Fascinated by moths and insects, Sunny Joseph is always looking for an opportunity to frame them with his camera. A hobby photographer based in Kochi, Kerala, he doesn’t have usually have to go too far—he finds of them in the backyard of his house. On one sunny afternoon in 2014, he came across a colourful spider with iridescent scales and blue stripes, the likes of which he hadn’t seen before. He immediately took a photograph and uploaded it on the website of India Biodiversity Portal. A phylogenomics researcher, Siddharth Kulkarni in Satara, happened to see this post.
Kulkarni realized it was an important spotting and asked for more photographs and specimen. Joseph’s encounter turned out to be the first-ever record of the genus Siler Simon spider from India and was accepted as such in 2015. Joseph, 56, was credited as the co-author of this report.
The retired construction professional is part of the growing tribe of citizen scientists. He has been contributing data regularly to the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP), a repository of information aggregated through public participation. It is through this platform that Joseph first came across Kulkarni, now a PhD candidate at George Washington University in the US.
A proud Joseph still remembers the moment the arachnid caught his eye. The species Siler semiglaucus (Simon 1901) mimics the mannerisms of an ant. “It lives with ants. Normally, ants don’t let spiders stay but they offer protection to this particular one, even while it steals the ants’ eggs and grub,” says Joseph, who started contributing to the IBP in 2013 after attending one of the organization’s meets in Thrissur.
Citizen scientists like Joseph come from all walks of life and age groups— there are schoolchildren, teachers, market researchers, bankers, doctors, you name it. You will find them tracking galaxies, noting the effect of climate change on canopies, recording the animals killed in road accidents and new discoveries in the marine world. Over the years, they have become an important cog in the wheel of scientific research and discovery.
Increasingly, their observations are finding mention in journals and publications. For instance, Pradeepta Mohanty, an engineer based in Madhya Pradesh, discovered a galaxy merger while analysing raw data from all-sky surveys by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’s (TIFR’s) Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope for the RAD@home Astronomy Collaboratory citizen science project. This later became part of a 2016 research paper on tracking galaxy evolution published in the Journal Of Astrophysics And Astronomy.
So, what is citizen science? According to a National Geographic encyclopaedic entry, it 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 programmes. Usually this participation is done as an unpaid volunteer,” the entry states, adding that the participants could range from children making observations in their backyards to members of high-school science clubs and amateur astronomers with sophisticated home equipment.
One of the oldest examples of citizen science is the Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, New York, since 1900. In India, one of the earliest instances of citizen science was the Asian Waterbird Census launched in 1987. Today, of course, technology has made citizen science much easier, and you will find a host of people armed with sophisticated cameras and smartphones delving deep into various branches of science, from zoology to phenology. Platforms such as IBP offer tutorials on apps, while others like RAD@home have active social media groups for discussion.
According to a report titled Citizen Science In Ecology In India, authored by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Navin Thayyil in October 2018, for the DST Centre for Policy Research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, 25-30 citizen science projects in ecology were operational in the country two years ago. According to Sekhsaria, this number has doubled since the report—the first such systematic survey of the field—was published. There are several categories within this field, the majority being those initiated by trained scientists and ecologists within state-supported scientific institutions or research organizations with a conservation mandate. Some others are “data contributing” projects, in which citizens upload “atomized data units” in predetermined formats. The most popular platform in this category is the Bird Count India-eBird India project. Others map events such as animal kills in road and train accidents. Some of the prominent categories include IBP and Bio Atlas India, which aggregate information.
During the covid-19 pandemic, when it is difficult for researchers to conduct elaborate field studies, the role of the citizen scientist becomes even more important. “Contributors, especially teachers from Kerala, are going out of their way to ensure that there is no gap in information in biodiversity assessment,” says Geetha Ramaswami of SeasonWatch, a citizen science project aimed at understanding seasonality through changes in trees or phenology, characterized by the growth and shedding of leaves, flowering, etc. These changes are fine-tuned to environmental cues like temperature.
The participants are detecting changes such as early flowering to analyse changes in underlying environmental factors. “Changes in timing of phenology may affect the life cycle of other dependent organisms like pollinators and dispensers. It is important to have a steady stream of information, and our contributors are ensuring it while taking the necessary precautions,” says Ramaswami.
People like Joseph are conducting special observation capsules in his neighbourhood. In July, for instance, he organized the National Moth Week to observe moths of the order Lepidoptera.
“Those citizen scientist projects that have an education component built in see a better output. SeasonWatch is a clear example,” says Sekhsaria, an associate professor at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, and associate faculty, Centre for Policy Studies at IIT, Bombay, who is interested in the sociology of technology. At SeasonWatch, started at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, in 2010, six years of data offer a reference line for the way trees have been impacted by climate change. Those interested can look up resources on the website www.seasonwatch.in. Tutorials are also in place to show you what to look for in the canopy or in the quantity of flower and fruit. “We have partnered with nearly 1,138 individuals and 1,144 schools, where the teachers are instructed on how to make the observations. Researchers and scientists can’t be everywhere. So the information that citizen scientists bring in is invaluable, especially about tropical tree species, which is not widely available,” says Ramaswami.
Today, several citizen science projects are contributing to environmental monitoring, regulation and decision making. “The insights generated from these projects is starting to become visible,” the report by Sekhsaria and Thayyil says. The learnings include new information on tiger presence in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, discovery of new species of frogs, spread of invasive alien species, better understanding of animals killed in road accidents, fresh data suggesting that the risk of snakebite is highest between 4-9pm, and regular information on over 200 fruit bat roosts in India and neighbouring countries.
One of the critical projects is an inventory of landslide-prone areas in Maharashtra created by 10 citizen scientists, including bankers and engineers. According to an April 2018 report in the Hindustan Times, the team had identified 169 hot spots, divided on the basis of causes such as rock fall or mudflow. “Their study is part of the Satark landslide-warning project by the Pune-based Centre for Citizen Science (CCS). The catalogue, correlated with satellite imagery, is used to issue alerts in regions susceptible to landslides,” states the report.
What this has also done is taken science out of labs and brought it to people’s smartphones and tablets. “Academic information published by scientists is generally not directly accessible or consumed by the public. If a layperson wants to know about the distribution of a particular species, they won’t know where to access it,” says Thomas Vattakaven of IBP, which was set up in 2008. But when they see someone like them share information without technical jargon on an open, participatory web platform, they become interested.
“Scientists have to spend several years setting up stations and get funding before starting to aggregate information on the distribution of a species. Citizen scientists make this possible in very little time over very large spatial scales. This is the power of crowdsourcing,” he adds. The IBP platform has nearly 18,500 participants, who post photographs, which are then verified by a panel of experts and made available for download and further analysis. This data helps to create temporal and spatial distribution maps on IBP for each species.
You don’t need to be technically trained to become a citizen scientist. In fact, according to astrophysicist Ananda Hota, founder of RAD@Home Astronomy With collaboration at the heart of it, the only qualities needed are curiosity and an instinct for facts. “It is only when you go beyond education, that you start creating new knowledge and that's research,” he says.
When Hota launched the Collaboratory in April 2013, not many people thought it would work. But with regular e-classes on Facebook and Google, today more than 200 Indian citizen scientists can analyse 150 MHz imaging data from the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope(GMRT) of NCRA-TIFR, largest such in the world. Nearly two dozen research and educational institutes are now supporting the growth of the RAD@home citizen science research collaboration. “Students, who have discovered new black hole-galaxy systems, have become co-authors on national and international journal publications,” says Hota. “It is a new way to convert the big data problem of astronomy into a big development prospect for a big nation like India.”
Citizen science has led to understanding human dimensions to conservation, says Kirthi Karanth, chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru. CWS (www.cwsindia.org) has trained over 7,000 citizen scientists in field-data collection since the 1990s. “Only when people see and do things, do they understand the complex field of wildlife conservation and the challenges involved,” she adds. For ecological surveys, basic training takes four-five days, with participants paired with experts. Most participants keep returning, drawn to the wild. Karanth cites the example of a volunteer, Prakash Matada, who used to be a business analyst 10 years ago. Five years ago, he switched careers to start a film production company to make wildlife films.
Interestingly, at IBP, the majority of citizen scientists come from the Western Ghats, particularly Kerala. According to Vattakaven, the state has shown the highest participation, followed by the North-East. “These are regions with high biodiversity, with the residents more closely oriented to nature. And now, with good internet access, they find it easier to upload data,” he adds. At SeasonWatch too, 87% of the information comes from Kerala.
However, certain challenges still plague the field. According to the Citizen Science In Ecology In India report, no formal enabling platform exists where people working on different projects can come together. It may also be helpful to create a set of best practices. “One of the biggest critiques of citizen science is that it gets free labour for scientists. Also, if you are given an inducement of co-authorship, is this participation still voluntary? There is the question of who owns this data. There needs to be a discussion with experts in the fields of intellectual property on this matter,” says Sekhsaria.