Citizen scientists have contributed 62 million records to Australian biodiversity, according to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA).
More than half of the records in the database now come from volunteer citizen scientist observations. The data they’ve generated can be used by researchers to track species abundance and changes, and inform conservation.
The ALA, which was established in 2010 and is hosted by the CSIRO on Australian Government funding, is the central hub for Australian biodiversity data.
It collates records from nearly a thousand providers to generate open-access information on Australian flora, fauna and fungi. The ALA has more than 50,000 annual users, including researchers, land managers, governments and community groups.
“It really shows the power of citizen science and the popularity over the past 10 years in particular,” says Dr Erin Roger, citizen science lead at the ALA and lead author on a paper published in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice.
The database initially featured mostly government, industry and research data, but Roger says that during the mid-2010s, “citizen science really started to mushroom”.
There was also a spike during the pandemic.
“I think that that equates to people at home and being far more observant in their local area,” says Roger.
She adds that improvements in technology have made it easier to be a citizen scientist.
“A lot of recording apps now have excellent machine learning behind them, where when you load up an image of something it provides a suggestion of what it might be.
“This is tremendously powerful, and I think it keeps users engaged, because you can keep kind of learning not only through the community, which also verifies your observation, but through this immediate feedback.”
The ALA is interested in finding ways to diversify the data citizen scientists add: unsurprisingly, volunteer observers tend to focus on specific species.
“There’s a large birding community in Australia, and about 50% of our records are birds. So we know that there’s quite a large taxonomic bias, if you will,” says Roger.
There’s also, unsurprisingly, more data on highly populated areas and less in areas where fewer people live.
While this is great for bird conservation – and Roger is a birder herself – she is confident the citizen science community can tackle some of these gaps.
“It is something that we’re starting to turn our minds to, and how we not so much incentivise, but direct citizen science effort towards underrepresented taxonomic groups,” says Roger.
“We’re thinking about guidelines to help people with sort of identifying the different taxa that are, we think, quite valuable.”
What should you do if you’re keen to help? The ALA doesn’t collect direct observations, but relies on other apps and sites like iNaturalist and BioCollect. The Australian Citizen Science Association’s project finder can help find topics that interest you.
“Find a tool or find an app that you like to use, make sure that the records go to the Atlas, so then all the data is aggregated and accessible,” suggests Roger.
“And then just get out there observing. I feel like the more I observe, the more I want to learn. These tools are excellent for helping to enable that.”