Citizen Science: Help Document Your Changing Planet
As we announced last week, April is Citizen Science Month, a celebration of the ways community members can contribute to the scientific process by collecting observations or helping analyze large sets of data.
Our community science continues this week with a project about how climate change touches neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Ira talks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, about how citizen observations about rainfall, new spring flowers, and even how you feel can be valuable data for climate science—plus, how tracking that data benefits you.
Learn more about joining the ISeeChange community, plus other projects partnering up with SciFri that you can help with this Citizen Science Month.
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Julia Kumari Drapkin is the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, and is based in New Orleans, Louisiana.
IRA FLATOW: While you’re out celebrating spring in whatever way you can, we have a fun job for you. April is also Citizen Science Month, and guess what? That refreshing spring rain, that delightful bumblebee buzz, that warbler on the tree next door– well, all of these are data. They’re not just any data, they’re climate data.
iSeeChange is one of our citizen science partners this month, and they’re asking you to tell them almost anything, anything you see out here around you as spring unfolds. And here to explain and tell us why and how is iSeeChange CEO and founder, Julia Kumari Drapkin. Welcome to Science Friday.
JULIA DRAPKIN: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. All right. Give us a little thumbnail sketch. Introduce us to iSeeChange. What is it? What are you asking for? How do we send it?
JULIA DRAPKIN: Sure. So iSeeChange is a platform. We mobilize communities to share stories and micro data about climate change impacts to inform climate adaptation and infrastructure design, and to help people to understand change in their own backyard. We combine this real time data with sensor networks and other kinds of data to illustrate community scale trends. And it’s as easy as logging on to iSeeChange.org or downloading our app, iSeeChange Tracker on iPhone or Android. It’s a place where people have come together to learn how climate change is impacting them as individuals, and where communities can come together as a network and learn how to have impact.
IRA FLATOW: And this would seem like it would be a great time. Spring, right? There’s a lot of stuff going on out there to see.
JULIA DRAPKIN: Oh, absolutely. Spring is when, in so many ways, the clock starts for the growing season, and really has impacts for the rest of the year. It really is one of the most important times, because it’s not just about when flowers are blooming, it’s when, maybe, my allergies are starting up. It’s when the plants are starting to use water. And we can start to see impacts throughout the rest of the year, when it comes to spring melt, when it comes to drought, wildfire seasons. Even West Nile virus. You can look and see, was there an early spring? Did we get dry weather? Was there an early spring? Did we get wetter weather?
We have a lot of other kinds of things that are happening this year alongside an early spring, a record-breaking spring in the south, in particular. We have lots of warmer water in the Gulf that is going to combine with early warming and early spring and maybe create different kinds of weather patterns. And those weather patterns impact the environment, but they also impact us. And we are fundamentally a part of the environment.
So one of the things we ask people is not just tell us the flowers are blooming, but how is it impacting you?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So some of these things are specific things you want people to tell you that they saw or heard. Like, could be, hey, I see migrating birds, or there’s a bird that usually comes some other time of the year. It’s here now. Or one I don’t recognize.
JULIA DRAPKIN: Yeah. We really pay attention to changes that you think are normal, but also the ones that you’re just like, hey, I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never seen this species before. I don’t remember this happening at this time in this place at this magnitude or intensity. So I don’t remember it. For example, flooding on this particular block in this particular place. Those first time observations are incredible data points. Often, when you say, I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen this before, it’s an indication for our team and in our database that we pay attention to for other environmental trends.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I want to get back to some of the feedback we are getting from our listeners who went to our Science Friday VoxPop app. And we got some feedback here. Kevin, who sent us this observation of spring–
KEVIN: We’ve seen flowers blossoming. I would say we saw the crocus, the daffodils, and a herb called the bittercress.
IRA FLATOW: So he’s seen this, he’s told us he has seen it. What do you do, or what do scientists now do with this data?
JULIA DRAPKIN: Well, one of the things you can do is make sure you take a data picture, tell us a story in the same location. And then come back to that location next year. And if you do this over time, then you start to create incredible records, just for you, but also records that you can share with the wider science community, with the wider adaptation community.
Again, when the spring starts, that’s when the growing season goes. And we can start to model out, OK, what other kinds of trees are going to be blossoming or putting out pollen? When trees are shedding leaves, what does that do for your stormwater infrastructure? So it’s not just the one thing that you can observe, but all the cascading events around it.
IRA FLATOW: So we know about this. We reported on it. Where does it wind up? Where does it get used? How do we see it later on?
JULIA DRAPKIN: Well, there’s many ways you can use it. So if you are an individual, you can track it for yourself, and you can have your own personal record. On iSeeChange, we kind of collect the records together, and we look at temperature data, we look at precipitation data. And we’re actually developing some AI in the next couple of months to kind of look at trends that we can then return on in value to the users who are posting over time. Scientists can use this data to track spring onset moving earlier and earlier and earlier.
It’s been estimated that spring is advancing 17 miles north per day on average. So if you think about it, every year, that’s really going to change what you’re seeing in your backyard over time. I know in my neighborhood in New Orleans, I’ve been tracking salvinia, giant salvinia that’s clogging up waterways in the south. And it’s because there’s really no frosts that can come in and wipe them out in the way that they would normally experience every year during the winter.
We know that stories are actually data in and of themselves. That’s what we as journalists know. And every story doesn’t have to be just the one-off story. We can gather our stories and use them in many, many ways, just the way science has been using data in many, many ways.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you and our listeners good luck in this terrific project. Check it out. It’s ScienceFriday.com/citizenscience. You can learn more about iSeeChange. You can register to participate and check out some of our other partner projects for Citizen Science Month. Julia, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.
JULIA DRAPKIN: I appreciate it so much, Ira. It’s good to talk to you.
IRA FLATOW: Julia Kamari Drapkin is CEO and founder of the citizen science project iSeeChange.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.