More netizen science

Encyclopedia of Life

One of my first posts to this blog mentioned Encyclopedia of Life, a major international collaborative effort to document the living world around us. Its list of sponsors and supporters starts at the highest possible levels (Smithsonian Institution)  and goes all the way down to amateurs like myself, contributing by uploading photographs of my local wildlife.

Dragonfly perched on twig
Local wildlife: Australasian Slimwing, Lathrecista asiatica festa

There is only one way for an ordinary person to contribute images, i.e. the EOL Flickr group at The rules for the group basically say that images need a creative commons license allowing third parties to use them free of copyright and a ‘machine tag’ which will enable automated harvesting of images from the group to EOL itself.

Flickr membership needn’t cost you anything. A free account allows you to upload 300MB worth of photos per month and if you resize them to roughly screen resolution (say 1000 x 750 px) they will be under 1MB each, allowing you hundreds of uploaded images per month if you have that much free time.

It takes a bit of time and fiddly work to set up a Flickr account, choose photos and tag them, but anyone can make a useful contribution to a worthwhile project. And any Australian photos will be picked up automatically from EOL by the Atlas of Living Australia, a similar project run by CSIRO and most of our state museums.

Climate science

A question that popped up on RealClimate recently was, “In what ways could an amateur scientist contribute to the study of climate, and assist the professionals?”

The question continued, “I don’t mean advocacy, but assist in actual research. As an example in a different field of study, amateur astronomers are playing key roles by looking for supernovae and then alerting professionals when one is first found so that the far more powerful telescopes can be directed towards the exploding star to collect data …  Just like there are certain tasks that professional astronomers ‘downsource’, so to speak, to amateurs, I am curious if there are certain tasks that professional climatologists are looking to downsource.”

A good question, and it promptly got a good answer from Gavin Schmidt, one of the core members of RealClimate: “Some of the most active ‘citizen science’ projects related to climate are focused on the digitisation of old weather records (here and here), and phenology projects (for instance, here or here).” (The third of these four starts by defining ‘phenology’, in case you wondered.)

The best Australian equivalent to the US phenology projects Gavin mentions is probably Climatewatch, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other citizen science projects ranging from divers helping count marine life to students trapping and identifying barley mildew. Search the net for “citizen science projects [your state]” and find one that appeals.

Netizen science: ClimateWatch

This looks like a great initiative to get involved with. I will let Rachel Maitland, ClimateWatch Coordinator, Earthwatch Australia, explain:

ClimateWatch – calling all bush walkers, backyard scientists, and bird watchers.

Scientists can’t be everywhere – that’s why they need you to be part of ClimateWatch. By collecting and recording simple observations about your local environment, and submitting them online, you could help inform and shape Australia’s response to climate change. Over 10,000 observations have been recorded – we’re just waiting for yours.

ClimateWatch is a research initiative that harnesses the power of the public’s eyes and ears to find out how Australia’s plants and animals are responding to changes in our climate. It was developed to address a huge data gap revealed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report: that of the 29,000 data sets around the world showing how plants and animals were responding to the changing climate, only six were from Australia, and none were of national significance. We need more data. This is particularly pressing in Australia, where the combination of unique flora and fauna occupying a low lying, fragmented landscape is likely to dramatically elevate extinction rates from climate change. The scale of this task is immense – and that’s why we need your help.

From your backyard, local park, reserve or beach, all you need to do to become a ClimateWatcher is observe nature. Noticing and recording when events in nature happen, for instance the appearance and behaviour of certain species of birds, plants and insects, is all that’s required.

The ClimateWatch Science Advisory Panel, consisting of experts in biological science, has consulted extensively to create ClimateWatch’s list of common and easy-to-identify ‘indicator’ species. There are over 100 different species we need information on, including birds, frogs, plants, insects, reptiles, spiders and mammals.

A similar initiative has run successfully in the United Kingdom, capturing some 3 million observations. Since ClimateWatch was launched in Australia, we have recorded 10,000 observations, to be utilised by professional scientists. is aiming for hundreds of thousands of observations to be recorded so that it becomes Australia’s leading data resource for environmental scientists studying the effects of climate change. The sheer scale of the program is what sets it apart and ensures we obtain an accurate picture of what’s happening across the country.

Get started by visiting

  • Register online as a ClimateWatcher
  • Search for the indicator species found near you
  • Understand what characteristics to observe (e.g. leaves falling, birds nesting)
  • Get outdoors and start watching the indicator species
  • Record what you see, then enter your observations online

The information that people like you collect will assist in managing pests, preserving habitats for native species and adapting agriculture for the future.

ClimateWatch was developed by Earthwatch, with the support of the Bureau of Meteorology, the University of Melbourne and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.