Be a citizen scientist: track plastic waste, spot a spider monkey or beat coronavirus

·10-min read
<span>Photograph: David W Černý/Reuters</span>
Photograph: David W Černý/Reuters

People feeling time hang heavy as they struggle with the restrictions of the lockdown may find an unexpected green uplift in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The restrictions placed on going outside are fuelling a new online surge in citizen science, as internet users tune into data-crunching projects led by academic researchers.

Enforced inactivity for hundreds of millions of people around the world is giving scientists the opportunity to recruit a vast army of online helpers, aiming their collective firepower at some seemingly intractable problems, from the climate crisis to plastic waste, as well as some cute ones - spotting spider monkeys, interpreting baby burblings and snapping blossoms.

Unlike some previous citizen science projects, such as the recently paused Search for Extra Terrrestrial Intelligence (Seti) that relied on exploiting the unused computing power of home PCs while their users were offline, this new crop requires people to be alert and often interactive. Instead of searching through outer space, the project leaders invite people to connect with nature and solve environmental problems closer to home.

“Citizen science helps scientists and researchers analyse huge data sets which they simply couldn’t manage by themselves, helping to save them hours of time and contributing to scientific breakthroughs,” said Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, which is helping to coordinate some of the UK-based initiatives. “It’s a fantastic way to know you are making a positive difference without even having to leave your own home.”


Covid-19 is inevitably one of the most pressing research areas. Despite the efforts of governments and scientists around the world, data on the virus is still patchy, ranging from the very thorough in places such as Iceland, where a high proportion of people have been tested, to the alarmingly opaque, as the spread in many developing countries is likely be taking place without the tracking available in countries with better healthcare.

Doctors and researchers at King’s College London and Guys and St Thomas’ hospitals are asking people to fill in data on their symptoms, or lack of them, through an app. The results around the UK are encouraging so far, as there has been a fall in the number of people aged 20-69 recording active symptoms, down to about 1.4 million people, from 1.9 million on 1 April. This is no substitute for proper testing, but will provide scientists with valuable data on the possible incidence and spread of the virus.

Earth Day

Fifty years ago, an estimated 20 million people took to the streets in the US and around the world to protest against the rampant destruction of the natural environment, the extinction of species, toxic pollution, and the despoliation of pristine habitats. Earth Day on 22 April 1970 marked the first major demonstration of a new environmentalism that sought to recognise the harm we were doing through untrammelled industrialism.

The results of that protest are still being felt, in legislation enacted to safeguard the environment, in the global climate movement and in conservation efforts. But planned demonstrations for the 50th anniversary – aimed at spurring a new generation of environmental activism – have had to be curtailed.

Earth Day is now going online instead, and everyone with a smart phone or internet connection can take part. Two projects are currently active, on plastic and air quality, with more to follow, including tracking declining insect populations.

Taking pictures of plastic litter and uploading them will allow for greater tracking of the plastic waste problem than has been possible up to now. Knowing what kind of litter is prevalent and where will help in formulating plastic waste reduction policies. The added bonus is that any cleaning up of plastic litter you do on your daily exercise outdoors will also be tracked.

Air quality has improved under the coronavirus lockdowns, but that is likely to be short-lived as restrictions are lifted. The Earth Day air quality app invites people to photograph their horizon daily and send it in, to be processed centrally to gain a clearer picture of air pollution around the world.

Animal magic

Anyone itching for a bit of escapism without forbidden travel can spend some quality time in central America, courtesy of the Spotting Spider Monkeys project.

Spider monkeys are fascinating creatures, very long-lived primates that are slow to reproduce, with each female on average having only one infant every three years. Huge areas of the monkeys’ habitat are being lost to agriculture and other encroachment, with palm oil production one of the leading causes. All spider monkey species are now classed as threatened with extinction.

Researchers are now using drones to track spider monkeys through the forest, and using the footage they are developing an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of finding spider monkeys on its own. Before it can get to that stage, however, the systems needs to be fed thousands of images tagged for the presence of spider monkeys, to train the algorithm. This would take years, without the input of citizen scientists who are being asked to look at the images from surveillance cameras and point to the presence of spider monkeys.

This will also help researchers track the pattern of habitat loss and deforestation, which are threats to other species as well as the monkeys.

Blooming April

Leaving home only once a day for exercise might seem to give little opportunity for outdoor citizen science projects, but you too can do your bit. Photographing blossom on your daily walk will help the National Trust compile a changing gallery of pictures from around the country to delight those who can’t make it to see the spring blooms in person.

Hundreds of thousands of people have now joined up with the charity’s #BlossomWatch, either by sending in pictures or looking at what others have contributed. The project was launched last month to emulate hanami, the Japanese custom of celebrating the fleeting sight and scent of blossom.

Next year, the National Trust will develop the project further and produce a map to track the blossom across the UK, with a scientific purpose – it will help track climate change, and shed light on the pollinating insect who rely on blossom, and the birds who feed on them in turn.

On similar lines, the Nature’s Calendar website run by the Woodland Trust allows people to record when they see their first butterfly or birds of the spring. With 2.9m records currently, it is the biggest biological record of its kind in the UK and ripe for more.

City Nature Challenge

Coronavirus lockdowns have cleared the streets of our cities of traffic and people and sent nature and wildlife bounding, splashing and scurrying to fill the vacuum. The City Nature Challenge has run for five years, but this year promises to be different.

Participants photograph any form of wildlife – from interesting fungi or even slime mould, to insects and birds, to the traces of animals – droppings, fur, feathers, shells or even carcases. They are uploaded via the iNaturalist app and the online community helps to identify them.

It takes place from 24 to 27 April, with the results to be announced on 4 May. The observations gathered become open-source data that will help scientists gauge patterns of global change in natural ecosystems and wildlife.

Rainy days

One for the rainy days is a project from Reading University, which will help researchers shed new light on the climate crisis by making local rainfall records of the past digitally accessible, so they can be fed into computer models. Some of Britain’s rainfall and temperature records go back centuries, and this has been invaluable in drawing up detailed pictures of the past climate, and thus computer models used to forecast climate change.

But some of these vast hoards of data are still marooned in reams of old-fashioned paper records, and thus effectively unusable. Now scientists at the University of Reading are planning to rescue these obscure rain gauge records, using citizen scientists to do the work. Under the Rainfall Rescue project, volunteers will fill the gaps in British digital weather records between the 1820s and the 1950s by transcribing observations from scans of the old paper records.

Rainfall is already proving popular: in the first 24 hours after the launch, 450,000 tasks had been completed, reports Ed Hawkins, a professor of climate science at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the University of Reading. “These records will help scientists better understand how and why rainfall varies so much in different locations across the UK. With much of the population facing long spells indoors due to Covid-19, the chance to be part of a serious science project may provide a welcome distraction.”

Lighting up the world

Coronavirus has highlighted the plight of people in developing countries who struggle with the basics of life, and whose precarious existence could topple over into disaster. One of the ways in which development organisations are hoping to improve people’s lives is through providing safe access to power, for clean cooking and for lighting, that will help children with their learning and adults to earn extra money.

The Power To the People project will help train artificial intelligence algorithms to spot buildings from photographs of rural areas in developing countries, which in turn will allow them to be connected to the power grid.

Baby burbling

Human speech is one of the abiding scientific mysteries, and language development is a fascinating study. Scientists have been recording baby speech, from children aged between three months and four years, whose parents have agreed for them to wear a recorder for several hours each day.

The resulting clips can record some of the first sounds babies make. But by their nature, the recordings also capture a lot of background noise, such as parental speech, television or other sources of sound.

Armchair researchers can listen to the recordings and identify short clips by their type of sound, to detect which are worth further study. What could be more cheering in isolation than to listen to babies experimenting with speech for the first time?

TB or not TB

Coronavirus may be the most pressing health issue globally, but other diseases have not gone away. Tuberculosis is on the rise again, as new drug-resistant bacteria have surged among the poor and vulnerable around the world.

Over the next five years, researchers will be collecting more than 100,00 samples from infected patients, and they want to work on testing which antibiotics are still effective, to understand how and where resistance is growing. Nearly 20,000 volunteers have signed up already.

Pick up a penguin

Penguin Watch allows sharp-eyed citizen scientists to mark penguins in footage taken in the Antarctic from cameras set up by zoologists near colonies in the region. Penguins are under threat from the climate crisis, pollution, disturbance and fisheries.

Monitoring has been inhibited by the difficulty of gaining access to such remote areas, and the ability to crunch through the data that has been collected.

Researchers at Oxford University are using people’s penguin spotting assistance to trawl through the collected data and enabling them to gauge the crucial timing of key events in the penguin’s yearly cycle, and tell whether they are changing under the influence of global heating.