Citizen Science

Contributors: Anna Switzer and Melissa MacPhee, National Geographic Education Programs

Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. Usually this participation is done as an unpaid volunteer. Although citizen science is a relatively new term, people have been participating and contributing to scientific research for years.

Wells Cooke, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, developed arguably one of the earliest formal citizen-science programs in the country in the late 1800s. Cooke began a program that looked at the patterns of bird migration. It expanded into one of the first government programs for birds—the North American Bird Phenology Program—and one that private citizens could join. A network of volunteers began collecting information about migratory bird patterns and population figures, and they recorded that information on cards. Today, those cards are being scanned and recorded into a public database for historical analysis.

Additionally, professional scientists are turning to pre-existing networks of birders, weatherbugs, and other amateur groups to help gather more information. With the widespread availability of the Internet in the late 1990s, it has become easier for people to share and contribute information, and the number of citizen-science programs is increasing. New platforms and approaches to engaging the public in research also allow scientists – instead of tapping just the audience of amateur enthusiasts – to connect with new audiences who may not identify with a particular natural history interest group but are interested in using some of their extra time or “cognitive surplus” to benefit science and/or society.

Examples of these kinds of projects include an online protein folding game (fold.itThe Valley of the Kahns Project) and various astronomy-focused projects (for example, In addition, the cards referred to above will be posted on the Zooniverse platform to engage a completely new audience in bird-related research via technology.

In the last few years, the field of citizen science has expanded even more rapidly with the development of smartphones, allowing more information to be shared through digital media. And smartphones are just one example of the kinds of new technology that is becoming ubiquitous. Armed with devices that have built-in GPS receivers, volunteers can readily provide geo-location information about species or situations in real time. This allows for the quick upload of all kinds of authentic data and for communication about the needs for data by those who will utilize it.

Transformative Potential

Besides being a great activity for people to do in the out-of-doors, alone or with others, citizen science has the potential to be a great learning tool as well. By engaging people with their local environment or even environments far away or too small to see, and giving them tools to visualize and make meaning from that data, a whole host of subject areas are brought to life. People have the opportunity to direct their own learning of science, geography, genetics and many more subjects by asking and answering their own questions.

In the ways just described, citizen science and on-line tools together can provide any interested person with learning experiences that are real-life. People can stay engaged in the learning process throughout their lives – fostering learning, collaboration, and contribution to greater understanding. In an ideal world everyone is involved in citizen science as a way to monitor and to help make decisions about all aspects of the environment.


New networks and communities of interested citizen scientists are created each day to learn more about the world and how we can contribute to understanding it. People can share the information they have gathered with others – engaging in the process of science by asking and answering questions alone or as part of a dispersed community. There are currently hundreds of citizen science projects out there. Here are some examples of clearinghouses of projects:

In addition, National Geographic FieldScope is a web-based mapping, analysis, and collaboration tool that allows participants to contribute as citizen scientists investigating real-world issues. FieldScope enables citizen scientists to upload their own field data—including measurements, field notes, and digital media, such as photos and videos—and to visualize and analyze them in relation to data from peers and professional scientists.

The FieldScope team at National Geographic is also working in the field of informal science education, encouraging participation in data-collection efforts, data visualization, and analysis for people of all ages and backgrounds. People can go online to create projects (coming soon), upload data via participating projects, and graph data that is interesting to them. Many of the functions are open and available to anyone – even if they have not collected any of the data themselves.


Citizen science is currently very intertwined with technology. Thus, there are many ways in which citizen science can move only as fast as technology itself advances. For example, if in the future, more phones could be outfitted with smart sensors, people could measure, record, and upload much more environmental data, such as air-quality levels and temperature readings without much effort at all.
In addition, demographic analyses of large-scale citizen science projects suggest that most participants are white, middle-class, and highly educated (e.g. Raddick et al., 2010). This participation may mirror the general participation in the sciences and in the environmental movement. However, in order to facilitate innovation and quality of life for all, it is necessary to involve more diverse participants. Science educators, community members, and potential funders need to work together to make citizen science more culturally relevant, accessible, and equitable. (Porticella, et. al., 2013)

Another challenge is that many people wonder about the quality of the data when they are collected by volunteers. Most projects have specific guidelines and protocols for the collection of data, and these guidelines and protocols must be communicated clearly to the participants. Thus, education of volunteers is a critical issue for the “science” aspect of citizen science to be respected in the larger scientific field.

Alternate Views

Some would argue that there are ethical issues related to certain kinds of citizen-collected data. Specifically, when it comes to apps that are designed to collect data about people themselves, there should be IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval of the protocols regarding human subjects research. The problem arises when people download an app which may not alert them to the fact that data about them will be collected in conjunction with the use of the app. See Ethics of Mobile Data Collection for more discussion.

References and Related Reading

National Geographic – Citizen Science

National Geographic – Fieldscope

Porticella, N., Bonfield, S., DeFalco, T., Fumarolo, A., Garibay, C., Jolly, E., Huerta Migus, L., Pandya, R., Purcell, K., Rowden, J., Stevenson, F., and Switzer, A. (2013). Promising Practices for Community Partnerships: A Call to Support More Inclusive Approaches to Public Participation in Scientific Research. A Report Commissioned by the Association of Science-Technology Centers, Washington, D.C. Anna Switzer, Kathleen Schwille, Eric Russell, and Daniel Edelson. 2012. National Geographic FieldScope: a platform for community geography. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 334–335.

Clay Shirky: How cognitive surplus will change the world (TED talk)

Abraham Miller-Rushing, Richard Primack, and Rick Bonney. 2012. The history of public participation in ecological research. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 285–290.