Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project Annual Spring Conference 2013
Day 1- Monday, April 8th, 2013
By Nathaniel Kelley, Rockies Project Writer
Are you a citizen scientist? You may not think so, but you’ve likely used Wikipedia, the popular free Internet encyclopedia with entries that can be created and edited by anyone around the world. Along the same line, citizen science rides on the back of technology and the proliferation of social media to foster large-scale field observations. The concept is now being applied to environmental projects to collect previously unimaginably large amounts of data that can then be dispersed to the greater scientific community.
Speakers at the first evening of Colorado College’s two-day annual State of the Rockies Project Conference, on April 8 at the Cornerstone Arts Center on campus, discussed this issue and others relating to this year’s overall theme: “Conservation in the Rockies: Issues of Citizen Science, Water Friendly Futures and Winter Recreation.”
Now in its 10th year, the Project examines 2,500 miles of the Colorado River, focusing on the basin. Expeditions traverse the length of the river, getting hands-on data. The output comes in many forms, though, from the annual Rockies Report Card to talks at Ivy League universities and a five-part online video series, which will premiere in late April. An expedition, entitled “Traversing the Spine of the Continent,” is slated for later this year to explore locales from the Crown of the Continent in Montana to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Thomas J. McMurray, president and chief executive officer of Marine Ventures Foundation, moderated Monday’s presentation, which focused on “Citizen Science in the Rockies: Outdoor Adventure Strengthening Knowledge of Nature.”
Since founding Marine Ventures in 2000, McMurray has been involved in a wide range of conservation project in the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas and Western Australia. He is also a co-founder of the BlueCloud Spatial, a collaborative project of dedicated research and conservation groups pursuing protection and restoration goals in some of the most important marine, estuarine and river ecosystems, in North and South American, and Western Australia.
Citizen science has been around for centuries, he said. Alexander Von Humboldt led a Latin American expedition from 1799-1804, studying animals and the surrounding culture and then dispersed that knowledge to the larger exploration community.
The Audubon Society carried the next torch, McMurray said, with its Christmas bird count, which began in 1900 with 27 participants. The three-week count consisted of watchers shooting birds and collecting them for classification. Last year, the count of visual confirmation had 60,000 counters observing over 70 million birds.
More recently, the Oxford Astrophysics department created the Galaxy Zoo program, which turned into Zooniverse. The program brings together 816,000 volunteers in 196 countries to look at space images and decide what each contains. This allows for the constituent parts of an image to be verified repeatedly. The next wave, McMurray said, is coming from emerging technologies, allowing for large-scale field observations. Web and App platforms are essentially free, allowing for rapid network growth. These “new ideas with a lot of risk” could speed up the accumulation of knowledge so that we can “move faster to protect the environment,” he believes.
McMurray outlined four steps to using this new system: community, content, curation and engagement. If the community can rally around a clear objective and understand it, people can effectively collect content. Technology allows for accurate data to be collected immediately, which then allows for quick digestion and turn-around back to the audience for evaluation.
Carson McMurray, a 2012 Colorado College graduate, discussed “Uses of Citizen Science on the 2012 Down the Colorado Expedition—Blue Cloud Mapping Effort.” The trip culminated in the Powell to Powell: Portraits of the Colorado River five-part online video series that will be shown in efforts with Canoe and Kayak Magazine.
The Down the Colorado Expedition was an 80-day trip that covered about 900 miles from the headwater of the Colorado River to Glen Canyon Dam. The travelers worked with the University of Colorado at Boulder and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation to collect soil samples to trace carbon from recent fires. They also created an interactive map to display findings, and, most importantly, McMurray noted, they each experienced the Upper Colorado River firsthand.
“The story is so much more dynamic” living out there and interacting with the community surrounding the river, he explained. He talked to farmers, environmentalists and other people who had strong viewpoints about water rights issues. “You understand when you feel it,” he said. “It can’t be communicated. When you see it, it all clicks.”
McMurray made no qualms about why he began the venture, explaining that, as a recent graduate, he did not want to get a desk job, and this opportunity let him travel the Colorado River with some of his best friends. He went on to show the fourth episode of the documentary called “Confluence.” This section of the film focused on “community engagement” and how to get more people focused on the issues that plague the river.
Various experts talked about how the change begins with the simplest of choices, such as turning off the water when brushing one’s teeth, because it shows a mental commitment. Discussions can develop from there. The next step involves personal experience with the river. Once common ground is established, the larger culture can come to an understanding before “a multi-national corporation comes in and pushes us around to drill and mine and dam,” as one expert said. The river itself does not get any water allocation, even though it provides all of it, and no changes will come unless the public pressures lawmakers to “fix our rivers.”
McMurray shifted gears, bringing the focus back to a more local level on how citizen science could be improved at Colorado College. He mentioned current projects in the environmental and biology departments, as well as the State of the Rockies Project. Potential exists through the Outdoor Recreation Club, the Ritt Kellogg and Venture Grants—which have sent students on trips around the world, such as ice climbing in British Columbia—and the guided trips, such as the New Student Orientation, which could incorporate science components.
He did not shy away from mentioning the potential obstacles, though, such as the initial investment in creating the framework and the size of the smaller college. His collaboration with CU Boulder on the Expedition, though, helped show that cross-college studies can prove extremely beneficial. Lastly, McMurray mentioned desire as both the “greatest potential and obstacle,” nothing that it all depends on “if the student body wants to do it and the faculty is there to support them.”
Scott Loarie, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., discussed “Can Social Networks Save Biodiversity?” His presentation focused on crowd-sourcing citizen-science data through the lens of the iNaturalist company that he co-founded.
Loarie’s goal is to “scale the collection of data,” especially in light of “two huge problems:” people’s lack of engagement with nature and the “incredible conservation problems we’ll have to face this century.” He cited climate change and the exploitation of wildlife as two of the many factors, saying we are finally witnessing a paradigm shift that requires “new tools to address.”
He showed a few studies that directly linked climate change to extinction, but the “extinctions happened under our nose” because the data could not handle that type of study. Technology has given us the possibility to map in real-time, for example, the deforestation of the Amazon, which has been crucial to slow down the process. We can’t use satellites for animals, though. That’s where “crowd sourcing” comes in.
Loarie used the example of reCAPTCHA, an online system that presents two words to users trying to watch a video or see a website to ensure that the viewer is human and not a computer. The system only cares about the first word, though. The second word is a Google project that uses imaging software to identify scanned text. When Google has difficulty recognizing a word, it puts it into reCAPTCHA where users repeatedly validate what a certain word is. “This is the kind of data we need to answer these questions,” Loarie says, noting how apps like eBird have used this same idea to generate over 100 million records.
His company, iNaturalist—a website and an app that over 400 other programs use as a platform—lets users share photos of animals and plants to then be verified by the larger community. Their mission is to “connect people to nature through technology” which, in turn, leads to a greater understanding of biodiversity. Each submitted picture has a time, date, and location, just like a museum ID. People using the app then debate and come to a conclusion about what species is represented in the picture.
“This is the kind of system we want,” he said, because it can “turn those things from photos into observations.” No longer is one person both the citizen and the scientist. Each entry is able to rely upon thousands of minds to decide what a bird is, not just one like the Audubon’s Christmas bird count.
Loarie worries most about incentivizing the program so that both the submitters and the scientists feel value returning back to them. Both parties are giving their time and content for free, so it is important that each gets validation, at least from the social networking community. The platform can “connect groups of people that haven’t interacted in the past” – those who have the knowledge and are passionate about it, and those who have the access to all of the different animals and plants that inhabit our word. All of that data gets sent to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and, at an estimated $50 a specimen, iNaturalist’s volunteers have already generated $3 million in value.
Brendan Weiner, an ex-fire fighter turned program director for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation in Bozeman, Mont., discussed “Turning to Adventure Athletes for Data Collection.”
Founded in January 2011 by Greg Treinish, ASC wanted to find a way to do more with all of the time people spend outside. After Treinish spent 667 days traveling 7,800 miles through five countries along the length of the Andes (thereby winning the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award), he decided to create a program that would focus on “bringing the adventure and science communities together” through pairing athletes that are already going out into the field with scientists that need data. Rowers, climbers, divers, mountaineers and adventurers of all kinds are now collecting useable and meaningful data for both parties.
Over the past two years, ASC has sent more than 80 people as pika researchers, who found perhaps the highest known specimen of ice worm ever collected, the highest known plant life (moss) on Earth from 22,000 feet on Mt. Everest, and two new species of single-celled algae. Some of these findings, such as the Everest moss, have larger implications that may lead to helping crops survive severe droughts. Their more than 34 ongoing projects allow for many people to make multiple observations of the same places, helping to prove the presence or absence of certain species.
ASC also leads guided outings, working with students, military veterans, nonprofit agencies, and other groups to take, for example, students from Oakland who had not previous been in nature and turning them into scientists that helped document pikas in areas that had not had solid records before. Their future goals include continuing “to work with as many adventurers as possible” to collect data from around the world.
The question and answer session at the end tackled a few of the persistent problems that exist in such a burgeoning and, currently, niche field. Loarie conceded that it is only a “small fraction of the population who wants to spend their weekend looking at wolverines,” but that he would “rather try to bring people into this tent than change the idea” because that would sacrifice the science.
He again noted that the scientists are not getting any professional reward for helping with these endeavors, and that there needs to be a way for scientists to engage with the public while also receiving academic feedback, as well.
Thomas McMurray brought the evening’s discussion full-circle, asking if “citizen science data is accepted as valuable” in the government and academic communities. The conclusion was a resounding “yes;” a Ph.D. student can only cover a few hectares of land over the course of an entire thesis study, but, with the help of crowd-sourced data, we all can cover so much more. Yes, Loarie said, we may sacrifice a bit of quality for quantity, but it is the Wikipedia model: errors are introduced and corrected so rapidly that program like iNaturalist now contribute data that is even more accurate than that of museums.
Nathaniel Kelley is a 2012 graduate from Lafayette College, who writes about environmental issues, health care reform and musicology.