What is Citizen Science?


In the waning days of 1831, the ship HMS Beagle sailed from Plymouth England on a mission to survey the coastline of South America and points beyond. This voyage was the second for the Beagle, and the story would be less well-known today except for the presence of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin. Darwin’s later work would cement the Beagle’s place in history, but even without Darwin’s fame, the voyage would have found a place in our scientific heritage. The accurate chronometers and other instruments carried by the ship–allowing it to make detailed surveys without reference points–were among the technological marvels of that time. Following the voyage, Darwin and the ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy, achieved minor celebrity for their books describing the plants, creatures, and other natural phenomena they had seen. The voyage of the Beagle provided Darwin with opportunities for discovery that had not been available to his predecessors.

As was common at that time, Darwin’s education was broad.  He studied both medicine and theology, before focusing his attention on the natural sciences. Today, we might call Darwin a “gentleman scientist,” because it was his family’s wealth that afforded him the luxury of pursuing his scientific interests. But, Darwin was no dilettante, and he spent 30 years gathering the data and evidence that would ultimately make him famous. The Origin of Species, which he described as “one long argument,” stands as a testament to that effort.  Darwin made a great conceptual leap, but the inspiration and evidence came from the thousands of careful observations that he and others had made.


It is tempting to look back and imagine the natural world of the early-19th century as an open book, available for browsing by anyone with curiosity and ambition. Our body of scientific knowledge has now expanded to the point where extreme specialization characterizes a lot of scientific work. In many areas of study, it is hard to imagine a role for “amateur science” or “amateur scientists.”

Just as the Beagle and its instruments represented an emerging and empowering technology in the 1830s, however, new technologies are providing us with opportunities for discovery that our predecessors could not have imagined. The Internet itself is a technology for which researchers in a variety of scientific fields have recognized the potential to make discoveries based upon the coordinated efforts of many participants. For example, consider the lowly yellow Crocus (Crocus flavus). In the Northeastern United States, the bright yellow flowers of the Crocus are a sure and easily recognizable sign that Spring has arrived. The date on which that first Crocus blooms at your house has little scientific value on its own, but similar data, gathered from thousands of yards, over a period of years, has great potential value. Because the Crocus “knows” (based on its adaptations to climate conditions) when Spring arrives, data collected by large numbers of observers, indicating the date on which they first observe the appearance of Crocuses in their yards, can provide us with a picture of how the timing of the beginning of Spring might be changing overtime. Collaborative science–or citizen science–the organized efforts of many hands and eyes can make it possible for researchers to obtain this type of data.

This project, and many others like, it are aimed at obtaining that data. And who knows what might emerge. We suspect –and hope– that collaborative science will provide opportunities for discovery that no one has yet imagined.  Maybe it will be your big idea that cements the place of citizen science in future history books.

Further reading related to an overview of citizen science and volunteered geographic information:

Elwood, Sarah, Goodchild, Michael F., and Sui, Daniel Z.  2012. Researching volunteered geographic information: spatial data, geographic research and new social practice. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102:571–590.

Connors, John Patrick, Lei, Shufei, and Kelly, Maggi.  2012.  Citizen science in the Age of Neogoegraphy: utilizing volunteered geographic information for environmental monitoring. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102:1267–1289.