Citizen science delivers outcomes for planet and people
Not only is citizen science delivering important data for all types of research, it’s also allowing researchers and community movements to engage people in new and innovative ways.
Words by Samantha Morris

People volunteer for many reasons. In the land and water management and conservation spaces, people volunteer because they want to meet like-minded people, get outdoors, get their hands dirty, but also because they want to contribute to practical outcomes for plants and animals and landscapes.

Citizen science projects offer these people a unique outlet for working with experts to collect data, knowing it’s actually needed and will be used for better decision-making and policy development. 

But let’s take a step back. What actually is citizen science? 

What is citizen science? 

Citizen scientists are people who volunteer to collect data that is used for scientific enquiry. These volunteers usually work alongside experts, researchers or scientists in the field, and are often focussed on the physical environment.

Citizen science in action

The Glossy Black Conservancy is an independent conservation and research association that supports the community to identify, observe and learn about the charismatic Glossy Black-Cockatoo. The Glossy Black-Cockatoo (Calyptorhychus lathami) is one of Australia’s most threatened species of cockatoo and is listed as vulnerable in Queensland and NSW. 

In 2021, the Glossy Black Conservancy ran its 10th Birding Day. The Birding Day is a citizen science project in that the nation’s best Glossy experts convene the event and work hand-in-hand with volunteer citizen scientists to collect data about the bird. In 2021, some 350 volunteers registered for the event, heading out into the field to observe Glossy Black-Cockatoos and log sightings along with critical information about habitat and behaviours. 

The Glossy Black-Cockatoo Birding Day is just one example of a citizen science project engaging everyday Australians to conduct important field work for the protection of a vulnerable species. 

Here’s a snapshot of how we reported back to our citizen scientists after the 2021 Glossy Black-Cockatoo Birding Day.

2021 Glossy Black-Cockatoo Birding Day data

How to engage citizen scientists in your project

Wombat Creative (that’s us) managed the 2021 Birding Day in partnership with the Glossy Black Conservancy. There are some important lessons we learned about engaging volunteers as citizen scientists in this project. Here’s our hot take. 

  • Citizen science projects must have an active and committed volunteer base. If you don’t already have a pool of volunteers to engage, you need to do the work to recruit these people and take good care of them. 
  • It’s important to understand why people are signing up as a volunteer. On the surface it might seem that they simply want to get hands-on in a science project. But volunteer engagement isn’t that simple. It’s useful during the recruitment process to find out why your crew are keen to get involved. You might find that the majority of people actually want to learn more about the species or issue. They might want a social outlet or to meet new people. When you understand their motivations you can plan a citizen science engagement process that values their time and honours those motivations. 
  • Volunteers like to know exactly what it is they’re working towards. Clearly articulate what data is being captured, what it will be used for and why that’s important.
  • Choose the right form of communication to interact with your volunteers. You can ask them how they’d prefer to be communicated with when they register. Older volunteers might appreciate information packs in the post. Others might be happy with google sheets and apps. Cover as many communication bases as possible to keep as many people happy as possible. 
  • In this new COVID-reality, communicate clearly about what strategies are in place for contingency plans around lockdowns or pandemic restrictions. 
  • Report back to volunteers as early as possible. Let them know the outcome of data collection and processing and statistics related to their work. The Glossy Black Conservancy did a stellar job of reporting back to its volunteers and partners.

Resources for engaging volunteers in citizen science

We’ve scoured the internet for useful resources that will help if you’re aiming to engage citizen science volunteers in your project. 

  • The Conservation Volunteers UK has a handy guide for engaging volunteers in citizen science projects. 
  • The Citizen Science Theory and Practice website has a useful paper focussed on recruiting and retaining citizen scientists. They look at what can be learned from volunteer literature. 
  • The Institute of Environmental Sciences explore the motivations of volunteers in citizen science. 
  • The Science Daily website digs into research which found that citizen science volunteers are driven by a desire to learn.