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May 4, 2009

See a squirrel, become a "citizen scientist"

Posted: 09:09 AM ET

In today's Tech section I write about how "citizen scientists" around the world are collecting data that helps professional scientists do their research.

The movement is gaining steam as climate change and biodiversity loss ramp up. Especially with so much changing, scientists can't be everywhere.

Here are a few of the citizen science efforts I found interesting while I was reporting the story. It's by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to tell us in the comments about other cool sites.

Squirrel sightings:

Bird photos: [includes a big list of citizen science sites ... thanks to Rick Bonney and a commenter for the link]

Ant anthologies:

All species:

Water quality info:

Beetle hunts:

Firefly tracking:

Toad enthusiasts: and

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • citizen science

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mike wilson   May 4th, 2009 9:45 am ET

U.S. Nightjar Survey Network – network of concerned citizens collecting data on nightjar populations (e.g., Whip-poor-will, Chuck-will's-widow, Common Poorwill) to determine population status and the influence of habitats on abundance

Troy Bartlett   May 4th, 2009 10:25 am ET

BugGuide.Net – Identification, Images, & Information for Insects, Spiders & Their Kin for the United States & Canada
Submit photos and citizen scientists will identify it for you and in some cases add it to the database to help track where and when things are found.

Troy Bartlett   May 4th, 2009 10:26 am ET

Oops, forgot URL:

Dianna Moore   May 4th, 2009 10:52 am ET

COASST – dead seabird survey begun in PNW and now spread to Alaska, with new surveys headed to the Atlantic seashore.

lisa gunnell   May 4th, 2009 11:52 am ET

The Texas Master Naturalist Program provides training and members participate in many established species monitoring programs. I will pass your list along to our chapter. This is a great way to involve kids in nature and in science!

jdsuttercnn   May 4th, 2009 12:17 pm ET

Thanks for the comments everyone! Seems like there are cool projects going on all over the place.

And it is interesting that, while many of the observations are of living creatures, noting the dead ones is also important, too (thanks @Dianna)

Keep the ideas coming. - John

Al   May 4th, 2009 1:24 pm ET

A great birding site is at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website,

Scot Frank   May 4th, 2009 1:39 pm ET

Here is a drinking water quality test kit for citizen scientists (dubbed Citizen Water that will allow individuals to test specifically for drinkability of water sources (or for swimming, etc.) and connect stakeholders with treatment solution providers. Collaborators interested in using this simple test kit and map are welcome. Pilots are currently running in Ghana, China, Philippines, and the Dominican Republic.

jdsuttercnn   May 4th, 2009 1:41 pm ET

Thanks Al! I spoke with someone from the Cornell Lab this morning. Interesting project. I'm going to add that link to this post ... look for an interesting quote from them toward the end of the main story.

–John Sutter/

Susan Ritchie   May 4th, 2009 1:47 pm ET

Hmmm, interesting omission - Bees?!?!?!

Jessica Jones   May 4th, 2009 1:54 pm ET

National Wildlife Federation has an introductory citizen monitoring program called Wildlife Watch at

With Wildlife Watch, volunteers report seasonal plant, animal and natural phenomena sightings by state. The list of Watch species change each season.

Wildlife Watch is highly interested in how social media tools can be used to collect data. We have a flickr page, a twitter feed and hashtag, and a new IPod app cosponsored by WildObs. Learn more about the IPod app at

Katie   May 4th, 2009 2:09 pm ET

NSF has funded a 3-year project to aid Science Centers in creating citizen science projects that study local indicators of climate change:

To follow up to everyone in regards to the Cornell site, they have a listing for groups to submit their citizen science projects:

Finally, don't forget the Society for Amateur Scientists:

K Lotts   May 4th, 2009 2:15 pm ET

Don't forget to mention Butterflies and Moths of North America –

Michael Castelaz   May 4th, 2009 2:41 pm ET

SCOPE (Stellar Classification Online – Public Exploration; is a citizen science project in astronomy. Digitized images of archived astronomical photographic data taken over three decades are available through a user-friendly web interface and designed for classification of stars. The data is real, and was originally used to compile the Michigan Spectral Survey based on several hundred thousand stars. However, nearly a million stars remain unclassified in the archive. This is a perfect scenario for a citizen scientist to explore the unexplored. SCOPE was built in 2008 and launched in January 2009 from the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive at Pisgah Astronomical Research institute ( located near Asheville, NC at a former NASA tracking station.

Adam   May 4th, 2009 3:11 pm ET

Please check out for the actual firefly citizen science website.

jdsuttercnn   May 4th, 2009 3:31 pm ET

Thanks for all of the feedback.
The firefly site is awesome. And, Michael, you're right, there are several neat citizen science projects that concern space.
Let me know if you all have any more ideas.
Or does anyone have a personal story about citizen science? It can be a bunch of work. What makes it worth the effort?

John /

Cy Hill   May 4th, 2009 4:38 pm ET

Based in Vermont (but works with other communities in US & Canada

"Keeping Track's mission is to inspire community participation in the long-term stewardship of wildlife habitat. We teach adults and children to observe, interpret, record and monitor evidence of wildlife habitat in their communities, and we support the use of monitoring data by citizens in local and regional conservation planning. Keeping Track's focus on wide ranging mammals provides a vital indicator of the ecological health of the landscape as a whole."

informedscientist   May 4th, 2009 7:27 pm ET

Most of the data derived from 'citizen science' initiatives is of little to no value, since it is a rarely collected based on any sampling or analysis formalism (although there are a few exceptions). Most of the value in such efforts is in terms of public relations, or for real broad-level 'indexing' of various phenomenon (and I do mean coarse-grained). Most of the hard-core scientific community look at these sorts of data with a rather jaundiced view (generally, citizen science is regarded as somewhat of an oxymoron). Most of the statistical community look at the data derived from such efforts with some mixture of amusement and fear that people will try to make robust inference from them. Funding agencies love these sorts of projects because they can turn around to Congress and point to 'public involvement' as partial justification for the funds (this plays very well politically). In point of fact, most of what are collected sit in files and are rarely used (I know – I work with those sorts of projects, and their data, as part of my job in applied statistics).

Scot Frank   May 4th, 2009 8:34 pm ET

Broken link:

Darlene   May 5th, 2009 4:43 am ET

John, has a great project as well (Yale/Nasa). One of the largest astronomy citizen science projects. (The ultimate amateur scientist, it should be noted, is Forrest Mimms.)

On, we review citsci projects and are creating a searchable list of projects.

I'd like to see citizen scientists given more opportunities to take their interests and local knowledge to the next level: science policy.

And, I'd be happy to share results of our recent citizen science survey with you. We look at the demographics of this group and take a broad look at motivating forces.
Take care and thanks for shedding light on this topic,
Darlene Cavalier

S McNulty   May 5th, 2009 9:22 am ET

The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory is a citizen science effort taking place around the United States. Some examples:

Adirondack Mountains of New York:

Discover Life in America and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The ATBI Alliance:

Crystal   May 5th, 2009 1:25 pm ET

Two great online studies are Journey North and GLOBE. I have used both in my volunteer work as a K-12 science educator.

Journey North's live migration maps and the ability to interact with other schools is wonderful. Check out:

From the GLOBE web site:
GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) is a worldwide hands-on, primary and secondary school-based science and education program. GLOBE's vision promotes and supports students, teachers and scientists to collaborate on inquiry-based investigations of the environment and the Earth system working in close partnership with NASA and NSF Earth System Science Projects (ESSPs) in study and research about the dynamics of Earth's environment.

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My favorites were Squirrel sightings, Firefly tracking and Bird photos. I love that so many citizens are passionate about what they do.Thanks to all you "citizen scientist"

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