PopSci - In it together

Powered by citizens’ enthusiasm and interest, many scientific projects have become widespread collaborative efforts. This is a step forward for both science and societies

Citizen science has provided an opportunity for many to participate in a scientific process.

Retired professor of Chennai University, Suresh Chandra, is at his desk in the corner of his living room writing statistical equations. He will finally turn his equations into several lines of computer code to develop a new method to analyse wildlife numbers. He is superannuated for 18 years but retains a childlike enthusiasm when it comes to statistics. Age does not deter the 78-year-old teacher to learn new coding software packages or burning the midnight oil.

Under the scorching heat, standing in the middle of a narrow forest corridor between BRT Tiger Reserve and the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Karnataka stands Abhishek Mahadevaiah, a resident of Paalya (village bordering Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary). He aims a radar speed gun in the direction of a car to monitor its speed and notes it down on a tab; a data collection exercise that will help analyse the impact of vehicular traffic on wildlife movement.

Both Suresh Chandra and Abhishek are part of the citizen science programme - a crowd-sourcing initiative that allows many students, educators, software engineers, marketing professionals and people from many spheres to come together for a common cause — to collect and analyse scientific information and further answer scientific questions. This involvement of volunteers has helped bring in new skills, insights and enthusiasm to the projects.

Citizen science has provided an opportunity for many to participate in a scientific process. Projects encompass a variety of topics including tracking calamities such as landslides, crunching out data on faraway stars and galaxies, monitoring water quality, online gaming to analyse cancer data, transcribing handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to make it accessible to everyone, documenting distribution of invasive plants, helping understand chimpanzee behaviour, and a host of other themes to help the wider community. It basically accelerates important research by working together, and providing everyone an opportunity to become a researcher.

This citizen science initiative, a term coined in the mid-1990s, is slowly and gradually picking up popularity in India and elsewhere. Attributed to a British professor and an American ornithologist, the term was added to the English dictionary in 2014. The initiative provides access to the information generated by the participants. This information is also shared on cloud, making it accessible for people to access all over the world. A practice like this is creating a global ecosystem of shared biodiversity data, which was primarily a forte of only trained scientists.

Why this need to tap into the nature-loving human resource? Because many scientific projects do not have the resources to collect data over wider geographical or temporal scales. A network of interested nature-loving citizens who are ready to lend a helping hand in collecting and analysing this data is what this initiative is encouraging.

Also, with the advent of technology, and the power of smart phones, collecting data has become easy and efficient. The power of data visualisation has certainly helped the initiative to attract new talent and retain the curiosity of current contributors. Of course, while the scientists benefit from the skills of these passionate volunteers, the citizens, in turn, get the satisfaction of being part of a scientific process that was difficult to access before. It has also come to notice that, when given the opportunity, many people are willing to contribute to the cause of science. Realising this interest, even government agencies, including the forest department, have started to involve citizen scientists to gather field-level data on wildlife.

But the concept of tapping the passion and energy of volunteers for wildlife conservation or biodiversity documentation is not new. Hundreds of conservation volunteers have been aiding projects for a very long time. For instance, a volunteer entomological group in Western Germany has documented that the insect populations they studied had declined by 76% at 63 of their study locations in Germany. This study, conducted over the last three decades, is perhaps the only long-term study on insects, or possibly on any taxa carried out by volunteers. This study had been initiated much before the terminology had been coined. Early examples on record include volunteers monitoring bird strikes in the Caribbean coast in 1880, or Christmas bird counts in North America in 1900.

What is also notable is how initiatives like these can spark a hidden passion that turns a nature lover into an advocate of nature conservation. Santhosh Pavagada, a software professional, has become a key contributor to wildlife conservation in Karnataka. He even met his wife Aparna Kolekar while volunteering for such an activity. Today, the husband-wife team make a meaningful impact in the field with Aparna shifting her career from testing software to wildlife science and practice. Coming from a non-conservation background, the duo bring in new skills and insights.

Importance of inclusivity

Most citizen science projects have been largely urban-based, catering to those who are conversant in English, and have the financial stability to participate in such activities. But a few exceptions do exist - like that of Vana Jaagruti - a small group of conservationists who work on outreach and wildlife corridor conservation activities.

It was because of an informative street play performed by Vana Jaagruti that Abhishek Mahadevaiah, the volunteer working on the forest corridor between BRT Tiger Reserve and the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Karnataka, could explore the idea of contributing his time to conservation work.

Coming from a rural background, he did not understand English, but with Vana Jaagruti, this language barrier was broken, and so was his hesitation to participate.

Vana Jaagruti, led by Santhosh, has encouraged and mentored several such youngsters from rural backgrounds who now immensely contribute to the cause.

The advantages of this initiative are many. To enumerate a few:

  • Most citizen science platforms use online database to share their data. All these portals allow citizen scientists to build their unique profile and information of their contributions. This excites and keeps the contributor interested in the work.
  • Many projects provide a visual interface to understand geographical distributions, habitats, habitat usage, dispersal routes of animals, all of which helps keep the interest.
  • Sharing data on a common platform helps compare data over geographical areas and seasons. Eventually, every bit of this information helps in understanding the species or a guild of species better.
  • It builds a community of interested individuals. Meeting and exchanging notes favours long-term personal relationships, making it exciting for those interested in meeting people. Nothing better if it is for a common cause.

However, it does have its share of challenges, too. To begin with, ensuring the quality of data, and also converting this data into meaningful policies and action. Apart from that, we need to meticulously train and educate these enthusiasts to be careful of the activities they take on, as the world of conservation beyond social media is complex.

A year ago, I saw a picture circulated on social media of well-intended enthusiasts propagating plant seeds through seed balls in woodland savannahs in the drier parts of Karnataka. This process involves placing a plant seed into a small ball of mud mixed with manure and then scattering this seed ball in open areas, natural forests, woodland savannahs and other regions. Now, while the intention of this activity was great, one needs to know that woodland savannahs are perhaps one of the highly endangered habitats in India and they naturally contain sparsely distributed trees amidst grasslands. In such areas, we needn’t be planting trees with the intention of increasing green cover.

Many wildlife species, for example, chinkara and four-horned antelope, are adapted to such habitats. Altering such habitats by increasing tree density could lead to the local extinction of these species. They only survive in specialised habitats and are hence called habitat specialists.

Furthermore, there’s also the possibility of introducing alien plant species, such as parthenium or lantana, to this area through the mud gathered, which could contain seeds or spores of invasive plant species. This will hinder the growth of local plant species.

In many instances, species that are non-native to an area are also introduced through seed ball propagation. Species such as neem or banyan, though native to India, should not be propagated in areas where they do not naturally occur. As the monsoon arrives, this activity of seed ball propagation will gain momentum and has to be seen in the background of the larger ecosystem conservation than merely attempting to increase green cover.

Similarly, artificially provisioning water during drier months in protected areas has gained popularity among conservation enthusiasts. Species such as elephants have no natural predators except occasional instances of tigers taking young ones. Crunch in resources such as water and food are the only means of natural population control of these pachyderms. Hence, nature controls their population through cycles of drought. If we cut this natural mortality cycle, it increases their numbers while the natural area we possess to hold them is reducing. Until we significantly carry out course correction for the latter, aiding artificial augmentation of populations does not go well with wildlife conservation. When we artificially provide water to animals during dry periods, can we provide the same to plants and trees in the forests?

Finding a balance

Citizen scientists and conservation volunteers play an important part in helping further science, no doubt, but the activities undertaken would require guidance and handholding. These well-guided volunteers will act as ambassadors to wildlife protection and educate others in participating. Also, if science has to be more popular and accepted, it has to provide more and more opportunities for people to participate and scientists need to invest time in training and guiding these enthusiasts.

Second Sunday birdwatching

One group that has collected valuable information on birds and has been responsible for popularising birding is the Bangalore Birdwatcher’s Field Club. Perhaps one of the first initiatives of citizen science, much before this terminology took birth and became a fad, was started by renowned birders Joseph George, TNA Perumal and Zafar Futehally in 1972. Even after four decades, this initiative goes on with some enthusiastic leadership including S Subramanya, S Karthikeyan, T S Srinivas, J N Prasad, M B Krishna, U Harish Kumar and others who took over in the mid-80s. Even to this day, on every second Sunday, the group organises birdwatching sessions in Lalbagh. We have learnt much more about which birds share space with Bengaluru’s residents, and about the health of our wetlands with birds as indicators through this tireless our own citizen science initiative.

Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org/)

Today, the largest online and most popular platform for collaborative volunteer research is Zooniverse.
It helps researchers build their project by uploading their data and choose the tasks they want the volunteers to do.

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