Citizen science: The people behind the data

Youngsters recording wildlife

Youngsters recording wildlife for a citizen science project

2 August 2016 by Mary Goodchild

It all started with Darwin. Two hundred years later, people from all walks of life use iPhones to capture information about the natural world, building on millions of ecological records that paint a picture of the UK's changing wildlife.

From the UK Ladybird Survey to the Big Bumblebee Discovery, volunteer field workers are helping to answer some of science's big questions. But who are the people behind the data?

Answers on a postcard...

A plastic shroud encasing a dead hornet lies on Professor Helen Roy's desk. It's one of several she's received in the post, along with thousands of email snapshots and on-line records of suspected Asian hornets, photographed by Britain's bug watchers, spurred on by widespread news articles misreporting the arrival of the alien species to the UK, and shuttled to her inbox.

It's a mark of the public's enthusiasm for citizen science and, in principle, Roy couldn't be more delighted. She'd just prefer they stayed alive. "The 'flesh-eating' headlines!" she bemoans. "The media has something to answer for here." She'd prefer you take a picture and set them free, adding: "Killing it would make no difference to the overall population anyway and the Asian hornet can be tricky to identify so many other species will be adversely affected."

If the invasive, non-native (non flesh-eating) hornet does finally arrive in the UK, Roy will be among the first to know. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology professor is among the UK's most prominent community ecologists working with citizen science, it is likely to be a member of the public who tells her.

Indeed, the people behind the science - a retired lorry driver from Manchester, for example, or a community pioneer in the Isle of Man, or the lady who unfailingly sends Roy a handmade ladybird Christmas card each year - provide a fascinating and vital aspect of her work. She describes them as collaborators in her "extreme team", reaching out beyond the scientist in the lab, providing vital information for researchers to make sense of the UK's drastically changing ecosystems, inform policy and decision-making and help us all understand how to manage our countryside, gardens, towns and cities to protect wildlife.

"We know that there are big questions we need to address," she says. "We know that wildlife is changing, we are seeing a loss of biodiversity and declines in the function of ecosystems. We need these vast collaborations to answer the kind of questions we are facing in ecology - how is climate change affecting wildlife? Are we in the sixth extinction? What is happening to our pollinators? We can't, as individual scientists, go out and survey everything. In order to get these large-scale, long-term data sets, we have to engage people all across the country. We need the big data sets for the big questions."

We need the big data sets for the big questions.

After a childhood spent observing insects (she's loved ladybirds from the age of six) and laying live traps for mice and voles on the Isle of Wight to contribute to reports for the local natural history society magazine, it is no wonder that Roy sees science and public engagement as going "hand in hand." With a PhD in community ecology and ten years as a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University under her belt, Roy took up her current post at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in 2007. As head of zoology for CEH's Biological Records Centre, Roy enjoys coordinating volunteer recording schemes and societies with expertise in everything from fleas to bees and beyond.

She's been involved in the UK's biggest ecological citizen science projects, including the UK Ladybird Survey to track the rise of the harlequin species since 2004 - believed to be the first ever online survey for recording wildlife - and the Big Bumblebee Discovery, which saw Roy and her CEH collaborator Michael Pocock team up with EDF energy through the British Science Association to roll out an ambitious data-gathering mission: schoolchildren and adults submitted 27,000 observations of insects visiting flowers over the summer of 2014. The research helped to show how pollinators can thrive in urban environments and taught important lessons which will shape Roy's future projects, including development of citizen science projects for monitoring insects in East Africa.

Professor Helen Roy

Professor Helen Roy, right, on a recent trip to East Africa

"It is amazing how much things have changed," she says. "When we launched on-line recording for the UK Ladybird Survey 12 years ago, the technology was so laboured. Now, you can set up a recording form within a day. In just a few hours, people can be online making and inputting wildlife records." Although, she adds, there are still those who prefer to send in their records on a postcard.

Today, she can verify four new ladybird records in a minute, and does so as a volunteer at evenings and weekends. But she is far from the first to give up her free time in the name of science. "In Britain, we have this rich history of amateur naturalists," she says. "In essence, this is what Darwin was doing. Now the internet has made a shift. It is no longer just in the domain of the amateur naturalist and pretty much anyone can and will submit a record."

But do the people who submit the records think of themselves as making a scientific contribution? "Motivation is really interesting," she muses. "It will vary - for example, there's a retired schoolteacher in Loughborough who comes up with his own hypotheses to test in field, alongside submitting records. He's so immersed in ladybird recording and his data is incredibly rich, including details of the fascinating interactions between species. We have never met but we have fantastic discussions by e-mail about his discoveries. Or there will be someone out walking their dog who has the UK Ladybird Survey app on their phone who just takes a photo and submits a record, possibly not really thinking about the big picture of how it will be used."

Orange Ladybird

Close-up of an orange ladybird sent to Professor Roy by a citizen scientist

She cites a woman in the Isle of Man - naturally, Roy knows her through citizen science - who described her experience for a book on why people take part. "I love the idea that there is this woman who gets involved with the UK Ladybird Survey, submitting her own records but then she engages other people in her community and coordinates submission of their records too.

"She talked about difficult times in her life and how the ladybird survey was really enriching to her. You just have no idea as a researcher sitting here and verifying records, or as a scientist using the data in modelling, of the stories behind it, of the connection people have with it."

You have no idea as a researcher sitting here and verifying records, of the stories behind it, of the connection people have.

She points to a hand-drawn card, a picture of a ladybird, which she received from a recorder at Christmas. Or there's the lady who writes a handwritten letter every year to describe the moment the harlequin ladybirds oust the two-spots from behind the thermostat in the hall way of her flat. And, of course, those enthusiastic citizens who send in samples of creatures, like the unfortunate victim of mistaken identity lying on her desk. Is she concerned that data collected by members of the public can be unreliable?

"We carried out a study looking at the difference between raw citizen science data and data that had been verified by researchers, and for some of the questions asked of the data set it didn't really matter. But for studies on species that are tricky to identify - like the Asian hornet - the verification was very important."

The key is to understand the data's limitations, she says. With the Big Bumblebee Discovery, participants had difficulty sorting bees into the six distinct colour groups and this meant the data on diversity was of poor quality. But the information on the bee's abundance and location was good. In fact, the results were made available at a British Science Festival workshop where participants were invited by Roy and Pocock to come up with their own hypotheses. Pocock then ran an analysis on the stage and together they led discussion on the results. "We put it out there and said, 'we've got all this data, what would you ask if this was your dataset?'" she says. "There were so many imaginative questions but we selected a comparison between pollinator visits to the English and French lavender and ran the analysis. It was fun and I hope it demonstrated the excitement and creativity of science."

Despite the progress being made by citizen science projects, Roy feels the area remains under resourced. She says people make the mistake of thinking citizen science is free, underestimating the costs of developing new technologies and resources, communicating and maintaining projects, and data verification and analysis. "You can't just put a project online and expect people to find it and return high-quality data. Even with the best online resources, time and enthusiasm of the project leaders is essential to ensure people engage - so we can be assured, for example, that people can recognise different colour groups of bees. People need to have some kind of dialogue with the scientists, it can't be just 'here's a booklet, go and do it'."

But the rewards are manifold, she says. "Just the simple act of sitting and watching insects visiting a flower can be hugely therapeutic, relaxing, and enjoyable and from a wellbeing perspective I think that's fantastic. Science can seem shrouded in mystery and people worry about asking silly questions. It can seem a bit elitist perhaps. But when you are engaged in a project together, when you're sitting with some children counting bees visiting flowers the questions just come naturally, ideas start to flow and it's very informal."

She adds: "I hope the public feel that there are discoveries to be made on their doorstep. Even something they might think is well studied, like bumblebee ecology - there are so many gaps in our knowledge they can help fill through making simple observations in their gardens. I think it's hugely exciting and a wonderful opportunity to get people involved with science."

Contributing to discussion on citizen science in East Africa, Roy believes the UK should be shouting louder about its expertise in the field and sharing experiences globally. She says: "Ecologists need not be quiet - although it seems to be in their nature. We have achieved a lot, and we have so much to share, so much to celebrate."

Join Professor Roy and others to help solve the scientific mysteries of today by taking part in one of CEH's citizen science projects monitoring animals, plants, birds and air pollution. Find out more on the CEH website - external link.