Citizen scientists are helping to protect the Great Barrier Reef

The other day, ZDNet had a fascinating story about how the Australian conservation organization Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is bringing together visitors, divers, scientists, researchers, business and ships to carry out a census of the reef. The reef is huge – about the size of Italy or the length of the continental USA – and up til now, data has only been collected regularly from only 5-10% of its area.

“Join our world-first citizen science effort to survey the Great Barrier Reef,” the organization says. “Our ambition with this reef-wide, collaborative project is not only to deliver vital insights for the conservation of this iconic ecosystem, but to engage the global community in the future of the Reef through education, storytelling and action.”

Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef on YouTube, Oct. 2020

Late in 2020, for 11 weeks, a makeshift research flotilla of tourism and dive boats, superyachts, fishing vessels and even a tug boat captured thousands of survey images across the reef.

Citizen scientists from around the globe have taken up the invitation to help analyze this data – more than 14,000 images of about 170 reefs across 680 different sites from the tip of Cape York to the remote southern Swain Reefs – by the end of April.

The Great Reef Census is piloting new ways of capturing large-scale reconnaissance data from across the Great Barrier Reef so as to help scientists and managers improve their ability to locate key sources of coral recovery, says Peter Mumby of the University of Queensland’s Marine Spatial Ecology Lab. 

Trialling innovative ways of capturing reconnaissance data from across the Reef using citizen science is a ‘shared economy approach” that it hopes will help build a “21st century conservation organization”, says Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef CEO Andy Ridley. The reef census is essentially a model that can be scaled beyond the Great Barrier Reef and applied to other habitats such as sea grass.

Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef plans to make the data, methodology, and technology developed through the project open-sourced. “Obviously, you’re trying to look at how you can build resilience in a system, like the Great Barrier Reef, but many of the lessons you learn here can be applied all around the globe. What we’re trying to do at Citizens is build stuff that can be scaled and shared around the world,” he says.

There are plans to launch a scaled-up census in October to survey at least 200 reefs on the Great Barrier Reef while testing the infrastructure’s ability to capture reconnaissance data for another habitat, such as seagrass. The organization also hopes to trial the model on reefs such as Ningaloo along the Western Australia coast or the Coral Triangle in the western Pacific Ocean, which includes waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and Solomon Islands. 

The pandemic makes it a great time to do citizen scientist analysis because so many people are spending time at home and with their devices. Vox Future Perfect reported in January that citizen science participation has grown at least four times from pre-pandemic levels.

“From classifying animals in the Serengeti to discovering new exoplanets using the Kepler space telescope, researchers of all backgrounds have used the free project builder to create engaging, accessible citizen science projects,” says Zooniverse, a popular site. “Our researchers have used the data from their projects to publish over 100 peer-reviewed publications that encourage many fascinating discoveries. Researchers take part in project creation, data analysis, and even communicate directly with volunteers through Zooniverse Talk.”

One project, Rainfall Rescue, which is transcribing historical weather records to understand how weather has changed over the past few centuries, uploaded a dataset of 10,000 weather logs for transcription and the task was completed in one day, Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and co-lead of Zooniverse, told Vox.

Across all its projects, Zooniverse reported that 200,000 participants contributed more than 5 million classifications of images in one week alone — the equivalent of 48 years of research, Vox reported.

Trouille said she’s not surprised with the interest in citizen science. People want to contribute meaningfully to science, enjoy a pleasant distraction from everyday life, and be part of a supportive community, and quarantines have intensified that. “People are just really needing to connect in meaningful ways,” Trouille told Vox. “Welcoming online communities provide a wonderful outlet for that.”

When people classify data on these platforms, they are helping to create training sets for AI by identifying patterns. And while AI will become increasingly important in analyzing data, says Trouille, it will never replace the work of citizen scientists because they can do something AI will never be able to do – identify the unusual or weird. Trouille shared this example with Vox:

“A delightful example of this arose on Galaxy Zoo, one of the astronomy projects on Zooniverse, soon after it launched in 2007. A participant noticed an unusual-looking bright green object and posted about it on the forum, asking if anyone had seen anything similar. Soon a whole discussion thread sprang up titled “Give peas a chance,” with participants calling themselves the “Peas Corps.” Together, they collected more than a hundred of these celestial objects.

“Scientists eventually realized these were a special type of galaxy that had never been found before. They represent an important stage in galaxy evolution. In 2009, the scientists published a paper on them in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, crediting 10 citizen scientists from Galaxy Zoo for their contribution to the research.”

Without the citizen scientists, she explained to Vox, this would never have happened. The computer was not trained to look for it because the research team didn’t know such a galaxy existed. “So you would never have found that unless you had hundreds of thousands of people looking at all that data and just able to flag the unusual and bring it to the discussion forum.”

Governments are increasingly involving citizen scientists in some areas of their work, such as data collection or analysis. But some, like France or the UK, are going beyond that to convene Citizens’ Assemblies to tackle complex issues such as climate change.


Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.

Scaling up on a shoestring while citizen scientists analyse the Great Barrier Reef. ZDNet.

Citizen science is booming during the pandemic. Vox.