11 Jul 2011: Report

Tapping Social Media’s Potential
To Muster a Vast Green Army

A rapidly expanding universe of citizens’ groups, researchers, and environmental organizations are making use of social media and smart phone applications to document changes in the natural world and to mobilize support for taking action.

by caroline fraser

Last year, the spectacle of 80 million people flocking to the faux greenery of FarmVille, a social networking game on Facebook, held particular irony for environmentalists who have ritually bemoaned low levels of public interest in biodiversity. Every traditional method and media has been tapped to penetrate this elephantine indifference, from documentaries to dire predictions. Rarely a week goes by without reports on crashing ecosystems or mass extinction, a blizzard of bad news inspiring little more than hand-wringing.

But in the spirit of joining rather than beating, conservationists have begun embracing the enemy, the very force that alienated people from nature in the first place: technology.

Social media have become the latest, hottest tools in natural history circles as scientists confront a populace that knows laptops better than landscapes. In the quest to give communities a grasp on complex ecological systems — particularly as they face decisions imposed by climate change — social networking promises to link scientists with the public, empowering naturalist armies to act on their behalf: monitoring species, observing behavioral patterns, and reporting the presence of invasives and changes in climate, vegetation, and populations.

Citizen science — natural history — has been the province of amateur enthusiasts for centuries, long before a young beetle-lover found himself in the Galapagos, flinging marine iguanas into the sea to see if they’d swim back. The popularity of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, launched in 1900, brought new rigor to backyard observations, revealing the scientific potential of simultaneously gathering thousands of data points across wide
Citizen science has migrated to the Web, emerging as a potent force multiplier for conservation.
geographical areas.

But with the explosion of cell phones equipped with digital cameras and global positioning systems, citizen science has migrated to the Web, emerging as a potent force-multiplier — and watchdog — for conservation. In May, Namibia’s government announced an SMS hotline for anonymous poaching tips: “Five fives for rhino.” After the Fukushima nuclear plant failure, Japanese citizens skeptical of government reassurances bought their own dosimeters to map radioactive hot spots on the Web. Likewise, during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science transformed anxiety into “civic science,” moving residents to chart the spill with digital cameras tied to kites and balloons.

The most astonishing results from environmental social networking lie in such crowdsourcing. In March, the Smithsonian put out an emergency call on Facebook for specialists to identify 5,000 freshly collected fish specimens from Guyana for export paperwork. Within 24 hours, ichthyologists around the world supplied partial or complete answers for almost 90 percent.

View gallery
Project Budburst

NEON/Chicago Botanic Garden
Project BudBurst users can share observations on their chosen plants’ first leaf, first flower, and other phenological phases.
But most projects, from traditional websites to social networking services and apps, are premeditated: Cornell University’s Citizen Science Central acts as a clearinghouse for over 130. Many offer training in species identification and invite the public to post targeted observations: the number of gray vs. fox squirrels (Project Squirrel), the appearance of buds in spring and other seasonal plant phases (Project BudBurst), the migratory behavior of Monarch butterflies (Monarch Watch) or hummingbirds (Operation Ruby Throat). Others organize and analyze data online from “BioBlitzes,” intensive biological surveys conducted by volunteers with the guidance of specialists. Offering land managers and stakeholders spatially referenced databases on the presence or absence of protected or invasive species, these range from local exercises — a 24-hour “snapshot” of every species in Wisconsin’s Beaver Creek Reserve, for example — to large-scale, long-term initiatives like the Adirondack All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Such efforts may seem modest. But Cornell professor Harry W. Greene, an old-fashioned field biologist and self-described “snake guy,” regards these observations as “absolutely at the core of all biology.” Greene points out that “for most organisms on Earth, we know almost nothing.” In years past, he often received frustrating reports of snake sightings from a public uncertain about key details — length, color, markings. Now, people send a digital image. “I write them right back,” he says, “and tell them whether the roadkill in their driveway is a Massasauga rattlesnake or a northern milk snake.” He describes the outpouring of data from citizens as “revolutionary,” not only for science but for amateurs: “When you make an observation,” he says, “you put yourself into the life of the organism. You care more.” With enough anecdotal reports and photos, meaningful statistical samples can emerge.

Greene and a former graduate student developed a prototype for “NatureWorm,” a social networking site designed to kindle interest in natural history on a wide scale. Investment lagged, but the niche has been
One innovator calls social networking part of the ‘mass amateurization of everything.’
filled by other opportunistic organisms, such as iNaturalist.org, an online community created by students at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information where users can upload photos and hobnob about sightings. On a recent visit, “RussianNaturalistBrazil” had just posted an arresting image of Gongora meneziana, a fleshy, translucent red-spotted orchid found in Brazil’s Atlantic forest; Google maps pinpointed his location north of Salvador. Elsewhere on the site, a debate had broken out on the identification of a type of Indian paintbrush in California’s Wildcat Canyon.

Project Noah is a more commercial version of an environmental community, led by telecom entrepreneur Yasser Ansari, who grew up in southern California and developed a passion for poison dart frogs as a child. After studying molecular biology and bioinformatics at University of California, San Diego, Ansari collaborated on Noah (“Networked Organisms and Habitats”) with fellow students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Launched in February 2010, it is now available as an app, downloaded to over 100,000 smartphones. So far, participants have uploaded over 60,000 “spottings.” Recent caches feature everything from the inevitable white-tailed deer and common garden flowers (“rose,” “lantana”) to images of a red-eyed tree frog, an Arctic fox, a Plains zebra rolling in dirt, a griffon vulture in flight, and mating common Indian toads.

Contributors to Noah plot sightings on a worldwide map, earn patches (reminiscent of the Boy Scouts’), and join “Missions” — the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Impact — to delve deeper into scientific projects. The National Geographic Society recently provided investment for new software, reposting on Facebook Noah’s “Spotting of the Week” — including a spectacular giraffe-necked weevil from Madagascar — for its 6.6 million fans.

View gallery
Project Noah Mobile App

Project Noah
Users of Project Noah’s mobile app have uploaded more than 60,000 “spottings.”
For all the emphasis on documentation, Ansari’s view of his social network has evolved. He sees it primarily as a motivational tool, part of the “mass amateurization of everything.” While his original vision was to collect data, he now suggests that Noah is “more effective at getting people excited. We’re trying to create a powerful gateway drug. If you use Project Noah and then move on to hard-core science, that’s a huge win. The data is secondary.”

Not necessarily. Project Squirrel, which has expanded countrywide from its origins in Chicago, is keeping watch on both its target species and human observers. “We’re correlating what people tell us about habitat to what the squirrels are telling us,” director Steve Sullivan says, predicting that the project may document the accuracy of citizen science and its role in stimulating passion for nature.

Project BudBurst, sponsored by NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, has registered nearly 12,000 volunteer observers since 2007. Participants have uploaded tens of thousands of observations on their chosen plants’ first leaf, first flower, first pollen, and other phenological phases (lilac is among the most popular), yielding datasets that have allowed scientists to extend a 50-year botanical study of Cook County, Illinois. Comparing historical data with three years of BudBurst observations has revealed that, as temperatures rise, forsythia is blooming 24 days earlier, black locust 19 days earlier, and red maple 14.

Both Squirrel and BudBurst are popular in classrooms, but lone individuals are also prolific — one Waco, Texas plant-watcher has been monitoring more than 25 species since BudBurst’s inception, including Texas red oak, Texas bluebonnet, spiderwort, and pink ladies.

Perhaps the most intriguing capability of social media involves something that goes deeper than data. The University of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Game is an interactive computer simulation with the power to change minds. Beginning in 2000, it plays out over a 20-year horizon, allowing teams to take on the roles and responsibilities of oystermen, crabbers, crop
Today’s social media may indeed spark a rebirth of natural history.
and dairy farmers, real-estate developers, and policy-makers, everyone with an impact on one of the world’s most endangered watersheds. As teams make decisions based on economic and regulatory restrictions, determining how much land to cultivate or how many crabs to trap, they watch the real-time, long-term consequences of their choices playing out. Crucially, “the game is politically neutral,” says David E. Smith, professor in U. Va.’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

On Earth Day this year, teams from seven Chesapeake Bay-area universities played, each representing a major basin — York River, James River, the Eastern Shore, etc. It was a sobering experience. At the end, a College of William and Mary biology professor acknowledged that despite players’ best efforts, “the quality of the bay went down.”

The game is impressively accurate: Its recent iteration encompasses tens of thousands of data points, and IBM has selected it for the World Community Grid program, harnessing over a million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers. Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the oceanographer, is partnering

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with the university to adapt it for other ecosystems, from Australia to Arizona. He foresees a day when younger students can input real data to model their backyards and lobby their parents — “Hey, mom and dad, let’s not use fertilizer on the lawn.”

Today’s social media may indeed spark a rebirth of natural history, but none have yet moved climate change or biodiversity loss forward very far forward on the political agenda. There are tremors: In 2009, 350.org, agitating for action on climate change, used social media to organize more than 5,000 events in some 180 countries, in what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” Last year, 350.org mobilized tens of thousands of people against offshore oil drilling, holding hands across 900 beaches. Avaaz, the Web-based social justice movement, has inspired more than a million to sign a petition to protect bee populations by banning neonicotinoid pesticides in the U.S. and EU.

Meanwhile, the environment waits for a software wunderkind to find the social formula that may lure a fickle public to fall in love with the real world, not a fake one.

POSTED ON 11 Jul 2011 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Forests Forests Science & Technology Sustainability North America North America 

COMMENTS


Great article!

I would like to add to the list some initiatives born in the Middle East:

Sharkquest Arabia is a 2 part TV and Awareness Documentary film project on Arabia's Sharks where online Social Media has been the decisive move to help it grow and acquire international visibility!

Sharkquestarabia's ultimate goal is to help the UAE decide on banning the fin trade.

The project's general mission is to use natural history TV documentaries as a means to communicate the issues and needs for conservation surrounding sharks and the natural world as a whole.

Head of the project is Jonathan Ali Khan, his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sharkquest-Arabia/159208927477059?sk=info

The EWS-WWF in Abu Dhabi has made incredible efforts to raise awareness on sustainable fishing through their "Choose Wisely" Campaign. After less than a year restaurants and supermarkets are exhibiting the EWS-WWF list of endangered species on the Menu or at the counter. All started with social media.

Another initiative I'm personally involved is Goumbook, the first environmental platform dedicated to the Middle East where all green initiatives are brought to the surface. We have also initiated the first tree planting in the UAE and Gulf Region. Our reach is definitely stronger and wider thanks to Social Media which is gaining momentum in the Middle East at a very fast rate!

You can visit our site at www.goumbook.com.

It is true that social media can have a superficial aspect where it seems that people just sign petitions or just "like" projects, but there is also the action part where "fans" and "friends" can join real initiatives such a tagging whale sharks, cleaning beaches or planting hundreds of trees...

Thank you!

Tatiana Antonelli Abella

Posted by Tatiana Antonelli Abella on 11 Jul 2011


Thanks for sharing this. These and hundreds of other projects are featured on ScienceForCitizens.net where we make it very easy for volunteers to find their next citizen science project. Next version of Sci4Cits out shortly!

Posted by Darlene Cavalier on 11 Jul 2011


Excellent post. There is more and more awareness created on nature preservation and green technologies through Social Media by Activists of Green Movement.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP), India
Wind Energy Expert
anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 11 Jul 2011


Marvelous, marvelous article, thank you!
London Zoo's Bat Phone App is another good example.

Museums, zoos, aquariums and gardens are learning that certain aspects of gaming can make their exhibits and programs muchmore engaging and effective for the public. Moving it from gaming to responsibility is the real goal, though.

Moving beyond science to actionable sustainable practices should be a part of the elusive software wunderkind's job: Citizen Sustainability volunteers is what I hope for!

Posted by Sarah Brophy on 12 Jul 2011


Great article. This is a fantastic movement. I am hoping more people that appreciate plants or animals or the outdoors can make that empowering transition from passive admirer to becoming a citizen scientist that is a part of this huge effort. Universities do not train many field biologists or naturalists any more. "amateur" naturalists can make a really important contribution to science while at the same time greatly enhancing their appreciation of this amazing world we live in. there is a lot to discover out there!

Posted by Paul Alaback on 12 Jul 2011


Also check out Nature's Notebook developed by the National Coordinating Office of the USA National Phenology Network (www.usanpn.org). It was designed to allow citizen science observers to track and report the timing of both plant and animal species life cycle events (aka "phenology") in their backyards or local parks, using the same methods used by professional scientists and resource managers at research sites and on protected lands.

Adding observations from these "backyard naturalists" to those from professionals will help fill in the gaps across the country to give a more complete picture of how climate and environmental change are affecting the phenology of plants and animals across the U.S. These phenology data will in turn, help the scientific community answer critical questions about everything from allergy season prediction to the global carbon budget.

Ellen Denny (FES '97)
Monitoring Design & Data Coordinator
USA National Phenology Network

Posted by Ellen Denny on 14 Jul 2011


The irony in all this is that the continuing build out and saturation of even the most remote, pristine habitats on earth with ever higher levels of electromagnetic air pollution is also having direct effects on biodiversity. Research continues to show cause and effects related to pulsed microwaves and the inability of birds and other sentinel species to reproduce or successfully fledge thier young.

Add this to the higher incidence of tower strike mortalities in avian fauna and reported impacts to amphibians which are susceptible to 60 Hz cycles in the airwaves, and the mobile apps that makes citizens scientists of us all are yielding vast uinintended consequences on the health and resilience of our natural environment.

Enviros love their wireless gizmos, but in so doing we are probably loving the planet to death...the canary in the coal mine has sung its last tweet, and Rachel Carson is doing cartwheels in her grave as we jam ever more and denser packets of electromagnetic energy into our already elctrosmogged atmosphere. Silent Spring will become reality yet...seen a honey bee in you flowers lately? I sure haven't for several years, but I won't mobile tweet about it either.

Posted by Starling Childs, MFS on 14 Jul 2011


Wow. This is a wonderful use of social media. Perhaps the Yale students could rally around this environmental clarion call and monitor bird and bat kills at Yale owned wind facilities. Leaving this task up to the wind industry guarantees skewed figures. With bats on the verge of extinction, we need to use every means possible to protect them... even social media.

Posted by Penny Gray on 14 Jul 2011


If you care about bees and food, check out the Great Sunflower Project's Backyard Bee Count at http://www.greatsunflower.org/ It's a citizen science project to monitor bees and raise awareness of their importance and needs.
Posted by Lynn Lozier on 19 Jul 2011


Another project: for reptiles and amphibians in Arizona http://HerpCount.org

I was very disappointed to hear Mr. Ansari say the "data is secondary." It shouldn't be - it can be incredibly important data. And given Project Noah might become the proverbial nine-hundred pound gorilla in this arena, what with Nat. Geographic's backing, it is all the more distressing to hear they are not emphasizing working to collect the best quality data possible.

Posted by Dave Parizek on 20 Jul 2011


If you happen to be interested in starting your own citizen science project and being able to customize what your volunteers monitor, check out www.citsci.org for yet another example of these exciting efforts.

Posted by newmang on 25 Jul 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
caroline fraserABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Fraser traveled on six continents to write Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution. Her first book, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, was selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book. She has written widely about animal rights, natural history, and the environment. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, she has written about the state of Japan’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster and about ecological restoration projects in Scotland.
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