Citizen science: How to feel good about using your phone in nature


Around Cam’s Campfire Updated Sig

Cameron Luker

Anyone who enjoys the outdoors owes some gratitude to the land managers who make sure that we have beautiful and biodiverse places to visit. These could be the friendly folks at your local Parks and Rec department or Forest Service officials in Washington D.C.

You may be curious how exactly one manages land, since the land they oversee is comprised of the complex intermingled systems that we call the ecosystem. Trying to meddle with nature is difficult, but as with all management decisions, better data means better results.

Useful data can come in many forms. Wildlife experts tag animals to track their travels, foresters compare the sizes of trees on different soils and water quality analysts check rivers and creeks for contaminants. All of these studies help to inform management decisions from how long to hold hunting seasons, how much lumber to harvest, and if any problems may be on the horizon.

Gathering this vital data is not reserved for government scientists or university researchers. Technology has allowed for nature lovers like you and me to personally participate in the preservation of the places we love, enhancing our time outdoors in the process.

Researchers have been turning to “citizen scientists” to crowdsource information that would otherwise be impossible for someone working alone. Recently, I was able to participate in a citizen science program that aimed to use ginkgo leaves to study climate change.

I went around campus armed with my phone, an envelope, some cardboard, and tape, and photographed and collected ginkgo leaves from some of the magnificent trees on campus. I shipped some leaves off to the Smithsonian Institute and, just like that, I had not only increased the study’s sample size, but I had fun too.

Finding a citizen science project that matches your interest is now easier than ever thanks to the federal government’s new catalog of different studies that need your help. You can search projects going on in your area or participate in studies with a global scope. Whether you like the trees, seas, or even bees, there will be something for you.

Another option to participate is downloading the iNaturalist app. This nifty app can identify plant, animal, and fungus species just from pictures you take. Not only does this app help you learn about the life you encounter on your hikes, but it also sends that data to scientists to help them determine what species are where.

While I’m not the biggest proponent of being on your phone when enjoying the outdoors, I can say that it will add some depth you’re your time in nature, while also providing information that can protect the places and species we love.

Whether you use the government’s new catalogue or iNaturalist, I can promise that participating as a citizen scientist will help you learn more about the world around you and be a good steward to our shared home.