ESA 2011, Reframing the Conversation?

How might a milestone moment in one discipline resonate across many disciplines where citizen science (and other forms of public participation in scientific research) is practiced?

This year, at the 2011 meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Austin, TX, I noted a subtle but critical shift in the way citizen science was being discussed….
(NOTE: In this post, bolded links below will take you to ESA conference abstracts, unbolded links directly to talks, posters, or project websites.)


This shift really hit home for me on the very last day of the conference, when I hefted my carry-on luggage along to catch one last talk: The role of citizen monitors in urban ecology and conservation. I was expecting a descriptive presentation on the nice work that can be done by volunteers, but was instead blown away by Kevin Matteson’s critical review of the scientific analyses possible (and not possible) based on different monitoring strategies employed by two butterfly monitoring initiatives.

Here’s what was so stunning. This talk was critical… and yet it was not bogged down by historic all-or-nothing criticisms of citizen science as biased and/or unreliable. Rather than simply discussing why volunteer data should or shouldn’t be used, Matteson (University of Illinois at Chicago) deeply examined the methods employed by each of the two different groups to share how each data set could effectively be used, in light of its strengths and limitations.

Based on this year’s set of ESA talks, the need for citizen science data has (finally?) trumped its challenges, with researchers now confronting challenges head-on in order to maximize the usefulness of unique data sets. Here’s another case: researchers from Clemson found that – according to one historic data set – hummingbirds tended to “migrate” primarily on the weekends (suspicious… ). And yet, with sophisticated analyses, this team was able to extract from these data useful insights about the effects of climate change on bird phenology. The use of citizen science data was similarly handled (and called for) by other presenters in this session entitled Climate Change: Ranges and Phenology (an area of research that often needs the observation-intensive data sets that citizen science initiatives can produce).


Other critical conversations addressed how to best support the opportunities and advantages that citizen science offers. One of the meetings’ centerpiece sessions about citizen science was a series of talks on Mobile Devices for Data Collection. The talks on their own showcased some amazing technologies (check out the Android app for NEON’s Project BudBurst, built in partnership with the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing). But the larger success of this session was bringing together, in one place, folks who are working on similar technologies, and who share goals of enhancing and increasing participation. How to accomplish this? Lee Marsh (USA National Phenology Network) summed up on The needs of the many by highlighting interoperability as key, so that the growing suite of stunning interfaces like Project Noah can help avoid unintentionally segmenting audiences (and, therefore, observations).

Further expanding the technology frontiers for citizen science was PhD student Megan Chesser (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), who set up the challenge:  Pattern recognition, humans vs. computers (poster). The winner? In the task of assessing whether two photos of marbled salamanders were of the same individual, volunteer human observers were on par with image recognition software, at least for determining false negatives. And for false positives, observer skill increased significantly with experience to a point of proficiency. Instead of recommending that computers could be trusted to do the job, Megan concluded that working with volunteers would yield valid data AND the added bonus of outreach and education. Thinking about future tech expansions, she mused about using CAPTCHA as a platform for citizen science image identification… just imagine!

New Researchers

Other up-and-coming citizen science researchers were showcased at ESA: Tiffany Carey shared linkages between Pollen and Public Health in Detroit, Michigan (poster overview with link to PDF). Anna Johnson described monitoring and management work done through Volunteer urban environmental stewardship of native plants on public lands in Pittsburgh (poster here). And Nina Roundtree presented analyses of the Beta-diversity of human skin bacteria studied with the citizen science approach (aka, “belly button biodiversity“).

Reframing Citizen Science?

This final project points to differences in thinking about participants-as-subjects and participants-as-researchers in citizen science. For certain, the term “citizen science” is complicated, and has been questioned in other venues… but for the first time this year I heard a move at ESA towards Redefining Citizen Science, as proposed by Corrie Knapp (University of Alaska, Fairbanks). Her talk paralleled another (delivered by yours truly, but reflecting insights of many colleagues), using the umbrella term of Public Participation in Scientific Research (talk on SlideShare). Each talk suggested that social as well as ecological dimensions might be considered to help yield broader outcomes sought by a given project. Case studies illustrating different ways of Engaging the Public in Scientific Research for Conservation (talk on SlideShare) were offered in a summary of a workshop in April, 2011, that deeply explored the breadth of approaches to citizen science.

Breadth, as much as Depth

It’s impossible to do justice to the full complement of citizen science conversations throughout the 2011 ESA meeting. The idea popped up in unexpected places (such as a talk by George Middendorf on Fostering Local and Regional Interactions with Communities in Need), and was a thread in many hallway and coffee shop conversations (with Ecological Research as Education Network – EREN coordinator Laurel Anderson; with  Madhu and Kaberi Katti about citizen science in urban settings; with sociologists Laura Lindenfeld and Linda Silka from Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative; and many others). I hope that what shines through here is the breadth of the conversation.

Because – beyond the ‘just-another-messy-dataset’ acceptance of citizen science – the really compelling shift in the conversation is exactly about its breadth. It’s the fact that ESA, a science-based organization, is hosting conversations on citizen science that address (and MUST address, as this field grows) everything from population analyses to technology innovations to social science and community engagement.


Plans are in the works to propose a two-day pre-conference workshop on citizen science prior to ESA next year in Portland, Oregon. What kinds of talks do you think would be important to move this conversation forward?


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About JenniferShirk

Jennifer works to support the growing field of citizen science and public participation in scientific research (PPSR). She's interested in how we can all work together - across fields, traditions, and areas of expertise - to improve PPSR experiences and outcomes.
  • Anonymous

    Wow, thanks for the highlights of the ESA conference! It’s great to hear that citizen science and PPSR featured so prominently and the links to the talks and projects are much appreciated!