6 Examples of Citizen Science at Work

A few examples from around the world illustrate the power of crowdsourcing to expand the scope of scientific inquiry.

4 minute read

December 30, 2019, 5:00 AM PST

By Kayla Matthews @KaylaEMatthews

Citizen Science Day in Bridger-Teton National Forest

Bridger Teton NF / Flickr

For some projects, data collection is too difficult for one team of scientists. Sometimes data are spread across the country. Other times, data need updated yearly. In cases like these, volunteers are critical. 

Citizen science projects recruit volunteers to collect data and answer real-world questions—like the effects of light pollution on the night sky, or climate change on plant growth. This information is vital to scientists, revealing remarkable insights. These projects are also an excellent way for non-scientists to get involved in the field.

Read on to discover six citizen science use cases at work.

1. The Christmas Bird Count

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual census of birds organized by the Audubon Society and conducted by volunteer birders around the United States. Data from the count revealed climate change is causing a reduction in the population [pdf] of birds. Since 2009, they've released a number of surveys and studies that investigate and illustrate how global warming is disrupting the environment.

The Audubon Society has conducted the survey for more than 115 years, making it the longest-running citizen science project in the world. Their data provides a framework for other projects, including how to use, organize, and clean information gathered by a large number of volunteers. 

2. Globe at Night

The Globe at Night database measures the real-world impact of light pollution. Citizen scientists calculate the brightness of the sky where they live, allowing experts to understand the effect of pollutants on nighttime visibility.

Data from the project is most useful to astronomers. However, scientists from other fields benefit, too. Environmental scientists studying the behavior and migration patterns of bats used the Globe at Night data to investigate if and how light pollution affects the animal's behavior.

3. Stardust@home

In 2006, a small capsule from NASA's Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth after collecting tiny particles of dust from stars. Scientists initially estimated the mission would gather around 45 interstellar dust particles. After a search of one-third of the collector, however, the team only found four. These particles are tiny, about a micron—a millionth of a meter—in size, and challenging to locate. 

Due to the small view of the microscope, scientists would need to move it around 1.6 million times to search the entire collector. Instead, they're reaching out to online volunteers for help. When two volunteers identify a particle on the same image, it alerts a scientist, who reviews their findings.

4. World Water Monitoring Day

Water quality data can be challenging to collect, primarily due to the sheer size. Plus, quality can vary significantly from location to location. On World Water Monitoring Day, volunteers use a pre-built testing kit to collect local data on four markers of water quality—temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen levels and acidity.

Scientists use this information to develop a better sense of local water quality and inform research on ecological and public health. The data can also help scientists understand how major changes to an environment—like Hurricane Harvey in 2017—alter water quality, and how long it takes for an environment to return to normal after a catastrophic event.

5. Project BudBurst

Scientists know that climate change is altering how plants grow, including when they bloom. This change could have serious implications for agriculture and the health of native ecosystems. Yet without proper data, it's impossible to understand the full extent of those effects. 

Volunteers with Project BudBurst monitor plants to observe the timing of their phenophases—the different life cycles plants go through. This data helps scientists understand how increased temperatures, along with other environmental changes, might shape agriculture and native ecosystems. In the future, this data could help us understand and predict the effects of climate change on plant life.

6. The Appalachian Mountain Club's View Guides

The relationships between pollution, respiratory health, and exercise aren't fully understood. While air quality data helps scientists understand how pollutants affect breathing, a limited pool of data means they don't have the full picture. Those dedicated to preserving the Earth can volunteer to help.

Appalachian Mountain Club's view guides are volunteer hikers who measure visibility from trails. Combined with local health information, scientists use the visibility data collected to better understand the relationship between haze, pollution, and the effectiveness of exercise. The Club also publishes reports on the visibility of specific hikes, allowing people to plan their trips in and through Appalachia.

How Citizen Science Helps Scientists

Actionable science requires heaps of data, which can be tedious or impossible for a small team to collect. Luckily, citizen science can fill in those gaps. 

Volunteers have made significant strides in the scientific community. They pinpoint the effects of climate change on bird populations and plant blooms. They scan through massive volumes of interstellar matter. They also head outdoors, collecting water samples and reporting on air quality. 

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a journalist and writer covering future tech and infrastructure topics for publications like The Week and VentureBeat. In her free time, she also manages and edits her tech blog, ProductivityBytes.com.

Aerial view of Eugene, Oregon at dusk with mountains in background.

Eugene Ends Parking Minimums

In a move that complies with a state law aimed at reducing transportation emissions, Eugene amended its parking rules to eliminate minimum requirements and set maximum parking lot sizes.

December 3, 2023 - NBC 16

Green Paris Texas city limit sign with population.

How Paris, Texas Became a ‘Unicorn’ for Rural Transit

A robust coalition of advocates in the town of 25,000 brought together the funding and resources to launch a popular bus service that some residents see as a mobility lifeline—and a social club.

November 30, 2023 - Texas Monthly

SMall backyard cottage ADU in San Diego, California.

San Diegans at Odds Over ‘Granny Towers’

A provision in the city’s ADU ordinance allows developers to build an essentially unlimited number of units on single-family lots.

November 29, 2023 - CALmatters

Aerial view of Newton, Massachusetts.

Newton Passes Upzoning to Comply With MBTA Communities Act

The Massachusetts city will permit multifamily housing in some of its ‘village centers’ to comply with state law.

1 hour ago - Mass Live

Aerial view of downtown Salt Lake City, Utah with snow-capped mountains in background.

How Salt Lake City Maintained a Vibrant Downtown

Unlike other major cities, the Utah capital’s downtown has seen a steady stream of visitors even as demand for office space diminishes.

December 8 - Governing

White modular home being installed on a lot.

Modular Homes Make Housing More Affordable in Chicago

Cheaper and faster to construct, modular homes provide an affordable alternative to traditional new construction for low- and moderate-income residents on Chicago’s South Side.

December 8 - WTTW

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

"Rethinking Commuter Rail" podcast & Intercity Bus E-News

Chaddick Institute at DePaul University

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.