What Is Citizen Science And Why Is It Important?

People around the world are feeling the heavy effects of the coronavirus while working from home, becoming their kid’s teachers, and dealing with all the other new adjustments to life during quarantine. While the world awaits the return to normal life, many are learning to reconnect with nature, and are starting to document what they see and feel. This is part of a growing movement of folks seeking solace and a boost of serotonin through citizen science projects, which give them a chance to share their observations online with a global community.

Historically speaking, citizen science has been around for ages. Sailors in the 1800s jotted down currents and wind, which led to better predictions of ocean hazards. The Audubon Society, which is 120 years old, continues to celebrate its volunteer-run annual Christmas bird count.

This year alone, citizen science apps have seen a tremendous increase in users:

So what is the key difference today?

Thanks to forced stay at home orders as well as growing interest and concern with environmental conditions and how they affect health, citizen science is now at the forefront of understanding health trends. As a result, there’s an unprecedented surge of new data from citizens all over the world. Researchers are leveraging this information to discover new COVID-19 and environmental pollution hotspots among other projects.

Let’s dive into how citizen science can close the gap between the population and research, and how it’s shaping the future of data collection and the scientific process.

What is Citizen Science? 

Ditch the news cycle—engage, gain skills, and make a difference and try citizen science

The Centre of the University of Cambridge

Citizen science goes by many names: crowdsourcing, community science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring, or online citizen science. All of these terms stem from the concept that citizen science is volunteer public participation in the scientific process.

Citizen science occurs when people share what they observe from the physical world to provide information to the scientific community. It includes things like formulating research questions, conducting scientific experiments, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, and even making new discoveries.

Participating in citizen science means you’re pro-actively engaging in the process of collecting and sharing observations in the name of science. It’s about discovering and observing things—everything from bird watching, to noting construction snow, to taking water measurements, or simply collaborating with others to create a shared network of data. 

Citizen Science & Education

Citizen science is largely linked to education because it fills the data gaps between what is happening in the real world with researchers and policy makers are seeing in their own studies. These traditional entities can’t capture every bit of information – sometimes due to funding, policies, or just lack of capacity.

Let’s be real, funding science projects can be expensive due to paid staff, purchasing equipment, and data management. Citizen science, on the other hand, incorporates volunteers who are willing to spend their free time learning from the physical world. With more eyes on nature, citizen science is a powerful tool for providing students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Citizen scientists can also be trained to collect data, which allows them to gain hands-on experience conducting real scientific projects. Many courses today involve some version of citizen science to get students to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Check out our citizen science work with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. To learn more about how our projects are becoming integrated in community-based environmental courses – send an email to hey@temboo.com

There are plenty of opportunities that connect folks back to nature through tree plantings, oyster plantings, air quality monitoring, waterfront monitoring, or even park clean ups. Do you have an interest in nature? There is a citizen science application waiting for you.

Citizen Science & Policy 

If citizens are going to live with the benefits or potential consequences of science, it’s incredibly important to make sure that they are not only well informed about changes and advances in science and technology, but that they also are able to influence the science policy decisions that could impact their lives

Scientific American

It is no surprise that the communities that participate the most in citizen science projects are also the most informed about policy decisions.

Prior to the pandemic, I attended a public policy meeting in Brooklyn to learn about the superfund remediation process from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A deluge of rain, or as the Danes call it, a “cloudburst”, was falling from the sky that day and I remember walking into the meeting feeling like I had tried to outswim Michael Phelps. But to my surprise, the room that held 100 people was at full capacity.

The Gowanus community has resources from nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and city funding to conduct citizen science projects to clean up the environmental pollution that has plagued the neighborhood for generations. It seems that connecting the community back with their environment and empowering them to feel like their citizen science contributions are part of the solution also helps them to be more adamant about having a say in local policy decisions.

As I sat there sopping wet, I was amazed at how the community pressed the EPA and council members about their policy decisions to clean up of the canal, the costs of the project, and how their health and environment would be impacted. The Gowanus Community even has a Facebook page dedicated to the EPA’s remediation efforts in their neighborhood.

Gowanus Canal EPA Facebook page

These citizen science connections lead to dedicated residents who want to see their communities thrive, their kids live in healthier environments, and hold decision makers accountable. By having folks collect data it turns that data into a shared resource and builds more informed citizens who have a say in the shape of policy discussions. 

While most environmental citizen science programs focus on questions regarding climate change, air pollution, water quality, community engagement, etc., they’ve also run into some issues. For example, some environmental citizen science projects lack urgency, have competing priorities, unquantifiable measurements, and disparate data that silos key elements of information needed.

However, things are improving.

Studies show citizen science data is actually quite reliable due in part to improvements in software design, including no-code technology, and new statistical techniques that address data quality. As a result, some citizen science work is as reliable as working professionals, which allows the insights to be shared from the community level to the policy level. Also, the interoperability of data from citizen science projects is growing and directly benefiting research studies every year.

Forced isolation from a global pandemic has not only led folks to reconnect with their environment at a record setting rate, but it is shedding light on how to overcome issues in the environmental citizen science space.

Citizen Science & COVID 19

Tracking the coronavirus presents a fragile and unique problem because it relies heavily on population data, transient data, health data, as well as mutual trust between citizens, experts and policy-makers. If not done carefully, confidence in the policy actions used to curb the pandemic—be it identifying hotspots, enacting lockdowns, or mandating masks—could be put at risk.

California, for example, has bounced back and forth between opening the economy, shutting it down, and the opening it back up again. This inconsistent coronavirus action plan on a policy level, including delays in acquiring testing sites and inaccurate results, has led many Californians to be “over” the coronavirus. However, that’s not how pandemics work and now my home state is experiencing another surge in coronavirus cases in many parts of the state.

If we look across the pond, many countries have returned to a fully open economy. Let’s take the United Kingdom for example. Their economy is almost back to normal and part of this is due to tracking the coronavirus with the help of citizen scientists. 

Let me explain. 

Citizens of the United Kingdom are sharing their movements on the COVID Tracker, one of the largest citizen science applications to date. Citizens are also logging their health symptoms and mental health impacts in the app. Many researchers cannot collect data normally due to social distancing measures, so they’re obtaining it from citizen scientists. This critical citizen science data is filling in the gap of knowledge in record time, and at a fraction of the cost for researchers and decision-makers.

COVID Symptom Study App by Zoe Global Limited

Zoe Global Limited, a citizen science app repurposed to track COVID-19, had a million downloads on the first day it went live on March 24th.

Citizen science apps are blending the environmental citizen science space with the health impact space. Now experts and policymakers are better understanding the course of the pandemic, all while giving participants a sense of agency and ownership of the process. As a result, citizen science apps are proving to be the most widespread and accepted effort to track the coronavirus in the United Kingdom.

Key Factors for Citizen Science Success

Any technology that will sustain itself for the future needs to be accessible, understandable, and interoperable. This is core to our mission statement at Temboo, and it cannot be stressed enough that the end-user’s experience needs to be of the highest priority. The COVID Tracker is one example of technology evolving to meet all of these needs. 

Here are some of the key factors that are needed in order to ensure the success of a citizen science project:


Accessibility is fundamental to human-centered design, an innovative approach to problem-solving that starts with the people you’re designing for, and ends with a new solution to meet their unique needs. Basically, if the least tech savvy among us can’t use the technology or understand the results, the solution will become obsolete. The COVID Tracker app has a simple, clean and user-friendly interface. That’s one reason for its widely adopted use among all age groups in the United Kingdom.


Valuable insights for researchers and policymakers arise from ancillary data. By overlaying the COVID Tracker data with mobility data, health surveys, demographics, population density data, the UK government is able to make informed coronavirus action plan decisions. Simply providing one data stream to the UK government won’t move the needle. However, understanding what is happening between data streams is how we can start to paint a picture of what is happening in the real world.


Open-source resources allow citizen scientists to collect, measure, and share their insights to all stakeholders—including researchers and government agencies. Examples such as the COVID-19 tracker show the community coming together to share their insight to be part of the policy making decisions.

Reporting or Storytelling 

People don’t always respond to facts, but often do respond to how a story is told. Each word holds a significant amount of power when sharing insights of how our current environment is changing—especially with regards to the coronavirus. By turning numbers into bite size story insights, more people will participate, leading to a larger data set. 

The Future of Citizen Science

Woman taking a photo of nature

The opportunity to invest in participatory citizen science projects during and after the Covid-19 pandemic should not be lost.

Frontiers in Public Health

In today’s world, we have many of the tools and technology needed to solve to our most pressing issues—be it climate change, the pandemic, or the economy.

Citizen science is a key piece to solving these issues. As it accelerates from its environmental science roots to environmental impacts on human health, this data collection method is taking urgency, ownership, and expanded volunteerism to new heights. Citizen scientists are gathering invaluable data for researchers and policymakers all over the world. In order to continue to build on this momentum, the following needs to happen:

  • Research networks need to put together specific directions or training to expand citizen science work.
  • Redundancies must be minimized and shared resources optimized.
  • Data collection needs to be upheld to quality assurance plans by government agencies to allow data to be used by all stakeholders
  • There should be continued investment in projects with real and concrete local effects for citizens in their communities.
  • Education programs around citizen science should be expanded to create the next generation of informed citizens.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that everyday citizens can have an extremely positive effect on data collection. As a global community we are not only more informed than ever, but we are now an essential piece of the puzzle that will help improve the future in frontline communities, waterfront neighborhoods, urban dwellings, and rural societies. Citizen science is now a fundamental part of the future of science, so get out there and start using your tools.

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