Citizen Science – research conducted in whole or in part by non-professional scientists – seems to be everywhere at the moment; from our back gardens to remote tropical forests, on our TVs and in our academic journals. It offers something for everyone: scientists like its potential to generate lots of data at low cost; sociologists like the way it changes the relationship between science and the public; the media like its ability to connect with individuals and their personal stories. There are concerns about the quality of data collected by amateur citizen scientists, but there is increasing evidence that they can be of comparable quality to professionals, if those collecting them receive the right training. Citizen Science has been used to look for climate patterns in historical weather records, to unlock the secrets of faraway galaxies, and to map the sacred sites of Congolese forest people. Conservation has been quick to jump on the bandwagon, with a whole range of applications, from detecting bats to identifying new species.
Citizen Science is not one thing, and typologies have been developed that recognise the different roles of citizens in the process (e.g. as passive participants or as active owners of the research) and the varied nature of the tasks performed by citizen scientists (e.g. as ‘sensors’ making observations or as problem solvers). Perhaps the most profound distinction is between individuals who participate in citizen science for pleasure as a hobby, and those for whom the findings have direct implications for their underlying wellbeing. The former category typically involves relatively wealthy people in developing countries (such as expert amateur birdwatchers) whereas the latter category is particularly relevant to conservation in developing countries, where many people depend on natural resources for their livelihoods.
Conservation citizen science in developing countries – often called ‘community-based monitoring’ – is growing in popularity. It has the potential, in theory, to create a fantastic win-win-win. Local people collect data on wildlife and resource use that are highly valuable to conservation and conservation science: win one. These data can then be fed into management of the same natural resources, creating improved long-term conservation outcomes: win two. At the same time, the process of involving local people in study design, data collection and (sometimes) management is empowering, which can create meaningful improvements in wellbeing for local people: win three. There is a real buzz at the moment about the potential of local citizen science to deliver this triple-win, but how robust is it in the face of changing conditions? In particular, to what extent is it dependent on the limitations of current technology?
At the moment, anyone with a smartphone in their hands can collect and share data on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago. People have amazing sensory and processing capabilities, making them very good at collecting certain kinds of data. Smartphones can facilitate such data collection through sensory devices like GPS, cameras and microphones – even recording sounds and images that are beyond detection by human senses. Phones can also be connected to each other and to the web, making it possible to pool and share data that might otherwise have gathered dust in a notebook on a shelf.
This kind of citizen science was unimaginable 20 years ago before new technology made it possible. But what kind of technology will be available in another 20 years from now? We hear all the time of new advances in camera trapping, in drones, in ultra-portable tags that can be tracked from space, in DNA techniques and in automated image and sound processing. It seems likely given current trends that these or other technologies will soon be better than people at recording important conservation data. If such technology becomes affordable and reliable, what then happens to community-based monitoring?
My worry is that community-based monitoring that involves local people in developing countries collecting data for broader scientific research purposes might be a flash in the pan. Right now people holding smartphones are at the cutting edge, but in the near future they are likely to become peripheral to conservation data collection – as obsolete as a MiniDisc player, and nothing more than a source of bias and error. The other arguments in favour of community-based monitoring – that it leads to good management outcomes and local empowerment – may turn out to be nothing more than incidental ‘co-benefits’ from the perspective of conservation scientists seeking more and better data. They are nice while you can get them, and they certainly create a good story for donors, but they are not the underlying goal.
A further irony is that some of the next wave technologies that could make citizen scientists obsolete as collectors of data for conservation science are likely to actively undermine the very empowerment that citizen science is supposed to promote. Drones hovering above park boundaries, listening posts in the forest and tracking devices invisible to the naked eye all have the potential to create (even) worse relations between conservation and local people.
What can be done to avoid this scenario? First, more thinking is needed about the social implications of emerging technologies which seem to offer excellent data and monitoring at a low cost. If local people feel threatened and marginalised because parks start to deploy drones, the drones are unlikely to be worth it no matter how good the data they can provide. Second, more research is needed to establish whether, and under what circumstances, community-based monitoring really can deliver good management of natural resources and local empowerment outcomes. The stronger the evidence for these benefits, the stronger will be the case for community-based monitoring, even in the absence of links to wider conservation science. Finally, those promoting CBM for management and empowerment should not over-commit to partnerships with the conservation science community. Right now such partnerships offer access to additional funding opportunities, but there is a significant risk of the relationship breaking down in its early stages.
Community-based monitoring could be a powerful tool to enable citizens to better manage natural resources for their own benefit. It should not be abandoned as soon as the best technology for conservation science data collection is, literally, out of the hands of local people.