Citizen scientists make big impact on big data

Collecting large amounts of data for long-term and large-scale research projects can be a burdensome task, but research from Michigan State University shows that citizen science programs can help fill the data gap.

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Collecting large amounts of data for long-term and large-scale research projects can be a burdensome task, but research from Michigan State University shows that citizen science programs can help fill the data gap. 

Using a database ( with lake water quality samples from over 87 sources, including state and federal agencies, tribes, universities and citizen science programs, researchers found that over 50% of the data were provided by citizen science programs. A citizen scientist is typically a volunteer or non-science professional who has undergone some level of training that allows them to contribute his or her time, effort and resources toward scientific research and data collection on a variety of subjects such as species presence, weather, water quality and environmental pollution. In this study, researchers looked at lake water quality data collected by citizen science programs.  

“We found that the overall contribution of volunteer-collected data to large databases of lake quality was even greater than we expected,'' said co-author Jo Latimore, an outreach specialist who also provides technical support to the Michigan Clean Water Corps Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (MiCorps CLMP “Data collected by these citizen scientists are particularly valuable because they are collected more frequently, and over longer time periods, than most professionally-collected data.” 

The study looked at a group of seven lake-rich U.S. states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York) and found that of the lake water quality data collected, 82% of water clarity, 58% of phosphorus, 41% of nitrogen and 32% of algae samples were collected by citizen science programs. Also, most of the long-term data (data collected for 15 years or more) came from citizen scientist efforts, with 94% for water clarity, 72% for phosphorus, 59% for nitrogen, and 56% for algae. In fact, several of these states would not have long-term lake water quality data at all, if not for citizen science programs. 

However, citizen scientists cannot do all of this data collection alone. Most of the programs in the study are collaborations between citizen scientists and either state agencies or universities. Therefore, continuing to leverage the often-limited funds available for citizen science programs by collaborating with other programs is a priority.

”We must continue to provide technical support and resources to citizen science programs in order to maintain this depth and breadth of information, which is so vital to lake research, protection, and management,” Latimore said. 

It also doesn’t hurt having dedicated citizen scientists in close proximity to study sites. Their proximity helps decrease the cost of sampling by minimizing travel time. Citizen scientists are often very invested in their lakes. Bob Kingon, a citizen scientist on Elk Lake in Elk Rapids, Michigan, said: “Preserving water quality is all about sampling. We sample on a firm schedule and by protocol that allows consistent data collection - a must for reliable trend analyses. Rigorous sampling provides trend data that allows lake associations to take preventative actions and influence behavior change through education. Good data are essential for these efforts.” 

Another citizen scientist, Sandra Michalik from the MiCorps CLMP, said: “The more you learn, the more you care. I have also found [being a volunteer with CLMP] is an easy way to connect with my neighbors and consolidate our community support. Living on [a] lake is special and everyone is interested in water quality.”

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