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COVID19: How should citizen science respond?

There is no denying that COVID-19 poses a global challenge. However, as with many of the other issues that society faces, its positive and negative effects are spread unevenly. While some of those who have been infected by the virus have been hospitalised - incapacitated to the extent they need the help of a ventilator to breathe - others have symptoms so mild they have never even noticed they were host to the virus. While some families have mourned the loss of loved ones, others have remained largely unaffected, itching for a return to normality.  

The impacts of lockdown on individuals have been as varied as the effects of the virus itself. The nature of some people’s jobs has allowed them to work from home with little disruption, trading their usual commute for an afternoon stroll, or time with their family. In contrast, whole sectors have been brought to a standstill, and many have found themselves out of a job and in precarious financial situations.

Within this context it's unsurprising that the impacts of COVID-19 on citizen science, research conducted in whole or in part by volunteers, have been far-reaching, and that each project has experienced different challenges and opportunities. The value of citizen science in the fields of public health and medicine has never been more clearly demonstrated. In the UK, the COVID-19 Symptom Study app developed by the health science company ZOE, which encourages users to report on the symptoms they experience, was downloaded by over 3.7 million participants within three weeks of its launch[1]. Non-medical citizen science has also seen a boost of participation during lockdown. Online citizen-science platforms have seen a surge in the number of users as people have found themselves at home with their usual routines disrupted and more time to kill. In the first weeks of lockdown there was a four-fold increase in the number of “classifications” made on Zoonvierse, bringing the weekly total to over 5 million[2].

How are Earthwatch’s projects responding to Covid-19?

Earthwatch, too, has experienced its fair share of challenges and successes.

For some of our projects the restrictions of lockdown have been frustrating. As Isabel Bishop explained in her blog on the value of fresh water, these are likely to be turbulent times for water quality; with reports both of vastly improved water quality in some areas, and large scale pollution events in others. The problem? A lack of data.

The usual network for detecting pollutants in the UK has greatly reduced capacity and it’s therefore extremely difficult to know where problems are occurring. In situations like this, the potential value of citizen-science projects such as FreshWater Watch should be obvious. At the start of lockdown Earthwatch had to pause FreshWater Watch activities. However, within the UK we are now able to start sampling again, while sampling by the Environment Agency is still largely suspended. Mobilising citizen scientists to measure UK water quality will therefore allow us to fill knowledge gaps much faster than would otherwise be feasible and could pave the way for future collaborations between citizen scientists and the UK environmental observation network.

Our UK wildlife project, Naturehood, has been able to provide a welcome distraction for many. Naturehood activities are, on the whole, based in private green spaces such as gardens and balconies, making them ideal when these are the very spaces we are confined to. As Beth Pudifoot and Victor Beumer described in their blog on urban nature, it’s been wonderful to see that, more than ever, we are appreciating our access to nature and green space. However, we must also recognise how lucky people are to have this opportunity. Pre-lockdown, one of the great positives of Naturehood was its accessibility. Even for people who have no green space of their own or who’s space is limited, there was ample opportunity for them to take part in their local Naturehood; through their schools, in local green spaces such as parks, and through the many activities run in their community. This accessibility has been challenged by lockdown, as many of the community activities Earthwatch runs have had to be paused due to social-distancing measures. The Naturehood team has responded brilliantly, increasing online content including their weekly Facebook livestreams. All the same, it has been a reminder that citizen-science projects must do everything they can to provide opportunities for anyone who is interested to participate. 

What can we learn from the experience?

Many of the challenges and opportunities citizen-science projects have faced over the past months are not necessarily new, nevertheless, they have undoubtedly been exacerbated and highlighted by the arrival of COVID-19. The value of citizen science has been clearly demonstrated; the need for data, the benefit of citizen engagement with complex societal issues, and the disruption to the systems we usually rely on, have all showcased what citizen science can do best: bring people together and allow them to create solutions. Going forward, it will also be a helpful reminder that, given citizen science’s reliance on volunteers, we need to be sensitive to individuals’ situations and how we engage them in projects. Many of society’s inequalities have been thrown into sharp relief in the context of COVID-19 and there has been a corresponding surge in community action, volunteering and goodwill. Similarly, projects have had to adapt making sure they suit people’s new situations as best as possible. We should make sure that, even as normality creeps back, we do not forget these lessons.


Stephen Parkinson, Grant and Innovation Coordinator and Sasha Woods, Researcher for Impact and Innovation, Earthwatch Europe

Originally published on LinkedIn.


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