen has been able to use 89 per cent of the pic­tures sent in.

But what about un­trained vol­un­teers misiden­ti­fy­ing species, so skew­ing the data? It’s easy enough, per­haps, to recog­nise a for­est ele­phant, but dif­fer­ent species of la­dy­bird, for in­stance, might eas­ily con­fuse a lay per­son. Given this risk, do­ing due dili­gence means hav­ing an ex­pert check at least a pro­por­tion of the crowd­sourced re­sults against their own, skilled as­sess­ment of what is shown in an im­age.

At the Cen­tre for Ecol­ogy and Hy­drol­ogy, pro­fes­sor He­len Roy says they go even fur­ther. Roy pi­o­neered on­line out­reach to cit­i­zen sci­en­tists when she put the La­dy­bird Sur­vey on­line in 2005. “For ev­ery record we get in, we’ll check it.” And with the launch of the La­dy­bird Sur­vey app, the qual­ity as well

as quan­tity of data she re­ceives has risen as vol­un­teers are able to take a photo of the la­dy­bird they’ve found, as well as the ex­act time and lo­ca­tion of their record­ing be­ing au­to­mat­i­cally logged. R

oy points out that one of the joys of cit­i­zen sci­ence is the op­por­tu­nity for re­searchers to be in reg­u­lar touch with wildlife lovers who share their pas­sion for a par­tic­u­lar species. She has adopted so­cial me­dia with en­thu­si­asm, and also mes­sages vol­un­teers in­di­vid­u­ally to tell them more about any in­ter­est­ing species they record. When she needs to re­clas­sify a misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion, she con­tacts the vol­un­teer to ex­plain why.

“It feels like a com­mu­nity project, like a sur­vey that be­longs to ev­ery­one,” Roy ob­serves. “Some peo­ple pro­vide just one or two records, oth­ers sur­vey their lo­cal wood­land year-on-year, so it’s very much dis­trib­uted – not in any way that’s for­mal, but in a beau­ti­ful mav­er­ick way. I love hear­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries, and they love telling their sto­ries about the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing around la­dy­birds.”

Out­reach is, for some sci­en­tists, a fun­da­men­tal driver for crowd­sourc­ing in­for­ma­tion from the pub­lic. While the Shark Trust has com­piled 170,000 valu­able records over the past 14 years, Gor­don says that re­search was not the ini­tial mo­ti­va­tor for the project, which was in fact de­signed “to show that we have sharks, skates and rays in our wa­ters,” she ex­plains. “Peo­ple are still sur­prised!”

For An­abelle Car­doso, as­sess­ing the suc­cess of a cit­i­zen sci­ence project de­rives not only from whether the re­search has ful­filled its sci­en­tific aims but also from the qual­ity of its re­la­tion­ship with vol­un­teers. “Did they feel they gained en­joy­ment and knowl­edge from the process of en­gag­ing with it? Would vol­un­teers ed­u­cate those around them about the re­search?” she says.

Tak­ing part might give vol­un­teers a nice warm feel­ing, but can be­com­ing a cit­i­zen sci­en­tist truly help to save a species? Vol­un­teers might need to think long haul rather than sprint, but Roy is in no doubt that their ef­forts make a dif­fer­ence. “The value is just ab­so­lutely unimag­in­able,” she says. “The gov­ern­ment, ev­ery year, pro­duces its in­di­ca­tors, and many rely on vol­un­teer gen­er­ated data, so for com­mu­ni­ca­tion to min­is­ters and to in­form their de­ci­sions on pos­si­ble changes to land man­age­ment, that pol­icy link is very valu­able.”

“It’s teach­ing us about puffins and their food sources, but the way peo­ple en­gage is also teach­ing us about cit­i­zen sci­ence meth­ods,” says Owen. “The pur­pose is to be able to make bet­ter con­ser­va­tion plans for puffins. The rea­son we can’t do it at the mo­ment is that while they may seem very well known and well loved, they’re one of the seabirds we know least about.”

Above: cit­i­zen sci­en­tists con­trib­ute data on shark eggcases, king­fish­ers and ele­phants.

Above: smart­phones make it easy for peo­ple to take part in re­search projects on pen­guins and cetaceans.

Above: the pub­lic can sub­mit their sight­ings to the UK La­dy­bird Sur­vey via an app. Inset: ‘puf­farazzi’ are con­tribut­ing to puf­fin re­search.

Above: 420,489 peo­ple took part in the RSPB’s Big Gar­den Bird­watch in 2018, col­lec­tively spot­ting 6,764,475 birds.

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