Some years ago, I had a bright idea. I’d just finished my PhD researching communities of wild pollinators and other beneficial insects in Australian orchards. During that time I’d discovered that lots of people (scientists and non-scientists) thought that European honey bees were the main, if not only, pollinator in Australia.
Most people I spoke to about my work were amazed to learn that we had 1800+ species of Australian native bees, let alone the thousands of other insect species that also pollinate flowers.
I approached my friend Karen Retra, a local bee enthusiast, with a simple plan. Why not try and raise awareness of the forgotten pollinators by getting people outside in their backyard to look for insects? With the myriad of free online tools available, I thought it would be pretty easy to run a regular insect count that anyone could get involved in, just like the UK’s famous Big Butterfly Count or the Aussie Bird Count.
So we started the Wild Pollinator Count, an Australian citizen science project focused on pollinator insects. It runs in the second full week of April and November every year. The idea of this was so that regular contributors have the opportunity to notice differences in their local pollinator communities as the seasons change. Contribution is easy: find a flowering plant during the count week, watch some flowers for 10 minutes and record what you see, enter the data via our submission form.
A few years later, the bi-annual count has grown bigger than I expected. It’s been inspiring to learn how many of our participants discover insect diversity through their backyards.
I’ve also learned a lot about citizen science, engagement, and online tools along the way!
Time & Money. One of the biggest challenges for us is lack of funds. We both run the show voluntarily in our own time, while also having full-time life + jobs. This seemed totally doable at first. But, not realising how quickly we would grow, I was a bit naïve about how much of an issue this would become.
Nothing comes for free. We started Wild Pollinator Count with a free version of a WordPress blog site. This was great for the pilot count, but when public interest boomed, we realised that a more professional URL and website was necessary. I paid for an annual upgrade to remove ads and increase functionality (slightly). I pay for this every year out of my own pocket. However, as we grow even more, I’m finding the limits of functionality when using a blog platform for a professional science engagement/citizen science project. Because engagement is a key focus of our project, it’s important that the platform we use enables public engagement (e.g. easy to subscribe to, ability to interact with likes/comments etc.), while also being easy to navigate and aesthetically appealing…not too much to ask!
Citizen science: Data or Engagement? There is an important distinction between these strategies that is often overlooked. The term citizen science is used very broadly. Although a fairly new term, it simply means non-specialists doing science – something that has been done for centuries by young people, non-academic naturalists, and amateur scientific societies. Some modern citizen science projects focus on data collection by ‘citizens’, others focus on engaging ‘citizens’ with the science behind the data collection. Both approaches work, but have different goals.
I admit I wasn’t really thinking about data when I came up with the Wild Pollinator Count idea. My main goal was to raise awareness about wild pollinators in Australia and the science of pollination ecology, with the secondary aim of possibly collecting some interesting data to guide knowledge of plant—pollinator relationships. If someone who had thought for years that insects were horrid pests suddenly discovered the amazing diversity of beautiful insects in their backyard through our project, that was a result for me! I designed the observation protocol around standard scientific methods used in pollination ecology and, for those interested, we included plenty of material on the website to educate participants about the scientific process behind pollination research.
As we’ve progressed with the project, I’ve discovered that it is very hard (if not impossible) to simultaneously optimise audience engagement AND collect rigorous data. There is always a trade-off – focusing on robust data collection and scientific rigour limits the size and diversity of audience that choose to engage, while a focus on broader engagement and awareness often means you have to relax the rigour of data collection. In our case, we chose very broad observation categories (e.g. flies, wasps, butterflies) to expand our audience – we figured that asking people to submit accurate taxonomic identifications of insects (most of which are still unknown to science in Australia) would severely limit participation. However, because of these broad categories, the data are fairly limited in what publishable analysis we can do.
Accessibility. Although it is relatively easy and cheap to run the project as an online submission system, I’m fully aware that we are missing a portion of potential participants who don’t have internet access or can’t use computers (we’ve already had feedback from some people, via their friends/relatives, who would love to submit observations but can’t access the website for various reasons). Ideally it would be great to have an additional postal system, but at the moment this is a matter of cost: post box rental + time for us to enter the data ourselves.
Same problem at the other end of the spectrum: mobile apps. A lot of citizen science projects now have in-house apps to reach the increasingly mobile population. With funding, this can become a reality, but there are plenty of hurdles for us to jump first.
Managing social media. We invented the #ozpollinators hashtag to engage with participants on social media (particularly Twitter) and share Wild Pollinator Count news and resources throughout the year. We wanted people to use it to share pollinator observations outside set count times, as part of the broader engagement with wild pollinators – and we’re delighted it gets used a lot! We haven’t yet started a standalone Wild Pollinator Count account, partly because we both have our own social media profiles and have been trying not to overload ourselves. But I’m now seeing the value in starting one! Stay tuned.
In addition, it’s been interesting seeing additional hashtags pop up over the years. #Ozpollinators is our ‘official’ tag and we’ve set up a feed on the website with these tweets. A few tweeters then started using #wildpollinatorcount without including #ozpollinators. (N.B. we invented the hashtag back in the days of Twitter’s 140 characters, so we went with the shortest option – now with 280 characters I would probably have gone with #wildpollinatorcount!).
This presented me with a dilemma from the perspective of our official communication strategy: do we ignore the new hashtags and focus on promoting our ‘official’ tag, or adopt the organic variants? I’m leaning on the side of the latter…
Citizen science projects are a public good and they are an excellent way to increase awareness and engagement beyond academic circles. But if you’re thinking of starting a citizen science project on the side, put some thought into it! It’s so easy to set up and promote a website, but if you want value-for-effort it’s also really important to look into the future.
Here are a few thoughts from my experience:
- Your time & money. Think about how you will manage media requests, attending invited speaking requests etc. within your budget and normal workload as your project gets more exposure. Also consider trade-offs between engagement strategies: for example, competitions are a great way to increase participation, but who will pay for prizes & postage?
- Funding. Sponsorship can help with some funds, but may not be long-term. It’s also important to think about the ethical/social side before you sign up for any sponsorship – what audience will a particular sponsor attract or alienate? Relevant community or scientific grants are another potential source of funding, but very few grant schemes in Australia explicitly fund citizen science projects.
- Online research. Take some time to research ALL the available website platforms and social media tools available. Not all sites/applications have the same functionality, so make sure to think about what you might need in future, as well as what you need now. Consider ‘bagging’ your ideal account name on social media platforms, even if you won’t use them immediately.
- Lifetime goals. Think about what timeline you are aiming for. Do you just want to run a temporary project to answer particular questions? Or are you aiming to set up a permanent fixture on the citizen science calendar? Also consider the potential evolution of a project.
- Engagement or Data? Be aware of these differences relevant to your project and consider the challenges for you and the project if you decide to change your stride halfway. It’s okay to do this, but consider the impact this will have on your audience and what tools might be needed for a smooth transition.
- Data sharing. Have a concrete goal for how you will share and use the data. Regular data summaries should be a key part of your engagement strategy. But also think about what sort of data you need to collect if you want to publish a rigorous analysis down the track. And be prepared for trade-offs between data quality and engagement.
- Moving on. Have a succession plan (even a vague one!) for when you no longer have the time to manage the project. This is really important if you want the project to continue long-term.
© Manu Saunders 2018