Count some birds, shoot a wave, set out a rain gauge — the sky’s the limit
Today is the first day of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, when people all over North America tally the birds they see and record their results on the GBBC website. It’s a simple citizen science project to try. Even if you don’t know your birds, you can print out a list of what you’re likely to see in your area to help figure out which bird you’re looking at. And as the four-day project progresses, you can watch results come in from all over the continent.
The Bird Count is important to scientists, too. The information you collect helps answer questions about how bird populations are doing and how migrating birds are responding to the weather or climate change
But the Great Backyard Bird Count is far from the only citizen science project worth trying. While some science is done by people in crisp white lab coats, with specialized tools, a lot of it isn’t. Scientists don’t just work in labs, they don’t just use beakers and Bunsen burners, and most of the time they’re not wearing lab coats.
Also: you don’t have to be a scientist to do science.
Here’s a round-up of apps and websites that ask you to observe the world around you, collect data, and contribute to our understanding of how the world looks now and how it’s changing.
WEATHER AND WATER
How Your Data Is Used: Seeing how the highest tides affect low-lying ares on the California coast helps give us an idea of what’s to come as the sea level rises.
What You Do: Every morning, take precipitation measurements (CoCoRaHS is an ungainly acronym for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network), and upload your data to the CoCoRaHS website.
How Your Data Is Used: The National Weather Service, among many others, uses the data to improve forecasts, including severe weather warnings. The precipitation data is updated on their website right after you upload it.
PLANTS AND ANIMALS
What You Do: On this website, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, keep a checklist of the birds you see, find out what birds are common in your area, and get alerts when rare ones show up. The Cornell Lab has many other projects you can participate in; there’s a list on their citizen science projects page.
How Your Data Is Used: Researchers use the checklists to track where bird species are, and to look for trends and changes in population and distribution.
What You Do: Record the species you see using the Project Noah apps for iPhone and Android, or on the website. Upload photos, species ID’s, and location to Project Noah. If you see something you can’t identify, upload it and other project participants will help you out.
How Your Data Is Used: Project Noah’s creators say their goal is to document all the world’s organisms, and in doing so, raise awareness of how they’re all doing. That’s a lot of data. In the meantime, you can get involved in specific “missions,” for example, the California Coastal Wildlife Watch, which asks participants to record species and pollution.
What You Do: Like Project Noah, you can use your smartphone to record, upload and share the species you encounter. Browse the website by location or species and find out more about the organisms you see. There are specific projects you can get involved in, like the Global Reptile BioBlitz, and iNaturalist also created a stand-alone iPhone app for recording redwoods. Climate Watch was in on the launch of iNat last year.
How Your Data Is Used: The managers of iNaturalist, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Information and a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution hope the data collected by citizen scientists will help researchers study populations and extinction.
What You Do: Record when plants sprout leaves, grow flowers and produce fruit. Upload your data either on the Project BudBurst website, or using the Android App. The website has a list of plants to help you identify what you see around you.
How Your Data Is Used: Scientists can use your data to see how plants are responding to climate change. Interactive maps show where and when plants have been identified.
These projects are all climate-related. There are tons of others — climate-related and not. To find more, including a backyard bee count, a census of the wildlife in your home, and a crowd-sourced search for new planets, check out Scientific American’s list of citizen science projects.