Citizen science, also referred to by some as community science, relates to, in the simplest terms, the process by which people of the public report information to contribute to the answering of a question. This activity is nothing new, but the process has well and truly been boosted in the 21st century through the smart phone, mobile data and cheaper cameras, videos and drones.

Technology allows people to report photos, videos, and sound recordings alongside their observations, which are linked to their geolocation and perspective. Existing platforms tend to primarily make use of websites and apps to enable quick and easy data reporting, and use email, social media and traditional media to encourage participation. In general, citizen science projects collect observations from multiple participants and some of these projects engage people around the world to work together online simultaneously. Due to the mass of varied viewpoints and skills collaboratively working on many matters, citizen science has very few boundaries. For example, Missing Maps is a site that enables locals to work with citizen scientists to improve maps of infrastructure and services to support developing countries and real-time disaster responses.

In addition to the scientific benefits such projects bring, in particular the filling of previous data scarcity issues, there are many benefits for participants such as increased knowledge and involvement in previously private issues. Whereas in the past, scientific study was only possible for a privileged few, this is no longer the case as globally reaching projects have brought the opportunity to participate in scientific research to the masses. Ecology and astronomy were the first two disciplines to identify the potential for significantly increasing the quantity and frequency of observational data by including enthusiastic amateurs. Community engagement in research, from the local to the global scale allows for data collection on a scale far beyond a researchers teams’ capability. In some cases, 10s to 1000s of people provide spatial coverage allowing for completion of intense surveys over a short-term period and sparse surveys over a long-term period. This, along with media engagement, allows for research platforms to tap into new sources of information, knowledge and perspectives also helping improve reliability of the research being carried out. “At RIVM, we conduct research on behalf of citizens. That is why it is important to get citizens involved in research. Not least to find out what the key issues are in society.”  Mart Stein, RIVM.

However, no process of discovery is perfect and citizen science also has a few setbacks. Funding is required for equipment or technology (website, infrastructure etc.) and some projects fail to attract community engagement which takes time, and thus money, and needs to be done well. Often, not all questions can be answered using these citizen science methods.

Despite these setbacks however, increasing the public’s engagement in scientific research helps build stronger connections between citizens and scientists all the while helping each to further understand the issues of the other making them a good cause to get involved in.